Challenging situations: Leadership and stoicism

Written by: Ben Solly | Published:
Stoic: Marcus Aurelius (121-180) at the Campidoglio in Rome, Italy. The Roman emperor was the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity (image: Adobe Stock)
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Teachers and leaders can introduce strategies that draw upon the philosophy of stoicism to help improve how they respond to challenging situations. Ben Solly offers a practical guide


Teaching is a tough gig; it is hard work. It requires levels of physical, mental and emotional resilience that are often unseen by the communities we serve. Leading within a highly complex organisation also requires a range of skills and qualities and a phenomenal amount of decision-making each day.

We must seek to arm our teachers and leaders with strategies that enable them to achieve longevity in their careers, find joy in their work and allow them to achieve a healthy balance in their lives. This article provides a number of practical suggestions that I hope will enable individuals to cope with the daily challenges of working in a complex and often unpredictable environment.


What is stoicism?

Stoics are often said to be devoid of emotion, or uncaring, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. A person practising stoicism will of course experience emotions, but they use their understanding of the world to recognise perspective, accept reality, understand their emotional reaction, and therefore control their response to what happens to them.

My understanding of stoicism has evolved as I have developed a keen interest in how I will be able to sustain a career in school leadership over the next 20 years.

Having been drawn into stoicism through Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is The Way (2014), I have also delved into the journals of the Roman leader Marcus Aurelius, one of the symbolic exponents of stoic philosophy.

I would describe stoicism as the capacity of an individual to use a challenging situation as an opportunity to practise a particular virtue. Stoicism for me is about mindset and attitude.

We can wallow in self-pity when something goes wrong, catastrophise, or feel the weight of the world on our shoulders and focus only on the negative. However, none of that is healthy or sustainable.

A stoic approach is to find solutions to these problems by adopting a mindset and attitude that enables us to turn them to our advantage. If we can change the way in which we frame a situation in our minds, we can develop strategies that enable us to find joy and satisfaction in the daily challenges we encounter. This is stoic leadership.


Mastering your own perception

The first step I would advocate is the discipline of mastering how you perceive the world. Mastering your own perception is about how you reframe your thoughts. Instead of thinking “oh no, this is an absolute disaster, how on earth will I cope?”, reframe this: “I have a challenging situation. What do I need to do right now to overcome this?”

In August 2020, I received a call from the site manager – at 3am. Calls at that time are never a good thing! Our school was on fire (an electrical fault, no-one was hurt). But 20% of our teaching spaces were on their way to becoming unusable for the next 14 months. This occurred two days before the start of the academic year, during a pandemic, and the day before my colleagues were due back in school for training days.

It would have been easy for me to catastrophise. However, I used my understanding of stoicism to turn a disastrous event to my own and the school’s advantage. This required me to reframe my perception of what had happened – yes, there was going to be short-term pain as we dealt with the implications of making the site safe, installing temporary classrooms, and repairing the damage.

But the long-term reality and the goal that I continually held onto was that we could use this as an opportunity to develop the school site in a way that would have been impossible before.

And from my own perspective, I was provided with an opportunity to practise my leadership skills in disaster-management, communication and project-management, while testing and enhancing my capacity for resilience, optimism and drive.


Normalise don’t traumatise

This is an extreme example, but there will be instances in your daily life, both personally and professionally, when you can reframe your mindset to use what might be perceived as a disaster as an opportunity instead.

Athletics coach Tony Minechiello says “normalise don’t traumatise”. From a school leadership perspective, I interpret this is as follows...

Schools are unpredictable environments, extremely busy and no two days are the same. We should consider this unpredictably as “the norm” – therefore we should expect regular curve balls.

Once we accept this unpredictable nature we can make decisions from a “tension-free” position (Solly, 2021) because we have accepted that challenging situations are normal.

If you apply this to life, not just a school environment, then you will accept that the world is unpredictable, and therefore you should expect unexpected events to occur, many of which will cause you problems and challenges. Adopting a stoic attitude will help you deal with these situations more effectively.


Accepting reality

“I wish I could make this situation disappear.” “Why does this always happen to me?”

These thoughts are deeply unhelpful. They lead to excuses, blaming others, and not accepting responsibility for one’s actions.

They do not focus on the solution, or what needs to be done. However, we will all think like this at times.

The key to adopting a stoic approach resides in how much credence we give these thoughts. If we dwell on them and allow them to dominate, we spiral into a whirlpool of doom and “what ifs”.

A stoic approach is to accept reality, process your emotions, and then decide on the attitude and subsequent actions that are required to obtain the best possible outcome.

Let’s use a common example – that huge pile of marking. We could allow negative thoughts – “I hate marking” or “this school’s marking policy is unmanageable” – to bounce around while we procrastinate. Or we could deal with the matter in hand, break-up the work into chunks, take action and make a start.

There is a great stoic quote from Seneca: “We suffer more in imagination than we do in reality.”

