10 school leadership “vampires”

What drains an international school leader’s energy and how can one respond to these challenges in a positive manner?

International school leaders, especially heads’ of school and divisional principals, face a number of challenges. The purpose of this piece is not to scare anyone away from international school leadership, but to provide a solution or two for “vampires” that drain our energy.

Here are some common energy sucks (this is not an exhaustive list. Please share other energy drainers). . .

Workload: A head of school may be responsible for up to 300 staff members. She/he may have four schools under her/his purview. A head of school could be compared to an area superintendent. The difference being that the head of school offices on campus, whereas an area superintendent travels from one school to the other, making a head of school more accessible than an area superintendent. Teachers and parents often request meetings with the head of school to address concerns. A head of school could reduce workload by empowering others to solve problems. An “addressing concerns” flowchart could be utilized. See example below. 

how school leaders can address parent concerns flowchart

Multicultural challenges: An international school leader is largely responsible for the academic program. Operational components such as facility and financial management, marketing and admissions, and human resource management may be handled by a local citizen. The head of school will interface regularly with these departments so she/he must develop good cross-cultural competencies. Learning the language of the host country may also pay dividends when building relationships with operational staff members. A leader could also study classics such as “Kiss, bow, or shake hands.”

Constant change: New ideas flow rapidly throughout an international school. This may be due to the fact that teacher and leader retention can be a challenge within the international school community. New staff members often bring new ideas. Here are some strategies to manage constant change: embrace a growth mindset, develop a change management plan, monitor and evaluate progress, and foster resilience and well-being.

Compliance and regulations: An international school is faced with both host country regulations and international accreditation standards. A head of school must build a team that monitors compliance and stays abreast of regulations. A head of school cannot act as an island when trying to adhere to local and international standards.

Lack of support: An international school may be governed by a school board or by owners; the latter governance model is increasing faster than the former. The leader’s priorities may be different to that of a school owner. Improving a school’s academic program requires financial resources. An owner may constantly question a leaders decisions. A leader can gain support by: understanding their perspective, clearly articulating your vision, building trust by demonstrating expertise and results, seeking input and feedback, managing expectations, engaging in relationship building activities, being responsive and solutions-oriented, and showing alignment with the school’s values.

Lack of work-life balance: A head of school can feel that she/he must to be accessible during evenings and weekends. Crises often arise outside the school day that require swift action. To improve one’s work-life balance, one can: set clear boundaries, empower though delegation, prioritize and focus, practice effective time management, schedule self-care, foster a culture of work-life balance, and utilize technology wisely. 

Decision-making fatigue: Senior leaders are often required to make critical decisions that can have significant consequences. The weight of decision-making, especially when dealing with complex issues, can be mentally exhausting. A head of school must empower others to make decisions and must accept that other leaders may approach problems differently. If a wrong decision is made, the head of school must mentor the other decision-maker in a respectful and kind manner.

Meetings and email overload: School leaders could encourage more standing meetings. These meetings tend to be shorter and more productive. Instead of back-and-forth email communication, a leader can encourage more face-to-face interactions. 

Constant crisis management: Dealing with ongoing crises and emergencies can drain a school leader’s time and energy, leaving little room for proactive planning and strategic initiatives. A head of school must devote time to vision casting and strategic planning. Her/his day can be filled with responding to problems instead of anticipating future issues; it is tempting to be reactive instead of proactive. A leader must carve out time in her/his daily schedule to work on big picture items. Placing strategic planning sessions on one’s calendar is essential; what is calendarized, gets done.

Build a supportive network: Senior leadership can be a lonely place. A leader can develop a network with other international school leaders within their city. This network could meet on a semi-regular basis to compare notes and run ideas by each other. Yes, international schools compete for students, thus giving schools ample motivation to engage in competitive rivalry. However, international schools have much in common and have an opportunity to develop and build the broader international school community together. This mindset will give leaders opportunities to support each other, emotionally and intellectually.

What other things drain an international school leader’s energy?