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April 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 7

Leading from the Eye of the Storm

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Leading change in public education is tumultuous work. It is relentlessly intense, enormously complex, and often downright chaotic. It produces storms of various kinds: resistance, controversy, confusion. Slight miscalculations can result in devastating unintended consequences.
Leading a school system from outside the storm is probably impossible. For this reason, leaders must locate the eye of the storm—that still point in the center, that place of clarity amid the swirling crosscurrents and emotional stir of organizational upheaval. Two experiences illustrate what this search for clarity looks like.
A shooting took place during a high school football game in South Pasadena, California, wounding two students. Les Adelson, the new superintendent, was scheduled to meet with 700 angry people in an auditorium a few days later. Emotions seethed before the meeting; everyone had an opinion about how Adelson should handle the situation. “People were yelling at me for two days, coming into my office and telling me what I should do,” he said.
Just before the meeting, Adelson told his secretary that he needed some time alone. He closed his office door and sat at his desk. In his words,This is the closest thing I've ever done to meditation. In retrospect, I might just call it reflection. And I've even joked that it felt like divine intervention. There was something that gave me strength and wisdom. When I sat quietly enough and long enough, it just started coming together. I wrote a statement, which actually turned out to be a 10-minute speech. The comments I got after the meeting, which went incredibly well, confirmed that it was a defining moment for me as a leader to the community. From that day forward, I was treated differently. My board said, “Wow, we didn't know you had that in you.” That was a very spiritual experience, really reaching down to the depths.
In his remarks, Adelson acknowledged people's fears and set forth a plan to establish a broadly inclusive task force charged with determining what was needed to move the community forward.
Adelson had a similar experience after becoming the superintendent in California's Moreland School District. Shortly after accepting his business manager's resignation, Adelson discovered a $1.5 million budget deficit. A few days later, 400 angry citizens came to a board meeting to confront the board about the budget crisis. Colleagues later told Adelson that before he walked in, “It was chaos. The anger was rampant. The venom was spewing. The tenor of the room was very adversarial.”
Adelson “reached down to the depths” to find his opening remarks, just as he had done before the meeting in South Pasadena. He pointed out to his listeners that people didn't really know him because he'd been in the district for only seven months. Then he laid out his core values and convictions. “Keep watching,” he told them, “and if I don't live up to my commitments, you let me know.” He rounded off his comments with a story about a boy whose beloved dog was hit by a car and badly injured. The boy held the dog, trying to comfort him. But much to the boy's shock and dismay, the dog bit his hand. Later, a veterinarian explained that the dog was reacting out of fear and frustration. Adelson concluded his remarks with these words: “So, like the boy and his dog, please don't bite me.”
Of the 400 people present, only 25 went to the microphone to speak. After the meeting, Adelson received a flood of e-mails saying that he had changed the tenor of the meeting. He accomplished this by acknowledging the community's concerns, clearly stating his own position on the matter, reassuring his listeners that there would be no mismanagement going forward, and encouraging an ongoing conversation with the public about his progress. “Everyone was expecting a bloodbath,” remarked one listener. “You just stopped it in its tracks.”
When pressures intensify, we experience an almost overwhelming temptation to let external events define our states of consciousness. But it is possible—even in the face of a raging emotional or political storm—to tune in to something quite apart from that storm, to be in a place where we can address the fundamental question, What is going on in my heart? Renowned leadership expert Margaret Wheatley explains thatas leaders, we need to find ways to help people work from a place of inner peace, even in the midst of turmoil. Frantic activity and fear only take us deeper into chaos. (2002, p. 46)

Talking Yourself into Clarity

John Morefield spent 20 years in Seattle Public Schools as an elementary school principal and three years as a central office administrator. He was able to move away from the swirling storms surrounding him to find clarity at the center. He explains how self-talk, the process of conversing with oneself in positive terms about one's performance, helped him as an education leader to get in touch with what really mattered:Every day there were minor opportunities to be the brunt of someone's frustration or anger. Then there were the major ones. Early on, I did what all too often happens: I really did think that it was all about me. If only I was good enough or smart enough or talented enough, all this stuff would go away, and we wouldn't be in this mess. My own journey has been learning to stop and do self-talk—to come to a place that's not about me. These angry parents are furious about what's happened to their child. It's about something bigger and more important than my ego. To relax and get my ego out of the way, I have to get in touch with my values, the reason I chose to do the work I do, and my role as an educator. Those things help me stay focused, centered, and calm so I can hear what [the angry parents] say.
A meeting between Principal Morefield and a student's outraged grand-father exemplifies this approach of using self-talk to move toward clarity. Morefield believes that many schools would have labeled the student as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Morefield's school was trying to see whether the student could succeed without being placed on medication. The school worked closely and productively with the student's mother, developing an alternative placement for him each afternoon. But when the grandfather got wind of the alternative placement, he became extremely upset, made several angry phone calls, and finally set up an appointment with Morefield, who later described the experience this way:It was one of those appointments from hell, where I just sat there and listened to his anger and rage about what was happening to his grandson. I was the person who was receiving the brunt of it. I remember going through all the emotions of defensiveness and anger and fear and hearing pretty ugly accusations about my character. I consciously used the self-talk: “Well, this is not about my competence or my motives. Maybe the actions we are taking are not necessarily the right ones. But these names he's calling me don't define me.” It moved me into a place that allowed me to hear. And then at the end, when he was spent, I calmly and firmly stated once again what we were trying to do and asked him to work with us in finding alternatives. He said, “I'll get back to you.” Then he came back the next day, and we were able to have a two-way conversation.

