Habits of Spiritually Grounded Leaders

It takes discipline and persistence to exercise these practices of mind by Scott Thompson

Superintendents work in environments that can become politically charged and psychically dangerous. Staying open-hearted and steadily focused on a higher purpose in such circumstances requires the inner strength that results from spiritual practice. Engaging in such practices is not likely to eliminate all stress or prevent political turmoil. But it can help leaders be sources of stability and clarity when chaos and confusion seek to stall progress and lower hopes. Spiritual leadership is indispensable.

OK, so what is spiritual leadership? It is helpful in this context to distinguish spirituality from institutional religion, the former being broadly inclusive in its transcendence of denominational doctrine and practice. What flows through the world’s diversity of religions and in the hearts and souls of spiritual leaders and practitioners is the spiritual energy that awakens consciousness to deeper levels of experience, purpose, values and meaning than can be perceived from a strictly materialistic vantage point. Spiritual leadership means leading from those deeper levels, and it is the purposeful actions and behaviors that naturally follow from doing so.


This kind of leadership calls for qualities and habits of mind that generally have been overlooked in the leadership literature and seminars: faith, patience, intuition, humility, expectancy, inspiration, compassion, and, yes, spirituality. We tend to be heavily reliant on physical sense perceptions and rationality. “But why assume that sensation and rationality are the only points of correspondence between the human self and the world?” Parker Palmer asks in his book To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, “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?”


For some individuals, spiritual leadership may have roots in a particular religious tradition. The spirituality of others will spring from secular or syncretic soil. It seems important to me that those whose convictions have been denominationally shaped should not wear their religion on their sleeves while on the job in a public school district. This is not an argument for burying one’s spiritual insights, but it is an argument for recognizing a sharp distinction between sectarian proselytizing and genuine spiritual leadership. And it is an argument for respecting the wall of separation between church and state.

Mindful Practices

The spiritual dimensions of educational leadership are scarcely discernable in the social upheaval and political turmoil that reforms arouse. In such an environment, a spiritual perspective can be gained only through considerable discipline. An educational leader’s workday is bound to be crowded with events, cluttered with preoccupations and riddled with requirements. The leader might steal a moment for reading or reflecting, but a meaningful spiritual perspective is not likely to be snatched on the fly. Rather, such a perspective results from persistently renewed mindfulness.


The sources of spiritual nourishment and renewal, of course, can be highly individualistic. For many it will involve some form of communion with their God. For others it might involve ritualistic practices, prayer or meditating on images that are significant for them. For yet others it might involve walking in the woods, jogging, writing in a journal or getting reconnected to the passionate core of their values and beliefs. All of these have the potential of being disciplines, if developed and honed through habitual and mindful practice. Some essential features of mindful practice follow.

• Early Morning. Many spiritual practitioners have found the quiet of early morning to be an indispensable sanctuary for gaining spiritual ground. John Kammerud, superintendent of the Mauston, Wis., School District, has developed the habit of listening to reflective music in his office for about 15 minutes at the start of each day. He reads the Bible or poetry before strenuous meetings in order to gain the sense of stillness and spiritual grounding,


“I try to find time every day to spend alone with myself, often while out running in the morning,” says Diana Chapman Walsh, president of Wellesley College. “I use that solitude as a time for personal renewal. I don’t always succeed at fending off the worries and projects of the day, but I do try. I write in a journal when I have time or the need to work something out.”


Early morning is not the only time for the exercise of spiritual habits, but for working professionals--especially if they have family 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.

• Time. Anyone close to education knows that somewhere near the top of virtually every educator’s list of factors that stall progress is time constraints. This is true for teachers and for educational leaders at all levels. Everything that meaningful educational practice and reform demands takes time, whether it’s developing collaborative relationships, engaging in professional development, or developing new curricula. But it’s not as though the ongoing demands that already have been consuming educators’ every spare moment can be magically suspended.


Similarly, the discipline of spiritual leadership requires some of that essential, scarce resource: time. “Making time to quiet myself and travel inward is difficult at times,” observes Mark Bielang, superintendent in Paw Paw, Mich. “I find I have to schedule those moments of reflection.”


As consultant John Morefield says about educational leaders: “The only reason I can see that people stick with it over time is because they have some sense of calling to do leadership work on behalf of children, and it comes from some deep well within them. 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? What are those spaces? What are the spaces for you? Do you have any? Do you fill your life up with no space? The sustaining of one’s well-being, one’s health, is important. It allows deeply committed people to stay for the long haul.”


Morefield points out that the development of this kind of spiritual sustenance requires “sacred spaces,” which must intentionally be created and preserved. “We have to take action to create inaction. … That inaction is not passive in the sense that there is work happening.”


Because the substance and influence of spirituality are hidden, it’s especially hard to make time for spiritual practice. But there’s an important paradox in spiritual practice that educational leaders neglect to their own detriment: While spiritual practice takes time, it also can have a liberating effect in relation to the imprisoning experience of time. Spiritual practitioners often have found that their discipline sets them free.


