Put your own mask on first

By leadwell-admin | | July 14th, 2014

I don’t know about you, but when I fly I tend to be a bot blasé about the regulation on-board ‘safety briefing’.

I recall getting aboard an Air Caribbean flight some years ago, and being really focused on the hostess as she pointed out which doors we were to leap from in case of emergency.  After seeing the dilapidated condition of the aircraft as I’d walked from the bus to board, and noticing fluid dripping from the overhead space two seats in front of me, I felt I had good reason to pay attention.

But seated in a spacious Boeing 787 Dreamliner, with mood lighting and four feet of headspace, my mind drifted as the animated characters on my personal video screen demonstrated the various aspects of passenger safety in front of me.

Then it got to the bit about what to do in case of cabin decompression, and the voiceover instructed…

“In case of cabin decompression, oxygen masks will drop from overhead.  Place the mask over your face, and tighten the elastic to hold the mask in place…oxygen will flow automatically.  Please be sure to put on your own mask first, before helping children and others who may need your assistance”

I thought how counter-intuitive it would be to put on your own mask first if you had a child in your care.  Every fibre in your being would surely drive you to get their mask on first so that they could breathe.  Aren’t we naturally compelled to respond selflessly when those we feel responsible for need help?

It got me thinking about how most school leaders tend to demonstrate the same selflessness with regard to the needs of their staff and pupils, putting their own needs secondary.  It’s a good thing, surely, to put the wellbeing and success of others before your own?

But is it?  Do those airline safety people have a point?  If you, as a Head Teacher or School Business Manager, are even slightly incapacitated by the pressures and stresses of your work, those who depend on you for support and guidance may have a lesser opportunity to thrive and do well.  It probably impacts on the wellbeing of your whole school.

“Put your
own mask
on first”

So maybe it’s not selfish or inappropriate to put your own mask on first – to do what is necessary to maintain your own wellbeing and resourcefulness as a priority?  Because when you begin to buckle under pressure, it’s not only you who suffers.  Those who look to you for leadership will feel it too.

If you believe in leading by example – if you want staff to follow your lead – keeping yourself well and preventing too much stress building up could be good for everyone.

Like most people in stressful professions, school leaders in general make good efforts to manage stress, but are often unable to do so due to the relentless pressures of school life, and the limited scope for changing environmental stressors.  In order to cope, many unfortunately turn to traditional coping mechanisms such as smoking, alcohol, comfort eating, and even recreational drugs.  Very few successfully adopt preventative approaches to stress, and even fewer still keep them up.


When the people you lead see that you take steps to keep yourself in good shape, you’ll be unconsciously giving them permission to do the same.

Perhaps there is a lot of sense in “putting your own mask on first”.

You can bet your life the pilot of my Dreamliner would!

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