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Seeking Wholeness in Leadership

It’s not magic that brings into sync a leader’s core beliefs and actions, especially in trying moments by Rebecca van der Bogert

It is the full heart that gives with abundance and grace,
The quiet mind that responds thoughtfully,
The cared-for soul that has the courage to ask forgiveness,
And the soft eyes that can see with clarity.
May I have the wisdom to seek the resources that help me bring all four fully to my leadership.

Scotch-taped to my computer, this original verse is a reminder of what I need to do if I am to bring all of who I am to my daily work. I had no idea when I wrote it that I would be reading it publicly to a full auditorium of more than 100 emotional parents. But the occasion presented itself a couple of years ago when I was embroiled in one of the most difficult situations of my superintendency.

I’d made a decision that had created a great deal of turmoil in the community and I felt it necessary to address the issue publicly at a specially scheduled school board meeting.

I was struggling for hours at my computer in preparation for what I would say at the meeting when I glanced at the verse on my computer for inspiration. That was it! What better way to convey who I am as a person than to share something I’d written and used as a road map for my leadership. The evening of the board meeting, with tears streaming down my face, I started with the verse and added, “I do have the courage to ask forgiveness.” After a heartfelt apology for the upheaval I’d caused in the community, I received a standing ovation.

I wouldn’t have had the skills, the courage or the verse without the resources and understandings I’ve developed over the years about organizations and about my leadership. I would have felt much more defensive except for my conviction that school districts are always in the process of healing, and sometimes the healing begins when leaders are able to show vulnerabilities and pain around their own wounds.

Knowing Oneself
As superintendents, most of us have experienced meetings in which we were able to hear the angry crowd, listen deeply to it and bring people together. We’ve probably also had meetings in which we found our stomachs reacting with defensiveness, which only makes matters worse. In the former, everything felt in sync within us — our core values, beliefs and behavior. We were able to be true to our inner core and it helped guide others to do the same. In the latter, in all likelihood, we were responding out of fear.

Through the years, I’ve learned it isn’t magical, serendipitous or mystical when the whole superintendent shows up. It takes hard work, the kind of ongoing lifetime work that involves getting to know myself, learning how to care for myself, and developing the resources that help me be whole in difficult situations.

When angry parents call, lawsuits are filed, newspaper reporters are at my door or I’m faced with a tough teacher dismissal, I’m reminded to seek the resources that help me be there fully. The resources may be a poem, a certain song, a reading from noted spiritual writer Thomas Merton, or a phone call to a dear, wise friend.

What I’m seeking is wholeness, a place, in which there is an energy source inside of me that helps me see clearly and act compassionately, with courage, and in a way that my mission, beliefs and behavior are all true to one another. I often refer to this as bringing my whole self to work. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Good Business refers to it as “flow” and former basketball star Michael Jordan would have called it being in the zone. Whatever one calls it, it is bringing the best of ourselves — mind, body and spirit — to the highest task of making happen what is best for our children.

Somewhat to my delight, I’ve found that wholeness is a never-ending journey of seeking — seeking other believers, comforting verses, inspiring music and most recently, Courage To Lead® retreats. Designed by the Center for Courage & Renewal and based on Parker Palmer’s work, these retreats foster personal and professional renewal by offering time and space to reflect on life and work. (The center’s website is www.couragerenewal.org.)

Simple Truths
I began the journey trying to find ways not to feel the anger, fear, sadness and other emotions that come with some of our interactions in our jobs and that interfere with being our best. Early in the journey I realized I needed to accept those feelings as part of being human and the goal of my journey changed. My quest now is to learn how to let myself feel those emotions and then turn fear into understanding, anger into calm truth-telling and sad moments into learning opportunities. Even though there is no end to this journey, I’ve found some simple truths that help me along the way.

