Tension-free school leadership: What is it and how do you achieve it?

Written by: Ben Solly | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Our judgement as leaders can become clouded if we allow ourselves to become stressed, anxious or agitated. Principal Ben Solly has put ‘tension-free leadership’ at the heart of his school. He explains what this means and the impact this approach can have

How many times can you recall seeing a colleague walking swiftly and purposefully in one direction, only to complete an abrupt 180-degree turn and walk just as quickly in the opposite direction? How many times a week do you do this yourself?

Schools are busy places and it is easy to allow yourself to become swept away by the relentless pace of daily school life. Leaders especially are often pulled in many directions during the course of a school day and it is a real challenge to prioritise and deal effectively with the issues that are presented.

This article is a guide on how to become “tension-free” in the way you lead so that your decisions can come from a position of calmness and clarity.

Walk, don’t run

“If you see the headteacher running, you know that something is drastically wrong.”

These wise words were passed onto me at the start of my headship career and have resonated ever since. Since hearing this, I don’t think I have ever broken into a jog, let alone a sprint, while in the school building. The impact a headteacher has on the school community cannot be underestimated. Staff look towards the head for guidance, modelling and reassurance, just as much as the students do. Therefore headteachers must embody the values and attributes they are seeking to promote throughout the school.

Body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures and choice of language all play a critical role in the headteacher establishing their desired climate. I think every headteacher would say that they want a calm school – however, can we say that all headteachers are always calm themselves? I can think of many occasions when I have witnessed heads rushing, stressing and even panicking when in the presence of staff and students. What message does this send? This is why the quote above is so pertinent. The headteacher should never run.

What is tension-free leadership?

I define tension-free leadership as the perpetual state of leading from a position of calm objectivity. I use the term perpetual because tension-free leadership is not a temporary state that leaders should switch on and off. It should be genuine and authentic.

Leaders in schools are required to make a monumental number of decisions each day and are faced with an environment that is often unpredictable and potentially volatile. The ability to face these decisions with calm objectivity allows the leader to have clarity of thought, identify the pros and cons, and then decide on the most appropriate course of action.

Schools are full of hormonal teenagers and adults who have a strong emotional connection to the institution. If leaders allow personal relationships or their emotions to get in the way of their decisions, they run the risk of selecting resolutions that are not appropriate or effective. In challenging or unusual situations, the judgement of leaders can become clouded if they allow themselves to become stressed, anxious or agitated. This is when the wrong calls will be made. This is where being a tension-free leader will allow you to thrive.

Becoming tension-free

Telling someone to be free from tension, and then expecting it to happen is simply madness. It doesn’t work like that. Tension-free is a way of being, rather than a strategy to be deployed. Being a tension-free leader is not something that can be turned on and off like a tap. It is not an act. It can only be fully harnessed if a leader is genuinely free from tension.

For some leaders, arriving at a tension-free position takes more time and deliberate practice, for others it comes more naturally. However, it is something that can be developed, improved and refined.

Becoming tension-free begins with a leader understanding its importance and its potential impact. Once a leader understands that when they start to make key decisions from a position of clarity, with calm objectivity, they will quickly realise that the quality of their decisions will improve. They will also start to see how this approach begins to influence others.

The goal here is to create a tension-free school. While this is aspirational, and most probably impossible in reality, the aim is to create an environment where all adults are tension-free, so that the school becomes an authentically and consistently calm place for learning.

Letting go of outcomes

“Control the controllables” is a quote from sport that many elite athletes use to prepare themselves for high pressure situations in competitions. It is a mantra school leaders can use in the pursuit of becoming tension-free. The Venn diagram below is commonly used to support individuals so that they can focus their energies on aspects of their life that they can directly influence.

There is no question that the education system we work within is challenging. It can be cut-throat, ruthless and unforgiving. Accountability measures, league tables, financial pressures and the pressure associated with inspection make up just a few of the many pressures headteachers will face.

All of this can cause stress and anxiety which will consequently lead to a leader’s judgement becoming impaired. Tension-free decisions cannot be made under this level of stress – there needs to be a change of mindset.

The most impactful influence on my own leadership came directly from my leadership coach, who I have worked with for seven years and who supports other leaders in my school to become tension-free adults and more effective leaders.

The mistakes I made early on in my headship career were becoming overly focused on outcomes. The outcomes of my decisions, the outcomes of meetings, the outcomes our school achieved against accountability measures.

My focus was too limited on how to achieve the desired outcomes in the quickest possible manner. This meant I neglected the process, and focused too narrowly on the product. By flipping this focus, leaders can genuinely become tension-free and therefore make excellent leadership decisions from a position of lucidity.

To become a tension-free leader, one must invest all of their energies into the scope of what is within their control. Invariably, this is limited to what I call the process.

Doing this, a leader can sleep soundly at night, knowing that they have led and managed in the right way, in line with their own values and in line with those of the school. They can rest assured that their focus on the “controllables” has been thorough and comprehensive.

If the outcome doesn’t quite pan out as desired, this should not create stress and anxiety for the leader. Outcomes are often out of our control and therefore to overly focus on them can lead to a deeply unhealthy position for leaders.

Trusting the process

Given that we work in a high-stakes, high-accountability environment, schools are perennially at the behest of an outcomes-driven culture. Therefore it is no surprise that many school leaders become obsessed with achieving the highest possible performance outcomes in the shortest possible time. However, if we are to lead in a tension-free manner, we must trust the processes that generate these outcomes.

