June_05_FEATURE_art_GrebenauA school administrator shares how he handles the stresses of a job that, by its nature, often holds him responsible for things he cannot change.

 By Maury Grebenau

I’m the principal of a high school but second in command. Although we school administrators share many challenges as we practice our sacred craft, there are specific challenges associated with being the #2 person in the organizational chart.

First of all, it can be frustrating. Although principals can act independently in many areas, there are just as many areas in which they have a large share of the responsibility but little authority to act unilaterally as the arbiter of the school’s mission or even as the driving force.

Acknowledging this tension and proactively dealing with it are necessary parts of being successful in this position. If you pair that with thoughtful communication methods and a plan for your own growth, it can be the difference between a stressful and unfulfilling position and a job that’s edifying and inspiring.

Caught in the middle

You need to start by dealing with the tension that stems from not being able to control the many factors in play. Ignoring this reality and just trying to do what you can will lead to increased stress, leaving you unmotivated and lacking in energy. You need to deal with five aspects of that “caught in the middle” feeling.

#1. Find your Zen space.

Accept that you can’t take responsibility for the leader’s choices, understanding that this doesn’t preclude you from taking a stand and being a leader in your own right. Much like a 12-step program, accept what you can’t change but change what you can. Some of the greatest stresses I’ve encountered were caused by situations over which I had no control but that I felt responsible for fixing. The crucial thing is being able to tell the difference between the two.

EXTRA CREDIT: If you’ve already mastered this, you’ll get extra credit for recognizing what bothers you in current leadership and using these insights to strengthen your own skills as a leader. Reinterpreting a difficult situation as a learning experience takes the edge off and enables you to view issues with more distance.

#2. Don’t take the bait.

You’ll frequently come into contact with board members, community people, parents, and others who want to complain about your head of school. They’ll try to get you to agree that the head’s decision was flawed or lure you into speaking negatively about him or her. Never badmouth your head of school. Aside from undermining trust and being unprofessional, it paints you in a poor light.

EXTRA CREDIT: You get additional extra credit for biting your tongue. The fact is, many of your school constituents don’t understand the challenge of being a head of school. As second in command, you have a unique perspective and can share it in a way that helps frame issues, even if you disagree with the leader’s choices. As a teacher, I frequently had little patience with administrative decisions that took budget, politics, or school reputation into account. Isn’t this all about education? But having now spent some time on the other side, I see the importance of these considerations — why you can’t ignore them and why they sometimes even win out. For example, we were having serious financial issues in one school where I worked, and we needed to ask teachers to do more without getting a pay raise. Because they were so upset, the teachers were unable to hear any type of explanation from the head of school. As second in command, I was able to help them understand the considerations and commiserate with the reality.

#3. Manage up.

You need to support your boss but also push him or her when you think there are other perspectives to consider. I had a colleague whose head of school wanted her to sit in on every parent-teacher meeting in her division; she felt this was an inefficient use of her time and out of line with her management style. Once she brought this up with her head of school, she found out why her head had requested this. She realized that the request stemmed from a fear on the part of the head of school about missing important information. Once she understood her head’s perspective, she was able to work out a solution that addressed this fear — and that worked even better for the principal.

EXTRA CREDIT:Managing up can be helpful, even when the situation doesn’t directly affect you. For example, you might identify behavior that you consider counterproductive on the part of your head of school. Approach your head and speak in a nonthreatening way about things you’re seeing — and, most important, ask to understand. It can be especially frustrating when your head does things that you perceive as a mistake or undercuts your authority or your ability to manage a situation. Taking a deep breath and getting curious about what’s going on will get you much farther than stewing or complaining. Perhaps you’ve come to an agreement with your head about how to deal with a situation with a family or a teacher, but then once in the meeting, your head changes direction. Follow up with your head and be curious: “I noticed that before the meeting, we had decided we weren’t going to allow the family to ____________, but then during the meeting I heard you say ________________. Tell me what prompted the shift.” This can lead to real learning about what your head intended and enhance your working relationship.

#4. Clear the lines of communication.

Perhaps the most important aspect of being second in command is clear communication with the head of school about where your authority begins and ends. Start by charting three types of tasks:

  • Areas in which your head wants to give you complete autonomy;
  • Areas in which you’re to take the lead, but keep your head informed; and
  • Areas in which you shouldn’t act without his or her guidance.