“I read a bit of Scripture everyday,” says Larry Leverett, superintendent in Greenwich, Conn. “My job places me in situations fraught with conflict, hostility, anger and frustration. How I respond either escalates or de-escalates the issue. My habit of reading Scripture helps to get me centered. I feel much better equipped more consistently to manage the tone and manner of my response. I have a greater degree of calmness in the face of chaos and adversity as a result of this practice. For me, being grounded in Scripture helps me to be a more emotionally intelligent leader.”

• Sacrifice. When a virtuoso musician or athlete takes our breath away by making an astonishing accomplishment look nearly effortless, we are seeing not just exceptional talent, but the fruits of sacrifice. The countless hours of practice that made the performance possible came, of course, at a steep cost. More often than not the individuals were willing to make the sacrifice because their love of the art or sport was greater than their love of what they were giving up in all those hours of practice. And such sacrifice often extends beyond the individual to close family members, friends and supporters. In fact, any devoted parent quickly becomes completely familiar with the taste of sacrifice.


Spirituality that is substantial and meaningful, spirituality that is something more than the occasional feel-good bromide, is born of sacrifice and is the fruit of persistent practice.

• Persistence. Consistency of practice is essential if one’s spirituality is to be meaningfully experienced and developed. In this sense spiritual practices need to become habitual. At the same time, one must stay alert that habitual practices not become unthinking routines, where the practitioner is simply jumping through a hoop of a different shape. The key is persistently renewed mindfulness.


Here we are talking about persistence in two different but ultimately interdependent ways.


Each spiritual endeavor requires the spiritual practitioner’s persistence. When we commence praying, studying, reflecting, writing, walking or getting still, we will at times feel spiritually disconnected or apathetic. As there is resistance to change in education, so there is internal resistance to spiritual growth. If we always wait for a more inspired time for our spiritual practice, we will likely find our procrastination has allied itself with that which resists our spiritual development. So don’t delay, persist. Be dogged in seeking to reconnect with the source of purpose, meaning, inspiration and spiritual grounding.


We also will need to be persistent over time in terms of regular practice across months, years and decades. It’s that long-term persistence that opens our lives to dimensions that would otherwise remain concealed under materialism’s garish and distracting surfaces.


Becky van der Bogert, superintendent in Winnetka, Ill., sees her spiritual practice as something woven into her work as an educational leader and into her life. “This has been a 45-year journey,” she says. “I stay steady on trying to figure out who I am and what I want to have happen.”

• Compassion. Compassion is an important measure of spiritual authenticity, and it’s essential to spiritual leadership for school reform. Why? Because educational change is disruptive, painful and too complex not to be loaded with false starts and missteps.


All of this is true not just for leaders but for stakeholders throughout the system. When the status quo gets disrupted and routines are shaken, people find themselves at an uncomfortable and risky distance from the familiar. Leaders who ignore this suffering undercut the foundational trust, openness and ownership on which cultural and structural transformations must be built. But a compassionate leader recognizes what fellow stakeholders are going through and communicates verbally and practically his or her rock-solid support.


“I think that religion is filled with examples of mercy,” says Carol Johnson, superintendent in Memphis, Tenn. “One of the things educational leaders can bring to their work is trying to operationalize that spiritual mercy in concrete ways. It’s this ability to understand that part of being spiritually connected is understanding your imperfections well enough to be merciful and patient with those who are imperfect. There have been times when my spiritual faith was the only thing that allowed me to forgive.”


Winnetka’s van der Bogert recently came home on a Friday evening feeling frazzled and angry in the aftermath of a series of irate and sometimes threatening phone calls from parents and community members over a controversial staffing situation. When van der Bogert got up the next morning she was still upset.


Several staff members would soon be retiring, and she turned her thoughts to a project relating to the retirement party, selecting wise and inspiring quotations and framing them for each retiree. As she worked on this project, taking in the spiritual import of the writings from which the quotations were drawn, her thoughts rose to a higher altitude--something like an aircraft breaking through a dark cloud ceiling into sunlight. “It put me on a totally different plane,” she told me. “I felt almost soft toward the people who were threatening me.”


Van der Bogert realized parents’ concern for their children underlay the threats and, as a mother, she could empathize with that. With this clearer and calmer perspective, she was able to develop a plan for addressing parents’ concerns.


There’s a relationship between compassion and the kind of thinking that leads to effective action. Compassion needs to extend not only outward, but also inward, and this too is essential. Educational leaders would do well to heed the advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your nonsense.”


Scott Thompson is assistant director of the Panasonic Foundation, 2 Panasonic Way, Secaucus, NJ 07094. E-mail: sthompson@foundation.us.panasonic.com. He is the author of Leading from the Eye of the Storm: Spirituality and Public School Improvement (Rowman and Littlefield Education).