For me, this is simple. We should teach students really well, as well as we possibly can, and therefore the vast majority of our time, energy and resource in school 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.

Dealing with pressure effectively

The pressure associated with leading a school is well documented. The attrition rate of headteachers is eye-watering and conditions within the English education system are not particularly conducive for achieving longevity in headship. There are undoubtedly high levels of pressure, but how individuals perceive and deal with this is key in tension-free leadership.

We can learn a lot from elite sport when considering how to deal effectively with pressure. I like the phrase that UK Athletics coach Tony Minichiello uses when supporting his athletes to cope with high pressure situations: “Normalise don’t traumatise.”

The way I have interpreted this from a school leadership perspective is as follows. Schools are unpredictable environments, they are extremely busy and no two days are the same. We should consider this unpredictably as “the norm” – therefore we should expect curve balls to be thrown at us regularly. Once we accept this unpredictable nature we can then make decisions from a tension-free position because we have accepted that it is normal for challenging situations to present themselves.

The second lesson from elite sports I advocate is the T-CUP principle – Thinking Correctly Under Pressure – advocated by Sir Clive Woodward. School leaders have to make a huge number of decisions every day, many of which are taken under high levels of pressure. Being able to think clearly and logically is essential. Therefore, being free from tension plays a significant role in effective decision-making.

Importantly however, this is not something that can happen overnight, it has to be worked on and practised. In elite sport, coaches will put their athletes in high pressure and uncomfortable and novel situations in training, so that they have the requisite experience to be able to deal with unpredictable situations in competition. How can this be adapted into a school setting?

Headteachers can use scenario planning models to support effective decision-making with their senior leadership teams. I wrote about this in more detail in a recent SecEd article on crisis management (Solly, 2021). Requiring senior leaders to make decisions and plan for specific responses to certain scenarios is a very effective way of developing this capacity within a team.

Authentic leadership

The tension-free leader is one who can genuinely be themselves in their leadership role. The way they lead and manage on a daily basis is authentic. My coach, Dr John Rowe, who works with many leaders at my school, has helped me understand the importance of bringing myself to my role as principal.

It cannot be an act, a showcase, an alternative persona adopted for each school day. Leadership has to be authentic, genuine. I used to think I had to compartmentalise aspects of my life to be the best possible headteacher, to cope with the pressure.

I have learned that this is deeply unhelpful and unhealthy. The pressure is a privilege, one I embrace each day and one which I meet by ensuring key decisions are made with our core values at the foundation. I know I have to “be present” and be myself in all aspects of leading my school. This supports me in being tension-free as I am not trying to live up to an unrealistic expectation, I am not overly focused on achieving certain outcomes, and I am not comparing myself to other leaders who I might perceive to be more effective. I am 100 per cent myself, 100 per cent of the time and this is a critical component of being tension-free.

Adult-Parent-Child state

School leaders can become tension-free by consistently adopting the “Adult” state. This draws from Eric Berne’s work in the 1950s on transactional analysis. In simple terms, a person adopting the Adult state exudes calmness and rationality, and they are able to make objective and accurate appraisals of reality. This is the tension-free leader.

An individual adopting the “Parent” state would be more nurturing, sympathetic, maternal/paternal. Their decisions would be more heavily influenced by their relationships with others. School leaders adopting a Parent state are likely to create a dependency culture among staff and students, where everyone expects the school leader to do everything for them; over time this becomes unsustainable.

The school community will become habitually dependent on the leader who parents others, therefore inhibiting the growth and development of other leaders.

The “Child” state is emotional, reactive, spontaneous and unpredictable. If school leaders adopt this persona then disaster certainly ensues. If we make emotional decisions, in the heat of the moment, without thorough consideration and objectivity, invariably the wrong calls will be made, consistently. Once a leader understands this ego-state concept and the impact it can have on the school community, they can begin their journey towards becoming a tension-free adult.

Putting the pen down

The final aspect of becoming a tension-free leader is taken from a Japanese practice called “ichigyo zammai”. This is a Japanese term for the practice of full concentration on one single activity. School staff are notoriously bad at trying to do too many things at once and the risk with this is that we never complete anything as effectively as we might, and this can cause tension.

As a school leader, how many times a day are you interrupted by a member of staff, a student or parent? How many times do you write a “to-do” list and get absolutely nowhere near it?

Many people I know become incredibly frustrated by this and I wonder what impact their frustration has on others around them. By showing frustration at an interruption, a school leader is certainly not tension-free. This is where ichigyo zammai can help. If we accept that we should only give our full attention to one thing at a time, then as a school leader we know that we are applying ourselves fully to the task in hand. Then it simply becomes a matter of prioritising.

The question we should ask is: “Is what I am currently doing more of an urgent priority than dealing with the person who has appeared at my door?”

Trying to deal with both at once effectively is impossible, so a decision must be made. If you decide that the person at your door is the priority, then you “put the pen down” and give that person your full, undivided attention.

If you decide that your own work is more important, then you politely say “I am currently working on something urgent, can you come back in 15 minutes and you will have my undivided attention”. Once a leader implements this, it is then not a question of being interrupted and subsequently feeling frustration, your day simply becomes a series of prioritising decisions. A leader can then become tension-free and lead in the most effective way possible.

  • 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/3orMtkp

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