A healthier thought process would be: “I’ve got a pile of marking to do, which I am currently stressing out about and I am not motivated to do. However, I know that once I start it, things will feel better. I will use this as an opportunity to understand how much my students know and have applied to the task, and I can use this to inform my teaching of them. I disagree with the school marking policy and I have some suggestions I plan to pitch to senior leadership.”

Seneca’s wisdom is also pertinent to times when we feel worried about a forthcoming meeting which we know will be challenging. A challenging parent, a difficult colleague, a hard conversation that will certainly upset someone – the thought of these meetings is often much worse than how things actually transpire in reality.

By taking a stoic approach to these situations, we are able to reshape our perspective and use them as an opportunity to practise our skills of diplomacy, mediation, or radical candour (I highly recommend Kim Scott’s 2017 book).


Dichotomy of control

A fundamental component of stoicism that is a critical concept for teachers and leaders to adopt is that of control. Specifically, this requires us to identify what elements of our working day (and life) are directly within our control, and which aspects are not.

Stoicism suggests that we are in control of our emotions, our judgements, our attitude, our perspective, our decisions, our actions. We can certainly not control others, nor be fully in control of outcomes that involve a range of variables external to our sphere of influence.

A stoic approach does not allow us to control the world around us, but it does allow us to control how we respond to it. For example, a teacher is delivering a lesson in which a student is being persistently disruptive. The teacher uses the behaviour system and the child escalates through the consequences and is eventually removed. This happens a number of times.

Some may interpret this as the teacher not being successful in behaviour management. Some may perceive this teacher as not performing adequately. These are toxic perceptions. The reality is that the teacher is never completely in control of how a child behaves.

If the teacher has used the school system to deal with the poor behaviour, that is the element they can control and therefore this is what they should focus on. The teacher should not feel guilt or any form of inadequacy.

From a leadership perspective, there are so many elements that are outside of our direct control, yet so many leaders get hung up over these. For instance, in a meeting with a parent who has lodged a complaint, it would be ludicrous to expect that one can directly control how the parent will feel or respond. What can the leader control? They can be professional, honest, communicate clearly, and behave in a way that aligns with the school values. The parent’s reaction is their own responsibility; they are the only person in control of that.


Perspective

A way to gain perspective, which speaks directly to a stoic attitude, is to take a “satellite view” on a situation. This enables you to ask yourself questions such as, in the grand scheme of things, is this a problem that is worth this amount of stress, worry, anger or frustration? Seeing a situation like this allows us to practise humility and is an effective way of de-escalating ourselves when we feel an emotional response appearing that might be unhelpful to us.


Process over outcome

You don’t get results by focusing on results. You get results by focusing on the actions that produce results. Simple, right? But we don’t always do this. If we accept that there are many things we cannot control, we adopt an attitude that aids us in rationalising and processing difficult situations.

If we have taught, led and managed in a manner that is aligned with the school values, policies and expectations, as well as our own personal values, then we can rest assured that we have effectively delivered on the elements of our roles that we can control. Invariably, this focus is on the key processes, rather than dwelling on an often uncontrollable outcome.

Schools in England have been at the behest of a high-stakes, high-accountability culture for too long and the impact has been a disproportionate focus on outcomes. This has led to perverse incentives and schools chasing rungs on the league table ladder, sometimes unethically. If we want schools to improve in an authentic and sustainable manner, then this takes time and requires leaders and teachers to focus on the process rather than the outcome.

So rather than flooding exam year groups with endless interventions, we focus on creating the conditions in which teachers can authentically make incremental improvements to their practice. Rather than obsessively analysing data, we spend more time working on processes that will eventually lead to higher outcomes.

We have to set this as a cultural expectation within the school. We have to make sure our systems, such as performance management, lesson observations and other quality-assurance measures, have this as an underlying principle.

We must keep things really simple, too. We should teach students as well as we possibly can and therefore the vast majority of our time, energy and resource should be directed at supporting effective teaching.

School leaders must decide the key strategies that will be deployed in order to achieve their desired vision and then create a culture in school where all staff can develop and deliver these strategies to the highest standard. As a result, we stop chasing outcomes and focus on the process of teaching. My mantra to staff is: “If it isn’t having an impact on educating students effectively, or caring for them in a compassionate way, we should stop doing it.”

Once we release ourselves from the tyranny of accountability and outcomes, we can begin to lead in a tension-free way.

  • Ben Solly is the headteacher of Uppingham Community College in Rutland. Read his previous articles, blogs and other contributions to SecEd via https://bit.ly/seced-solly


Further information & resources

  • Aurelius: Meditations: A new translation, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.
  • Holiday: The Obstacle is The Way, Portfolio, 2014: http://theobstacleistheway.com/
  • Holiday: The Daily Stoic, Portfolio, 2016.
  • Scott: Radical Candour, St Martin’s Press, 2017.
  • Solly: Tension-free school leadership, SecEd, February 2021: https://bit.ly/3rCsFfW
  • Solly: Strategic school leadership, SecEd Best Practice Focus, May 2021: https://bit.ly/3hTupzu


Comments
It is great to see that there are other leaders who have an interest in Stoicism and school leadership! See my article in the Primary section.
I enjoyed reading your article
Jim

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