School leader wellbeing: Do you remember the 2006 book The Meaning of Tingo? You probably do even if the title doesn’t mean anything to you: it’s the book that popularised the notion that the Inuit have more than 50 words for snow.
But what of the meaning of “tingo” itself? Apparently, the residents of Easter Island use this word to describe someone who borrows items from a friend’s house, one by one, until there is nothing left. When I came across this recently, it resonated: for many senior leaders the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath have been, and remain, something of an emotional tingo.
This isn’t so much a complaint as an observation. After all, we went into this job because we care. It’s what we do. It was a privilege to lead a school during the worst international crisis (for many nations at least) since the Second World War. In March 2020, all leave was cancelled and we went on special Covid ops deployment. But it went on for years not months, and there was little “R and R” at the end. Instead, we ramped up the pace in our desire to get back to normal.
We remain on the front line, this time of an ongoing global anxiety epidemic. The reality is that in recent years there’s been a lot more for school leaders to care about, and this doesn’t show any sign of relenting.
“We remain on the front line, this time of an ongoing global anxiety epidemic.”
So how can leaders replenish their inner reserves, and guard themselves against feeling like they’ve been emotionally tingo-ed?
This is a good time of year to ask ourselves this question. For most of us, January falls in the midst of the August-March/April slog, during which the lion’s share of our work is done. May 1 is Labour Day in some parts of the world, and most of us have holidays to look forward to in the coming months. While as leaders we don’t get to enjoy the long, uninterrupted summer break that some colleagues do, or we previously did, it’s vital that we carve out time for some serious rest and a replenishment audit.
Recently, Jacinda Ardern made international headlines around the notion of “how much we have left in the tank”. Heads have been talking about this for years, and the key challenge is that we don’t come with a fuel gauge we can glance at on the dashboard of our lives. What we can do is reflect on who and what we feel replenishes us and who and what doesn’t, aware that, as school leaders, part of our job is to deal with both.
“We don’t come with a fuel gauge we can glance at on the dashboard of our lives.”
What about that difficult conversation we really ought to have with a colleague who is a drain on you, others and the organisation in general? Now might be a good time to have it. Thankfully there are other more fulfilling ways to replenish ourselves as leaders.
Begin a new habit. James Clear’s Atomic Habits makes for interesting reading on this topic. We are what we habitually do, and even small changes can yield big dividends over time. Those daily squats, that extra weekly run, that walk to clear our heads, that phone call made to connect with friends or distant family – it all adds up.
“No head can be world class in every aspect of the role.”
Accept that regret is inevitable and part of being human. The more we do, the more choices we make, the more potential we have to make a mistake. We can never get it right all the time, and often the “right” answer wasn’t clear-cut anyway. In the process of pruning regret, we can make better decisions and grow stronger as a result.
Life may be the art of the possible, but we can try to prioritise what we are good at and enjoy. No head can be world class (or even above average) in every aspect of the role. Identify your tingo hotspots, and try to delegate them to people who are better at dealing with them. And sometimes, we might have to do something truly extraordinary and say “no”….