When I read Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage as a 10-year-old, I couldn’t comprehend why anyone would want to experience suffering in the name of heroism or nobility.
Today, I still can’t.
If you’re not familiar with the story, it follows a young man who joins the Union army during the Civil War. Though the young man, named Henry, isn’t sure he’ll have the courage to stand tall in battle, he desperately wants to be marked as one of the brave, and wants a war wound—a “red badge of courage”—to prove his honor.
Note that he doesn’t merely want to help his side win the war. He doesn’t just want to be brave. He wants a wound that he can wear with pride, so that others will know his true measure.
As principals, we often have the same attitude—except that instead of a wound, we want stress. We want to be seen as overloaded, overwhelmed saints who nevertheless press on and achieve victory through our superhuman efforts. We want to be heroes.
Our students don’t need us to be heroes. They need us to perform at our best, to be the kind of leaders we know we can be.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi developed the concept of flow to describe the optimal state of mind. We can do very challenging work with a very high level of skill, yet a very low level of stress, when we’re in the flow state:
As you can see, anxiety is caused (at least in part) by not acting skillfully enough. The skill to which I’m referring in this case is handling our workload so that we can operate at peak performance.
If you’re stressed, look for ways to reduce your stress so that you can be more effective as a leader. Don’t wear that stress as a status symbol.