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According to the latest UK government figures, 3 in every 10 new head teachers and deputies who took up leadership positions between 2011 and 2015 are now not in post. There are of course many reasons for this, but the issue of burnout and stress is ever more documented in educational leadership, not just in the UK but also throughout the international arena. The idea of work-life balance, mindfulness, meditation and exercise are all excellent ways to combat stress and these are well documented. When you are in the workplace, however, what are some of the ways leaders can promote healthy performance?

The most effective leaders positively challenge and stretch themselves and the teams around them, strengthening their own learning, whilst also pushing the boundaries of possibility. In order to stretch yourself in a positive way, the first step is to understand which activities are challenging you. It is then possible to stretch those areas which naturally provide growth and motivation rather than concentrate on your perceived areas of weakness. We tend to get what we focus on- if we focus on what we can do, this helps eliminate the fear and anxiety of not being able to do something.

When coaching leaders in education I sometimes incorporate the ‘stretch zone model’ by Strengthscope®, which can be an effective way of igniting a coaching dialogue. This model outlines three zones; Comfort, Stretch and Panic. The aim is to understand more about what makes you operate in each zone, with an idea of moving beyond your comfort zone into your stretch zone, without progressing into your panic zone.

Comfort Zone

This is where we are used to working, it feels safe, you know how things work and it is comfortable. Whilst there are times when it can be effective to work in this area, sustained operation in your comfort zone stops growth and can lead to dissatisfaction, lethargy and even push you into victim mode.

Stretch Zone

This could be described as the optimal stage. You are operating in a place where activities and tasks feel challenging but not overawing. You are acquiring new skills and continuously learning at the limit of your knowledge and skills. Everything is engaged to perform effectively.

Panic Zone

You feel out of control, things are not structured and you can feel as if you are not up to the job. This could manifest itself in thinking you haven’t got the required experience and skills to perform.

Ways forward

Key questions in a coaching session may focus on; what are you doing and what it feels like when operating in each zone. The more you get used to what constitutes working in your stretch zone for example, the more you can get back into that way of operating when you feel anxious and panicky. Recognising that you do not have all the answers and identifying when it is best to ask for support from others, can also help you avoid the panic zone. Working with someone that you feel comfortable within a coaching and mentoring capacity can help raise awareness about how you are operating and what support you need in handling the demands of your role.

By: Nicholas McKie