Leading Through Tensions

Matt Trammell
4 min readApr 2, 2021

“The best school leaders manage today with an eye towards tomorrow. This can be especially challenging when ‘today’ is filled with extraordinary challenges. Nonetheless, the call for proactive leadership remains.”

School leaders often exist in tensions.

Let’s define a tension as the mental and emotional strain resulting from two competing realities.

In school leadership, we face tensions every day. These tensions result from scarcities — of time, resources, emotional energy, and the often complex nature of making decisions that impact people at a very acute level.

Consider the following 2 tensions you may be facing right now.

Tension #1: Strategically plan for the future vs. attend to the urgent needs of the current school year.

“Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” — Sun Tzu

The last 2 months or so of this school year will be action-packed. And collectively, we understand all too well the daily vigilance needed to educate in the COVID era.

We must execute and finish strong, yet the time to prepare the way for an amazing 2021–22 academic year is now. We cannot wait until July to prepare the way for August/September and beyond.

As you invest in your school or school system’s future, now is the time to consider the following reflection questions:

  • How healthy is your faculty? What will they need to be successful next year?
  • How are your students progressing academically? Will remediation be needed in the fall?
  • Recognizing the isolation we have experienced over the last year, are there ways to further instill connection and community into the fabric of school life in the upcoming school year?
  • What will your COVID protocols look like next year? How will they differ from this year? What resources do you need to begin procuring?
  • How will you communicate such changes to all stakeholders?
  • Are there acute fiscal constraints you will be facing in 2021–22? If so, how can you hedge against those while delivering programming your students need? Are their community stakeholders who could potentially fill in the gap with their time, money, or expertise? Now is the time to begin cultivating these relationships.
  • What were the biggest challenges your school was facing before COVID? How will you begin to circle back to those and address them?
  • How is your faculty recruitment process functioning in response to anticipated fall staffing needs? And staffing needs 2–3 years out?
  • What are the 2 or 3 key drivers of success over the next 3 years — is it hiring teachers in a certain discipline, improving facilities, engaging the community in a fresh way, enhancing curriculum, improving student outcomes, etc?
  • Are you currently fulfilling a strategic plan, engaging in a new one, or has it been a while since your school engaged in a strategic planning process?
  • What decisions make sense in the present, yet could present future issues? Note: this typically involves quick financial fixes that serve to provide short-term patchwork to a systematic problem.
  • To what degree are all the players aligned as it relates to important strategic decisions? Do stakeholders know where the school or school system is headed?
  • Do you like the current trajectory of your school? If things kept moving in the current direction, would the school community be healthier in 3 years, or would issues simply be more pronounced?

Logistics matter — but that is management.

Strategic planning is leadership — clarifying or setting the vision, obtaining resources to drive results, and evangelizing the message to all stakeholders.

The leader’s job is to catalyze the team for action towards the better future. The time for such work is now.

Tension #2: Give more of yourself vs. invest in yourself.

“Self-care is giving the world the best of you, instead of what’s left of you.” — Katie Reed

The best leaders serve and give with a capacity beyond what most professionals can muster. Their reservoir runs deep.

And that is why they are most likely to suffer burnout. Over time, they simply nourish themselves less and less. Until one day, the withdrawals simply bankrupt their personal account.

There is nothing left.

And because of that, school leaders need to invest in themselves daily.

Now is the time to establish a thoughtful plan for rejuvenation and growth over the summer months. Follow the steps below:

  1. Reflect — Where are you running personal deficits?

a. Energy

b. Time with family

c. Personal growth

d. Physical health

e. Mental health

f. Spiritual well-being

2. Seek advice from others in your network.

3. Decide to invest — your wellness is worth the investment in time and/or money.

4. Construct a personal wellness plan for the summer months addressing the deficits identified.

5. Tell your circle what you are doing and why. They will encourage you to stick to it and hold you accountable to this self-care.

6. Put it on your calendar.

7. Embrace the opportunity.

When it comes to investing in yourself, your wellness is priority #1. You may need a daily exercise routine more than another graduate certificate. Or, establishing a weekly family night may be significantly more beneficial to your work performance than taking on another work project. The idea is that being a little ‘selfish’ with your calendar is actually a very selfless action.

Care for yourself so you can give of yourself to others.

Both of these tensions are real. And leading through them requires hard choices.

Indeed, the goal is not to eliminate these tensions. They are unavoidable. The goal, however, is to lead through them and allow them to provide clarity in your path forward.

The best school leaders manage today with an eye towards tomorrow. This can be especially challenging when ‘today’ is filled with extraordinary challenges. Nonetheless, the call for proactive leadership remains.

In summary, commit to proactively planning for your school’s future and carve out space for your own rejuvenation and growth.