No leader escapes the moments of tension between family and work. It is not uncommon for leaders who are parents to have a limited ability to attend the games, concerts, school meetings, and even bedtimes of their own children. An aging parent’s needs, family events, or even emergencies may go unattended if the school leader’s work calls. Leadership pulls. And some things may not be able to be changed. Many have looked back on their career holding both pride in their work, and regrets toward their families. The toll leadership takes is great. Creating a healthy balance is essential.
One Leader’s Story
A high school principal, father of three, was faced by one such dilemma. His high school graduation was scheduled to begin one hour before and the same day as his oldest child’s graduation at another school. He spoke with his superintendent who was understanding and assured him if he chose to not attend his own school’s graduation, that it would be fine with her; family first. His son understood his father’s not being able to attend. He had the support of his family. But something kept gnawing at him.
He felt a deep commitment to the children he ushered through their last two years of high school years and to his presence at their graduation, a culminating event. This was only his second year at the high school. But, an added emotional complication was created because he had been their principal during their middle school years before coming to the high school. His connection with these students was over 5 years old. He felt a deep commitment to give his speech and to hand them their diplomas. But something was nagging at him. He spoke to trusted colleagues who urged him to attend his son’s graduation and reinforced the importance of family. That made sense to him. It all seemed clear to him intellectually but the nagging in his gut continued. He wasn’t resolved. Finally, one colleague asked him, “Why do you have to choose one?” A light bulb went off. Now the question became, how can I attend my son’s graduation and the graduation of my senior class?
The answer came in three parts. First, his speech was traditionally toward the end of the ceremony just before the students received their diplomas. He switched it to the beginning of the program. Second, the middle school principal had been the assistant principal in the high school for the first two years of these graduates’ high school experience. If he handed the students their diplomas, it would still be from someone who truly knew them. It would hold an authentic value for them, keeping the ceremonial value present. And third, he needed someone to be waiting outside of his school’s graduation as a getaway driver to scoot him off to the other end of the county, dodging traffic, to have him arrive before his son walked across the stage to receive his diploma and witness that momentous occasion with his wife and daughters.
An unexpected audience response came when he made his speech. In it, he talked about the importance of learning and achievement and the importance of relationships and family. He spoke of his commitment to be a model for his students as more than just an educator, but as a person. In that vein, he explained that he was proud of his graduating class and commended them. He also shared with the audience that his own son was simultaneously graduating at another high school. He was leaving them to join his family and be present with his son on this very important day. He told them who would be handing them their diplomas in his stead. As he left the stage, he received a standing ovation as he walked down the aisle to leave the auditorium.
The Pull of Work
In this incident, with this leader, attending to his inner voice, the one that kept nagging at him, the one that he trusted and eventually listened to, allowed balance to be achieved. He was able to meet his personal needs to be present for a family landmark, and his professional need to be present for his students. But, it is not always possible to do both. In his book, “My Life in School” former New York State Commissioner of Education Tom Sobol wrote about his time as Superintendent of Scarsdale Public Schools:
I worked long hard hours and was out many nights. By the time I got home, I wasn’t up for much conversation, which was a problem for Harriet. When I was able to get home for dinner, my mind was on the meeting I had to attend after we ate. I could be impatient and difficult (p.87).
The truth is leadership can demand all we are willing and able to give it. It tugs at us in cars while we drive and at nights when we can’t sleep. It interrupts vacations and catches us at playgrounds and grocery stores. The price, carried inside, is often unseen.
Family life is important. Time goes by and events unattended, conversations not held, intimacies missed, and connections lost, all take the life out of a leader. Drop by drop, like air leaking out of a balloon, loss accumulates. Our families learn to navigate without us and our hearts fade a bit at both work and home. But if we want to be strong and effective leaders, stepping back and gaining balance is the heart remedy.
Sobol, T. (2013). My Life in School. Scarsdale, New York: Public Schools of Tomorrow
Ilustration by 3dman_eu courtesy of Pixabay
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