Feeling overwhelmed is something that affects us all and leaders are not immune. So how can you lead while you are feeling overwhelmed? In this article we will look at three practical steps you can take to find a way out of overwhelm and into stronger leadership:
- Recognising the risks
- Returning to your values and vision
- Intentional streamlining
Recognising the risks
Feeling overwhelmed is not just about your own personal experience – it actively gets in the way of your leadership.
Imagine you are in the middle of a conversation with an apprentice. In this conversation, you have an opportunity to give feedback on that individual’s performance, both strengths you are noticing and also some areas of improvement. This is a potentially powerful conversation that could impact on how that apprentice performs in the future and whether they want to stay with the organisation.
Your capacity to do this conversation well depends on your mental and emotional resources as a leader. If you are feeling overwhelmed, it is far harder to:
- Connect and build rapport
- Strike the right tone for feedback
- Check understanding of the feedback
- Collaboratively build a realistic plan of action
In my book on “Social Leadership in Early Childhood Education and Care” (2022), written with June O’Sullivan, CEO of LEYF, we talk about leadership in early years as the capacity to cultivate powerful conversations with staff, parents and across the sector. Your ability to cultivate these powerful conversations depends on how clear-headed and positive you are feeling. This means that self-regulation is not just about making yourself feel better but an act of leadership.
When you are feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath and start by recognising the risk that this poses to your leadership. Sailing along while feeling overwhelmed is not an option. You need to tackle it head-on by returning to your values and vision.
Returning to your values and vision
Practically dealing with feeling overwhelmed is about streamlining what you are doing based on your priorities. The thing is, you will only be able to do this in an intentional way if your process of prioritisation is aligned with your vision and values as a leader. Cutting back on what you are trying to do without a clear sense of what is most important, can lead us to keep everyday tasks that feel easy and/or urgent, while ignoring tasks and responsibilities that actually have the most potential to create the kind of setting we want to lead. This can mean that even when we take tasks out of the mix to reduce our day-to-day load, we actually feel further away from our sense of purpose and this can increase rather than decrease negative feelings.
To avoid this, we need to pause and return to our values and vision for early years. It might feel like the last thing that you need or want to do when there are so many other things going on around you. But going back to the basics of why you are here can support you to find the mental equilibrium you need to deal with everything going on around you.
There are many different reflective activities you can use to return to your values and vision and you feel find plenty in books and online resources about coaching. Here is just one to get you going:
Write about a fantastic hour in your setting. What happens in that hour? What is going on? Who is doing what? How does it feel in the setting? How does it feel in you to be a part of this hour? Write free-flow about this magical hour for 10 minutes. Then, re-read what you’ve written and identify 3-5 keywords or key phrases that characterise that hour (e.g. fun, supportive, warm, cosy, joyful moments, smooth transitions, everyone working together). These keywords are clues about both your vision for early years and the values you want to bring to everything you do. Write these words big and stick them up around you – if you feel a little fizz in your belly while looking at the words, it is a good sign you are reconnecting with the ‘why’ of what you are doing.
Once you have reconnected with your values and vision, you can take the practical steps of streamlining what you are doing day to day.
The life coach Martha Beck asks her clients to look at their ‘to do’ lists for each hour, day and week and ask themselves for each task ‘Does this task take me closer to or further away from my joy?’. We can adapt this question so that it relates to your values and vision. Look through your tasks and ask the question ‘Does this task take me closer to or further away from values and vision for early years?’.
Asking this question will not instantly fix your ‘to do’ list. But it will start to highlight some of the areas you can attend to.
For example, if you are spending a day a week on accounts for the nursery but this feels divorced from your values and vision, it is time to ask whether there is a way to reduce the time you take on this task, by asking for support from others or researching software packages that can reduce the load. Or perhaps you notice that you spend a lot of time on planning activities for a particular room, but actually one of your values is about everyone taking the initiative and showing resourcefulness. This is an opportunity to invest in pedagogical leadership and invite others to take more of a lead in day to day planning.
This is not an ‘easy’ method for streamlining but it is meaningful and sustainable. If you look only to cut activities from your daily planning, you are missing the opportunity to reconnect with something much bigger than your to do lists. Using streamlining as a way to reconnecting with your values and vision will not only make you feel more positive and optimistic about the future, but it will help you to ask game-changing questions about what you are doing, why you are doing it and how you are organising your valuable time.
O’Sullivan, J. & Sakr, M. (2022) “Social Leadership in Early Childhood Education and Care: An Introduction”. London: Bloomsbury.