“Mindful Leadership in Practice”

In August each year the administrative team starts unified and filled with excitement and focus for the new year. The summer’s period of rest and renewal may even have led to some new commitments: more time in classrooms, better work/life balance, and others. As the year unfolds, personal reserves start to diminish. A dull fatigue sets in. The grind takes over. Several long days at school, or a particularly draining issue, leads to a feeling of “just get through the day”. E-mails ignored. Moods variable. Nights, weekends, and holidays become time to catch-up on the work. The team, which loves the school and each other, reaches a happy state of exhaustion. Happy, but exhausted nevertheless. Does this sound familiar?

This scenario plays itself out across our schools each year. It need not to. Success in our role as school leaders does not need to be mutually exclusive with good health and happiness. To many, mindfulness has proven a useful tool to achieve this triumvirate of outcomes. This blog post illustrates how the core leadership team at one school engaged in mindful leadership to transition its new superintendent and others into the new school year.

Why is mindfulness gaining global intrigue, and why are leaders applying it to their practice? The everyday demands of school leadership (complexity, accountability, etc.) seem more and more intense. Today’s default pace is fast, and personal technologies have not helped the situation. Additionally, introverted leaders especially need to carve out time for rest and renewal.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, largely credited with bringing mindfulness to the West from its roots in Eastern philosophy, provides us a basic definition of mindfulness: “practicing moment-to-moment awareness, with curiosity and kindness, and without judgment.” Mindfulness to many, however, is much more than a tool for coping with life’s demands, but also a deliberate way to approach work and life. Emerson teaches us, “what is life, but the angle of vision?”

My own personal journey started over a decade ago, when I found myself leading a fast-charging high school in the suburbs of Boston (USA). Our students were running on an academic treadmill, with dire health and learning consequences for several dozen students each year. It is a phenomenon hardly unique to suburban America. Globally, too many students are “doing school”, a term coined by Denise Pope of Stanford University, and many young people are cracking under the pressure of performance and college acceptance. My interest in our school’s stress culture led to programs in mindfulness, a personal practice, and a dissertation on our institutional efforts to improve the school and work experience.

Transitioning to a new school provides leaders the opportunity to reset personal practices, and to set a deliberate tone upon entry. I seized this opportunity when recently inheriting a highly capable and productive team, which has capably led a wonderful and kind school community. The team embodies the scenario laid out at the beginning of this blog post, in part of its own making from the enormous workload it both takes on and achieves.

We started with a summer reading, Jerome Murphy’s Dancing in the Rain, and made mindful leadership the theme of the August retreat. In our two days together, we explored basic concepts in mindfulness, reflected on the sources of our fatigue, and examined self-defeating habits (such as resisting the things we cannot control). Through the practice of meditation, we accepted the concept that the mind is peaceful, and that we have everything already within us to be happy and successful (a counterintuitive concept). We ended the retreat by making a personal commitment to disrupt one aspect of our relationship with time and pace, so we might break that cycle of exhaustion.

When we returned to campus, we immediately set to inducting the new batch of teachers. When one teacher spoke with pride of his “Work hard. Play hard.” approach to life, we turned the expression on its head. We instead settled on the motto of “Work smart. Play. Rest hard.” and have been building on it ever since. The team has adopted a No-touch Fridays, where we agree to do no school business with each other on the first day of the weekend. Furthermore, we encourage periods of non-doing and meditation during the school day. These mindsets and strategies are not yet the new normal, but we know that developing our capacity for mindfulness is like building a muscle. It takes continual practice, and one can see positive results through renewed and sustained commitment.

Disruption to my own leadership practice came from the strategic abandonment of e-mail. Yes, e-mail, the low-yield activity that once sucked the life and soul out of me each day. As a result of jettisoning e-mail, I have been able to free up blocks for classroom visits and importantly, a start-of-the-day period of “writing and thinking”. I presented this action research at a recent heads retreat: http://bit.ly/2yLq7RF.

What’s next? We are intrigued by the concept of tempo guisto, that everything has its optimal speed (fast, moderate, or slow). What should be slow about schooling? We believe: thinking, learning, feedback, planning, visioning, reading and writing. And what should be fast? Meetings--except for planning, no meeting should ever last more than thirty minutes, and many can be quick, standing meetings. Letting go of negative emotions should also be fast.

Our worth as school leaders is ultimately judged on our ability to make good decisions, to listen, and to be fair. We owe our schools, and ourselves, an effort to put our best selves forward so we can fully engage in the present moment, to where we respond to challenging situations, rather than react. Heifetz and Linsky remind us of the harsh truth that “it is not possible to know the rewards and joys of leading without experiencing the pain as well.” So why not accept the good and the bad, fully, and work diligently on our response to these feelings and emotions? And we can do this important work together.

Dr. Paul Richards is the new Superintendent of the American School of Dubai, and is working toward certification as a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher through the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. Resources can be found at https://drpaulrichards.com/mindfulness.

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