The list will be a work in progress, but it does provide a base to work off when confusion arises: “I was surprised when you seemed upset that I didn’t check with you regarding the situation with the Smith family. I thought we had agreed that student placement was an area in which I should be more autonomous.” A good rule of thumb is that if someone becomes angry in any of these areas or your head might get a call, let him or her know so they’re not blindsided. Make the guidelines as explicit as you can, and check them with your head of school when there seems to be confusion.

The same type of explicit communication is important for determining priorities and where you’ll spend your time. You don’t want to find out that your three major goals for the year were not areas your head of school felt were important or that there was a major area he or she wanted you to focus on of which you were unaware. Each quarter or semester, create some overarching goals and projects you wish to work on. Discuss these goals with your head, and make sure you’re both aligned. If you find you’re being given tasks and responsibilities that are taking you too far away from your goals, revisit them with your head: “We agreed I would focus on proactive communication with parents this year, but I’m finding that having to proofread all the report cards is getting in the way. Should we reorient my priorities, or is there a better way to get this done?”

Part of having good communication with your head isn’t just about your own needs but about understanding his or hers as well. Be a good sounding board. Understand your leader’s style, and make sure you’re giving them what they need. Does he like thinking out loud? Does she need you to ask tough questions?

EXTRA CREDIT: Tailor your perspectives to appeal to your head of school. Does he gravitate toward data or culture? Does she favor intellect or emotion? A data-oriented head will be more convinced by charts and numbers, whereas a culture-oriented head might be more swayed by anecdotal evidence. In some cases, you can help identify ways to help your head with his or her own growth areas. For example, I worked for a head who struggled with keeping deadlines. I talked openly with him about the challenges this created and asked what I could do to help. We experimented with a few systems, and things improved. Allowing him to see that I was there to help and not to criticize built trust and improved our working relationship.

#5. Own your imperfection and growth.

We spend a tremendous amount of time trying to improve areas of weakness in our schools, but we don’t always turn the same focus on improving ourselves. The fact is, good leaders aren’t perfect, but they honestly assess themselves and work toward bettering themselves. We often wish students would understand the mantra that “failure breeds success,” but we often don’t give ourselves the same permission to be a work in progress. Ignoring your areas of needed growth or trying to avoid them is a recipe for heightened stress  especially in the role of principal. You need a level of openness with your head of school about your areas of strength and about what you’re working on perfecting.

Ask for help when you need it. Do you need some backing with a parent? Do you want your head to take something off your plate? You may have a head of school who’s willing to strategize with you in advance of a meeting you’re leading or who would agree to attend a meeting you’re leading. If you feel this would be helpful, ask your head to do this. The same is true in the aftermath of a situation that didn’t go as well as you would have liked. Ask your head to make time to discuss it. Being able to talk through what went wrong and figuring out what you could do better next time can be helpful for your own growth and  build trust. If you respect your head’s busy schedule and are appreciative of his or her mentoring, you’ll likely get a positive response.

However, sometimes you’ll need more guidance and coaching than you should expect to get from your head of school. Find a mentor or peer outside the school or community to bounce things off of and with whom you can let off steam. Being able to speak about politically or emotionally charged issues with an outsider helps refine your own perspective.

EXTRA CREDIT: Build renewal time into your own schedule, and stick to it. When I first started as an assistant head of school, I felt I had no time to exercise or renew myself. There was just too much I needed to do, and I felt guilty about spending time on myself. After a number of years, however, I’ve embraced the reality that we’re in the best position to help our schools when we take care of ourselves. I now exercise with less guilt and take short breaks during the day when I need to recenter myself.

From helpless to in control

When I started as second in command, I had many sleepless nights. I worried about what the next day would bring, and I constantly rehashed tense moments from previous days. I wasn’t able to make sweeping changes, and although I recognized the need for incremental change, it still fueled the flames of frustration when I fielded complaints about areas of the school that I fully agreed needed an overhaul. I felt helpless and acted on.

But I found a way to shift from a position of reaction and helplessness to a position of control. By accepting that I needed to focus on what I was able to change, by building clear channels of communication with my head, and by working on my own areas of growth, I was able to position myself as an effective #2.

Originally published in October 2016 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (2), 44-46. © 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.