Mining the necessary qualities. The superintendency calls for a multitude of strong qualities and competencies including courage, creative problem solving, risk taking, love, forgiveness and humility. What I’ve come to realize is that each of us has those qualities and likely the competencies within us. We are in positions, however, in which they can easily be buried.

Most often they’re buried in our fears — fear of the anger vented toward us at times, fear of not doing what’s right for our students, fear of harming the culture we’re in, fear of harming other people’s lives, fear of job loss. Our challenge as district leaders is to work at finding the resources that help us uncover the necessary qualities that are within us and bring them fully to our daily work. The resources may be different for each of us depending on our needs.

Times for myself is time for others. In a previous superintendency, when I was in the middle of a crisis that involved our whole community, we had a consultant meeting with my board of education in the room next to my office. When he was taking a break, he walked in on me. I was sitting with eyes closed listening to a piece of classical music. I blushed with embarrassment and apologized.

Now I would respond by explaining that this is how I find the strength I need to convey to the teachers, administrators and townspeople that everything is going to be all right. I need to be whole in order to bring wholeness to others.

Stated much more eloquently by Thich Nhat Hanh in Keeping the Peace:

“To me, the practice of a healer, therapist, teacher,
Or a helping professional
Should be directed toward him or herself first
Otherwise, we cannot succeed in our work of helping people.”

Listening to my inner voice. I’m totally addicted to books. When I began my first leadership position, I’d turn to my favorite textbooks when I ran into a problem. Inevitably, the situation I was facing was unique and textbooks were of little help.

I realize now that each new situation calls for me to bring my whole self to it with clarity, and more often than not I have the answers within me. My orientation has moved from looking to external sources for the right answer to looking to external sources to help me find the answer within me.

I still read books, but they’re books that help me reflect on the people involved in the situation, my own beliefs about the goodness of people and how I value them or the wholeness of learning organizations. This usually brings me to clarity as to what the best action is. Very often the next step is to seek the resources that give me the courage to act on my beliefs.

I can’t do it alone. Once I became comfortable with the fact that the answers are within me, my conclusion was that I should spend time reflecting alone. I soon discovered, however, that my greatest insights come when I’m reflecting in community with others. Paradoxically, my own voice is often clearer when in community.

Thirty-nine years ago, I was given a piece of advice by one of my doctoral thesis advisers that’s been with me ever since: “No matter where you go, find yourself a community of believers.”
I found out later the adviser shared this out of concern for my idealistic passion for changing the world and my strong beliefs about how people should be treated. He wasn’t sure I’d survive with such unbridled idealism. He was right that I needed a community of believers and, fortunately, I found that in the International Network of Principals Centers at Harvard and most recently in the Courage To Teach/Lead community.

My adviser wasn’t right that I would not survive because of my idealism, however. Today, with an accumulation of many bumps and bruises, I still hold the same high ideals. I’m just less naive about the enormity of the task and the hard work it takes to live by them.

Reflection Opportunity
Over the years, I’ve collected resources and taken part in many experiences that have supported my wholeness. In the last few years, I’ve been involved in a program, the Courage To Lead, that seeks to do this intentionally. The program offers a series of retreats for teachers and school leaders that provide quiet, thoughtful time as well as the opportunity to reflect with a circle of colleagues about such topics as one’s natural gifts, our original calling to the profession, beliefs about leadership and the seasons of life.

Each retreat closes with an opportunity to write and then share our thoughts. In one of these closing moments, I wrote this:

“It is the full heart that gives with abundance and grace,
The quiet mind that responds thoughtfully,
The cared-for soul that has the courage to ask forgiveness,
And the soft eyes that can see with clarity.
May I have the wisdom to seek the resources that help me bring all four fully to my leadership.”


Rebecca van der Bogert, former superintend-ent for 16 years, is the head of Palm Beach Day Academy in Palm Beach, Fla. She is co-author of Making Sense as a School Leader and Voices for Democracy: Struggles and Celebrations of Transformational Leaders. E-mail: rvanderbogert@ pbday.org