A colleague of mine appears to thrive on very little sleep. Occasionally, said colleague, is apt to remind us all that Margaret Thatcher only slept for four hours a night. Indeed, Thatcher’s indefatigability was an essential aspect of the iron-willed image that she delighted in projecting to the world. If her iconic bouffant, cobalt blue dress and sturdy handbag were the physical manifestations of political power, then her supercharged protestant work ethic and determination to never rest reflected her unbreakable sense of duty. Whatever one thinks of her politics, Thatcher was an impressive trailblazer who shattered glass ceilings in the deeply misogynistic world of Westminster.
Many years ago, I was walking in central London with a friend. Passing through a plush part of Belgravia, my friend pointed out Margaret Thatcher’s house. Dusk was falling and as a bored looking policeman shuffled around outside the porch, we glimpsed the unmistakable silhouette of a perfectly erect figure sitting at what looked like the outline of a spectacularly grand dining room table. Her husband Dennis had long since died and her son Mark had recently been convicted in South Africa for his role in Simon Mann’s failed coup d’etat in Equatorial New Guinea. Her daughter, Carol, was off pursuing a media career and had recently won ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!’, and her grandchildren were living in the United States. She cut a forlorn and lonely figure and, momentarily, I felt a twinge of sadness. In declining health and suffering from dementia, one could not help but conclude that years of overwork had finally taken their toll. Thatcher’s decline was captured by Meryl Streep in Abi Morgan’s 2011 film ‘The Iron Lady’. Thatcher died in 2013.
Shelley reminds us of the ephemeral and fleeting nature of things:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
It is easy for us to find meaning in endless activity but when we are alone with our thoughts we tend to be troubled by existential angst. If everything is fleeting and if everything turns to dust then what is the ultimate purpose of our existence? What is the point of securing a legacy given that even the most enduring of legacies will inevitably pass? Time and decay make a fool of our grandiloquent pretensions. Of course, philosophers, theologians and evolutionary theorists offer competing theories and there is no denying that the promise of eternal life, the blessing of children and the comfort and intimacy of our closest relationships offer some level of consolation against illness, frailty and death. The sense that our lives have meaning and that we have accomplished something of value is a counterbalance to our nihilistic sentiments and moments of despairing doubt.
There are times when we all struggle to meet the expectations of others. In September 2023, RSAcademics published, ‘The New Art of Headship’. This short publication considers how headship has evolved over the past little while. It is true that we are expected to be CEOs, accountants, experts in employment law, counsellors, marketeers, public speakers, strategists, pedagogical innovators, digital pioneers and social workers. We are expected to possess charisma, charm, humility, self-confidence, moral integrity, intellectual agility, courage, gravitas, relatability, patience, resilience and much more besides. We should be internationally-minded but invested in our local communities. We are expected to be endlessly available and always visible. Governors, parents, pupils, alumni, commercial partners and colleagues all have their own expectations of how you should perform your role. You are expected to be all things to all people all of the time and everyone has a view on how you are performing. Attempting to meet the expectations of others is exhausting but it is also a strong motivating factor. I am not complaining about my lot in life because headship is both a choice and the most incredible privilege. In any case, there are very few of us who do not feel under pressure to meet personal and professional expectations set by others. I am well supported and love what I do.
Of course, it is impossible to meet everyone’s expectations, not least because, viewed collectively, they tend to be a little unreasonable. Too often, we exhaust ourselves in the process of trying to please others and when we are exhausted we tend to be poor listeners. We become irritable and struggle to focus. More importantly, the damage we do to our bodies by prioritising endless work over our well being is attritional. In particular, background stress is deeply corrosive. It leads to hypertension, cardiovascular disease and chronic conditions like diabetes. It impacts upon our personal relationships and means that we are less ‘present’ and less likely to achieve a sense of ‘flow’.
Over recent years, I have been guilty of work practices that are unsustainable. The pressure of my first year of headship immediately gave way to the challenges of Covid. I told myself that things would be easier in the future. There was some truth to that belief, but headship is by its very nature demanding and fast paced. The pursuit of excellence requires energy and commitment. After all, it is my responsibility to be endlessly ambitious for our community. Attending to my personal wellbeing always felt like an indulgence that could be postponed. It is only during the last couple of months that I have come to accept the need for change.
A few subtle changes have left me feeling energised, present and better able to support colleagues. I am trying to shed a few pounds but more importantly I am trying to shed that destructive feeling that I am simply not doing enough. Of course, there is always more to do but if we neglect our own wellbeing then our capacity to perform efficiently is unsustainable. Of course it is not about doing less or disengaging, it is about choosing to invest wisely and not being distracted by activities that distract you from your core purpose. It is about taking control of your working life rather than allowing others to dictate to you. It is about allowing yourself to enjoy moments of achievement with a real sense of authenticity. Protecting one’s well being is often invoked as an excuse for withdrawing. There are times when it might call for a temporary retreat but more often than not it means approaching the same workload from a different perspective. It means recognising your vulnerabilities and limitations. It means making the changes today that you feel you ought to make tomorrow.
Headmaster of Rossall School