Education and Spiritual Leadership

What Adelson, Morefield, and other education leaders are talking about is spiritual leadership. I define spirituality in this context as a state of mind or consciousness that enables one to perceive deeper levels of experience, meaning, and purpose than a strictly materialistic vantage point would offer. Spiritual leadership means leading from those deeper levels. The most powerful and sustainable progress in education change may result not from willful efforts to plan, control, determine, and push forward but from a profound openness of heart and mind that allows more-powerful possibilities to unfold.
This kind of leadership requires qualities and habits of mind that have received limited attention in leadership literature and seminars: faith, patience, intuition, humility, expectancy, inspiration, and, yes, spirituality. We tend to rely heavily on sense perceptions and rationality. “But why assume that sensation and rationality are the only points of correspondence between the human self and the world?” asks Parker Palmer:Why assume so, when the human self is rich with other capacities—intuition, empathy, emotion, and faith, to name but a few? If there is nothing to be known by these faculties, why do we have them? (1993, p. 53)
The public nature of public education and the importance of maintaining the separation of church and state necessitate clarifying what spiritual leadership is not. It's not holier-than-thou, head-in-the-clouds, mysterious, unaccountable, ethereal, pious, jargon-thick syrup. Nor is it sectarian dogmatism or a subtle new way to desecularize schools and get religion back into the classroom.
For some, spiritual leadership may have roots in a particular religious tradition; for others, it has roots in nonreligious or syncretic soil. Those whose convictions have been shaped by their church must not wear their religion on their sleeves—at least not on the job in a public school district. We must distinguish between subtle (or not-so-subtle) sectarian proselytizing and genuine spiritual leadership; we must recognize the importance of preventing entanglement of church and state.

Spiritual Practice and Education Leadership

We live in a world in which change is not only constant but also constantly accelerating. Technological advances paradoxically add to the pace and complexity of our lives by virtue of the very ease, comfort, and velocity they afford. For education leaders, rapid action is the fabric of every workday. As John Morefield, who is now working as an education consultant, observes,Leadership is really hard. And education leadership is only getting harder. I do a lot of work with folks on, How do you sustain this? How do you keep the fire lit? How do you avoid putting too many logs on the fire and making the fire smolder? How do you keep the spaces in between the logs so that flames can live?
Morefield points out that developing this kind of spiritual sustenance requires “sacred spaces,” which one must intentionally create and preserve. “We have to take action to create inaction. That inaction is not passive because there is work happening.”
An education leader's workday is bound to be crowded with events, cluttered with preoccupations, and riddled with requirements. The leader might steal a moment during the workday for reading or reflection, but he or she is not likely to snatch a meaningful spiritual perspective on the fly. Many spiritual practitioners have found the quiet of early morning an indispensable sanctuary for gaining spiritual ground.
The sources of spiritual nourishment and renewal, of course, are highly individualistic. Some people commune with their God; others pray or meditate on images that are significant to them; still others walk in the woods, write in a journal, or reconnect to the passionate core of their values and beliefs. All these approaches can become disciplines if developed and honed through habitual and mindful practice. Early morning is not the only time for exercising spiritual habits, but for working professionals—especially those with families or community obligations in the evenings—it is often the one time of day that is most easily protected and most naturally ripe for reflection.
Consistency of practice is essential for experiencing and developing spirituality. Of course, habitual practices must not become numbing routines in which the practitioner simply jumps through a hoop of a different shape. True spiritual practice calls for persistently renewed mindfulness. One superintendent, grappling with a difficult decision that involved school personnel, was able to resolve the issue through his spiritual practice. “I was able to make a connection between my personal and professional selves, between my mind and my heart,” he remarked, “to reconcile the contradictions” (Bielang, 2003, p. 36). His resulting decision came from the heart and was consistent with his personal convictions.

Leading with an Open Heart

Pressures, resistance, and conflicts continuously buffet education leaders. Leaders will certainly be attacked, possibly on a personal level. But the leader who reacts viscerally will multiply the trouble that he or she is trying to mitigate. Staying openhearted and steadily focused on a higher purpose while under assault requires the inner strength that results from spiritual practice.
Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky conclude their book, Leadership on the Line, with a chapter entitled “Sacred Heart.” The chapter discusses the importance of preserving innocence, curiosity, and compassion in the face of the tumult and dangers that leaders encounter daily:A sacred heart means you may feel tortured and betrayed, powerless and hopeless, and yet stay open. It's the capacity to encompass the entire range of your human experience without hardening or closing yourself. It means that even in the midst of disappointment and defeat, you remain connected to people and to the sources of your most profound purposes. . . . A sacred heart is an antidote to one of the most common and destructive “solutions” to the challenges of modern life: numbing oneself. Leading with an open heart helps you stay alive in your soul. It enables you to feel faithful to whatever is true, including doubt, without fleeing, acting out, or reaching for a quick fix. Moreover, the power of a sacred heart helps mobilize others to do the same—to face challenges that demand courage and to endure the pains of change without deceiving themselves or running away. (2002, p. 230)
Developing a spiritual approach to education leadership is not likely to eliminate all stress or prevent political storms. But it can be the anchor that helps leaders stay grounded and tightly focused on the high goal of improving education for all students.
References

Bielang, M. T. (2003). Standing still in the wilderness. The School Administrator, 60(8), 36.

Heifetz, R., & Linsky, M. (2002). Leadership on the line: Staying alive through the dangers of leading. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Palmer, P. J. (1993). To know as we are known: Education as a spiritual journey. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Wheatley, M. J. (2002). Spirituality in turbulent times. The School Administrator, 59(8), 42–46.

End Notes

1 John Morefield drew the metaphor of the fire from a poem called “Fire” in Judy Sorum Brown's The Sea Accepts All Rivers & Other Poems (Miles River Press, 2000).

Scott Thompson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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