How hard should we push ourselves?

Educators are known for being a hardworking, selfless lot. This can be good for kids, because it means they get our best, but it's not always sustainable.

Kids don't benefit when we burn out (more on this below).

Do you know a fellow principal who's had to take a medical leave due to stress, or even had to find a less stressful position altogether?

I do—it's far too common.

And yet, I believe that we can both push ourselves hard and avoid burnout. It all has to do with our understanding of stress.

Eustress and Distress

It's not healthy to have an excess of stress, but it's not healthy to have zero stress, either. We need a bit of drive—in fact, if we're going to do right by our students, I'd suggest we need a LOT of drive.

Clinicians distinguish between eustress, or “good stress,” and distress, the more commonly understood bad type of stress. We need to maintain a healthy level of eustress, without pushing ourselves into distress territory.

There's a middle ground between coasting and burning out, and that's where we can hit our stride as high performance instructional leaders.

Choosing Stress

The summer after high school graduation, I worked at Six Flags Astroworld and played video games. Not much distress, but not much eustress, either.

I didn't go home worrying about anything, but I also didn't make much of a difference in the world, manning the gift shop by the Batman roller coaster.

As school leaders, we've chosen a career that matters. We've challenged ourselves to make a difference in the lives of kids. We've chosen a certain level of stress.

But how can we stay fully engaged with that challenge, without killing ourselves?

Balancing The Stress Equation

Stress is a result of the gap between the expectations we hold ourselves to, and our capacity for meeting those expectations:

Stress = Expectations – Capacity

In other words, if you don't expect too much of yourself, you won't experience much stress, and the more you can increase your capacity to meet those expectations, the lower your stress will be.

The problem is that expectations of principals are wildly out of control. You know what I mean.

Everyone expects you to do everything. You're accountable to everyone, for everything, including plenty of things you don't have much control over.

You're caught in the middle, between front-line challenges and top-down accountability. You're the focal point for just about every reform, every problem, every decision.

(And, as I was reminded in a phone conversation yesterday, many of us teach, too!)

We need to get expectations under control if we're going to have any chance of feeling successful and getting our stress under control.

We have to decide what's allowed to cause us stress. We have to filter the expectations others place on us, before we internalize them.

And the key tool for doing this is your leadership agenda.

Your Leadership Agenda Is Your Filter

As an instructional leader, you're responsible for just about everything, but you can't let every little issue stress you out.

I'm not talking about being chill and and wearing a Hawaiian shirt (though if that's your style, more power to you).

I'm talking about being selective, about deciding what the real issues that deserve your attention are, and articulating those in a written, confidential document I call the leadership agenda.

Having a “hidden” agenda might sound a little underhanded, but it's not. It's the ultimate act of leadership—to decide what matters right now, and make decisions with those priorities in mind.

Everything else may still need to be dealt with, whether it's gum on the floor or a phone call from an irate parent, but it doesn't need to add to your stress.

What About Everything Else?

But how is this possible? How can we be responsible for the gum on the floor, and the other small problems that crop up every day, without being weighed down by them?

How can we keep the little stuff under control, while keeping our eyes on the big picture?

Some people will tell you to just delegate. Of course having a competent, empowered team is essential, but that's not really a solution.

The solution is to have a system, an approach to high-performance instructional leadership that includes strategies, tools, and habits for dealing with everything that comes your way.

That's exactly what we offer in our program High Performance Habits. You might be especially interested in our webinar The Action Path: Streamlining Your Work To Increase Your Impact.


The High Performance Habits program includes the webinar recording as well as all of our other top strategy webinars, tool tutorials, and support for developing that habits that will transform your productivity.

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