I began reading this book in the Christmas break, having just finished my first term as a headteacher. It helped to energise me and make me ready to lead again, come January. Workload and wellbeing are hot topics in education and Julia Steward uses recent research, with some (often amusing) anecdotes, to remind headteachers to look after themselves if they are to maintain their impact and energy.
Early on she describes the role as “being a little like having your first child” – you don’t get a manual and are expected to know what to do on day one.
Throughout she issues challenges such as: “Who are you when you are not being a headteacher?”, making you question your authenticity in your role and contemplate the energy used in “acting”. Contemplations on “what time are you most productive?” and “who drains your energy?” help you to carefully analyse yourself and your practice as a leader – and, more importantly, the impact it has on your ability to lead and the message it sends to those you are leading. At no point does any of her work feel patronising or judgmental.
Each of the book’s six key chapters offers practical advice and exercises to help you to reflect on your leadership, with a “worth remembering” section at the end. The humorous, brilliant illustrations by Karen McMillan really add to Steward’s work.
Chapter one discusses the reasons for looking and focusing on emotional resilience. Many of the tips on sleep, exercise and health in chapter two are not new, although they serve as a timely reminder.
Chapter three explores “energy”. Steward writes of taking “a moment’s hesitation” when replying to that difficult email, to allow time to compose the considered response; knowing who your “drains” and “radiators” are so that you can interact with them at appropriate times; and a really thought-provoking anecdote exploring compassion, in which a woman rethinks her attitude towards a father and his children who have noisily interrupted her thoughts.
You are expected to know how to be a head from day one
Chapter four, titled “Agency”, discusses changing habits and how difficult that can be, particularly if you are a serial ruminator who struggles to find an off switch in those stressful moments.
I found chapter five of most interest. Here Steward explores core beliefs and values and the impact these have on behaviour. I particularly enjoyed looking at the drivers of behaviours, which build on work by Eric Berne, as it brought together a lot of the book’s other themes. It made me reflect on my behaviour when I’m in control, but also when I’m outside my comfort zone and revert to my preferred traits. Steward’s anecdote regarding waiting for a conference call made me smile. This happens regularly throughout as you self-reflect and relate to her examples.
She says that “you owe it to yourself and to the organisation you lead, to take care of your health and wellbeing”. With that in mind, this book is definitely worth a read and worth keeping in your desk drawer for those “stand and stare” moments she describes. It is something that should he read and passed on by leadership teams around the country – I plan to pass it on to mine this term. Steward also includes suggestions for further reading. A great book and a good refresh for any senior leader.