You are most likely providing social-emotional development for your students, but are you using it to improve your own leadership? An administrator friend once observed that leading a school is a job where you could stay busy all day just reacting to a profusion of urgent issues.

The trick of the principalship, of course, is to respond effectively to those urgent issues while creating time and equanimity to solve the important but less urgent problems that will make your school better. This can happen only if you commit to improving your own social-emotional development and changing the way you lead.

There are two important concepts to understand in order to make these changes: state and stage. State is the emotional condition you find yourself in at a given time during your school day. Think of this as your emotional skill as a leader in the present moment—it determines what you can do right now. Stage, by contrast, is your overall level of development—it determines what you can do in the long term. Let’s unpack both state and stage and learn some practical ways to develop them.

State: How Are You Feeling Right Now?

Becky Bailey, author of Conscious Discipline: Building Resilient Classrooms, explains that you can find yourself in one of two states: “emotional state” and “executive state.” The emotional state, involving the limbic system of the brain, engages when you are upset about things not going the way you want. Executive state happens when you are in an optimal state of relaxed alertness in which you can see problems from others’ points of view. Then, you can focus and deal with what is in front of you. People do not deliberately choose to be in emotional state instead of executive state, but it happens amid daily stress.

My experience with school leaders is that we tend to be highly skilled at faking that we are in an executive state, even when we are in an emotional state. Make no mistake, this is a valuable skill in leading a school. You need to be able to smile to calm the troops, even when you aren’t feeling calm. But if you don’t find a way to put yourself in actual executive state more often, then the excessive amount of time you spend in emotional state—even with a false calm exterior—gets in the way of your being intentional about your leadership.

If you’re like most school leaders, you need practices that will allow you to spend more time in executive state. This will help you reduce stress, make better decisions, and feel calmer throughout your workday. Consider implementing these practices:

  1. Meditate before work. Even if it is only for 10 minutes, this simple practice will help make it easier to stay calm all day. If you don’t know where to start, check out the Waking Up or 10% Happier apps. Regular mindfulness practice is a game changer.
  2. Schedule the important (but not urgent) things. What is important for you to do at work? Getting into classrooms and giving feedback? Reading a chapter in an education book that addresses an issue at your school? Taking time to connect with your teachers and staff? Schedule these. I mean it; put it on your calendar. Even a couple hours of this per week will pay off in huge dividends.
  3. Strategize with your office staff. Yes, there are emergencies for which you need to be interrupted. But chances are, you drop everything and respond immediately to an issue that someone else has deemed urgent. Help your office staff understand when they should and shouldn’t interrupt you. Get them to help protect your most valuable assets—your time and attention.
  4. Pause to breathe. Stop two or three times a day to go into your office, smile, and take a few deep breaths. Set a few daily reminders on your phone. Check out Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breathing technique for an easy format to follow.
  5. Take five minutes to journal at night. Put down your phone and physically write out your job worries. Focusing on your work anxieties seems counterintuitive, but research shows that you will feel better and probably sleep better.
  6. Don’t check your work email before bed. Leave the last hour or two (at least) before bed for relaxation. Your job includes being effective and calm tomorrow, too.

Additionally, if you truly want to transform your leadership, you must also do the necessary internal work to figure out what you are doing unconsciously that is getting in your way.

Stage: What Is Your Overall Level of Development?

The truth is, sometimes we internally resist and avoid doing what would most help our schools. While we can blame external obstacles, we often get in our own way.

Harvard University’s Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, authors of the book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, have unlocked some key ideas here. In particular, they have developed a process to uncover one’s “hidden competing commitments” and false assumptions.

For example, let’s say you want to spend more time in classrooms giving feedback. Through the “Immunity to Change” process, you identify that you are spending too much time responding to all the problems that others think are urgent. You further identify that you are committed to keeping everyone happy all the time—a truly impossible and ineffective leadership task. Identifying this competing commitment allows you to work on spending less time pleasing others and more time doing the work you deem important.

The goal is for you to move from what Kegan and Laskow Lahey call “socialized mind,” in which you are overly concerned as a leader with pleasing everyone, to the “self-authoring mind,” a stage in which your leadership isn’t being driven by anxious, urgent thoughts. This allows you to slow down to carefully consider the most significant problems of your school. Think of the self-authoring mind as the stage in which you are a calmer, deeper-thinking leader.

Why Change?

The default habit of many school leaders is to avoid the type of changes described above. It is easier in the short term to continue surviving rather than thriving. And using the tools described here will take some vulnerability, self-discipline, and time. But the result of this work is that you will enjoy your job more, and your school will improve. Aren’t you and your students worth it?

John Scudder is the director of Title I programs in the Litchfield Elementary School District in Litchfield Park, AZ.

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Reflection and growth

Dedicate time to pause and reflect. Enlist tools such as journals or prompts to encourage and support reflection. You can also enlist thought partners and mentors to serve as sounding boards or to provide you with feedback.

Reflection and growth are part of the Leading Learning domain of Building Ranks.