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Balancing on the Edge

An approach to leadership and resiliency that combines rock climbing with four key touch points by Harold E. Winkler

Climbing is a joy and restoration of balance in my life. My first climbing attempt was at the invitation of a friend who was captain of his SWAT team. I was fascinated by climbing. I was physically fit and loved the outdoors, but I also was taken by the resiliency of the young officers with whom I climbed.

As we sat around the campfire, I listened to them talk about being undercover for months at a time, away from their families, about being involved in life-threatening encounters. They had all faced death or severe injury, but here they were laughing, poking fun at each other, loving their chosen profession.

I realized that while I did not routinely deal with guns and criminals, I faced my share of stress and my resilience was often put to the test. When I entered my first superintendency, the school district was on the verge of voting on a bond referendum. There was passion from some who saw the needs of the system and resistance from others who did not like change or increased taxes.

Young and eager, I personally committed to going to all parts of the community to speak to the needs of the school system. The residents in one section were so opposed to the bond referendum that the board of education cautioned that a visit might not be a good idea. However, I had made the commitment and knew I could not do otherwise.

Uneasy? You bet! But I forged ahead. Dressed in a business suit with a catcher’s breast plate, a catcher’s mask and leggings, a big bull’s eye plastered on the front and on the back, I strolled into the arena. The somewhat hostile audience began to laugh. While their vote on the ballot item did not change, I had confronted the situation with humor, and the humor helped us look beyond our differences.

Being Resilient

Every leader, whether in a school system or some other arena of public life, needs a way to shake off the dust and exhaustion that come from the constant assaults on the glass houses in which we live. For many of my friends and peers, the answer is the golf course. For me, it is the outdoors and mountain climbing. Part of that feeling is reflected in a poem I wrote after a climbing trip.

Where I Get Help

In the mountains
is where I get help from the wounds
people give to me.

My fingers find the granite hold
and I climb, feeling the warmth of the sun
as the mountain reaches out to hold me and keep me safe.

I pause to speak to the hawk
and listen to the stream sing to the trees eventually the stream, the trees and the mountain all run through me.

I know that nothing can touch me
my scars begin to heal
I feel clean from the dust of my life
and take the peace and healing with me when I leave.

As leaders, we must rely on our resilience to guide and sustain us as we chart what is often a difficult course toward our goals. In our school district, we have been challenged to close the achievement gap between our at-risk and not-at-risk students. While we have made some particularly good gains in this mission, setting that course has not been easy nor has the climb been smooth. Yet when we reach the summit and lead our team to a vista that maybe only one out of a thousand people ever get to see, that excitement and exhilaration bring us back to the bottom of the next cliff to take on the risks and do it all over again.

Resilience is the stability that allows us to become and remain leaders. It requires that we know the real purpose behind our energy—why we climb toward higher goals.

Points of Balance

Resilience is also about balance. There are four points of balance in climbing: two hands and two feet. Three points of contact equally distributed will maintain balance; the fourth point—a hand or a foot—can be used for rest or work. If for some reason there are only two points of contact, there is a good chance we will lose our balance and fall.

The same theory applies to leadership and to life. In our lives, we struggle to maintain balance in four specific areas: Body, Spirit, Mind and Social. Each area may be thought of as its own circle, yet the circles overlap in some areas. It is at a center point, where all the circles come together, that we truly experience a balanced life—balanced in mind, spirit, body and community.

The circle for body includes rest, diet, exercise and posture. When our body responds to the stress of traffic, the economy, world conflicts, bomb threats and disgruntled parents, it is flooded with hormones that provide strength for more activity—the same hormones that can harden arteries and weaken the immune system. When our bodies are under stress, we are out of balance.

Exercise and diet alone may not give us the balance we seek. The circle of the spirit provides a sense of belonging to something that is larger than us. Spirituality is the intuitive feeling that the universe is a positive place and we are all connected. Spirituality requires us to be quiet so we can listen to the whispers of the universe, appreciating the lives that give us substance and the beauty and color that give us enjoyment.

The circle of the mind involves the knowledge needed to understand the issues of the world around us and our chosen profession. It also encompasses learning and challenging ourselves in many ways so that as we get older we can remain physically and mentally active and healthy. Studying topics outside education, learning to play the banjo, learning to paint or maybe even taking up ballet in our 40s are examples of paying attention to our minds.

The fourth circle of balance is social. This involves family, friends and our community. On a family level, social balance means having dinner together with the TV turned off, playing family games, holding family discussions and putting the kind of sweat equity into each other that builds trust and loyalty. Passing bond referendums also requires a lot of sweat equity. The community must see you involved in the workings of the world outside the school system.

My sons are two of my best friends. This did not just happen. Our camping, climbing and hiking experiences beginning when they were young laid the foundation for a relationship of trust, understanding and respect. I remember camping with my sons when it rained so hard that we could not find our way out. It was in a swampy area and the snakes were everywhere. The two young boys were scared but we knew we had to trust each other to get through the situation. We found our way out unscathed. We not only sweated together, we literally depended on each other for survival.

Over the Cliff

How does life get out of balance? Eight years ago, we were getting ready to begin a new school year. I know now that I was as out of balance as any leader could become. I was moving as fast as I could possibly move. My spirituality consisted of “God, if you’ve got something to say, get in the car because I don’t have time to stop.”

A friend was arriving from Florida for a weekend of climbing. At the end of the work week, I took the top off my Jeep, loaded my gear, and we headed for the mountains. The late afternoon could not have been more beautiful. We set up camp and although it was too late to start a climb, we were anxious to get moving. So we decided to do some repelling.

I went first. I descended 180 feet into a hole, stopping as I entered the cave so Bert could take some pictures. Feeling great, I dropped down, reached the floor of the cave and unhooked. I took about two steps from the rope, then fell to the ground gasping for breath. It felt like someone had opened up my chest and poured hot charcoal inside.

I realized I was having a heart attack. Unable to speak or call for help, I crawled to the rope and pulled on it. My friend knew immediately that something was wrong when I did not answer his call. He was quickly in the cave with me.

I was throwing up and the pain in my chest was unbelievable. I was having trouble breathing. Bert knew I would not survive without medical attention. He also feared that if he left, I would not be alive when he got back. Tough situations demand tough decisions—not unlike the hundreds of decisions superintendents across the nation make every day as they do what is in the best interest of children.

Bert left and I was alone. If you receive medical attention within 15 minutes of a heart attack you have a good chance of surviving. I knew that it would be at least four or five hours before anyone could get back to the area. Bert had positioned me so I could see out of the cave and into the forest below. As I tried to enjoy the view, I remembered one line of a poem: “The joy of a raindrop is to return to the river.”

I was passing in and out of consciousness, pouring water on my face to stay awake. If the joy of a raindrop is to return to the river, then the joy of the spirit is to return to the raindrop. Although my chest pain never eased, I felt a tremendous tranquility flow over me. I felt at peace with the reality that I was not going to live. I began to send thoughts and prayers to my family and closest friends. I prepared to die.

Four and a half hours later, EMTs and rescue workers arrived. Eight hours later I reached the hospital, where I was stabilized overnight. The next day I was able to make the ambulance trip back to my hometown.

Triple Shocks

The doctors confirmed that I had a mild heart attack and recommended that a stint be put in place. I was hopeful that although part of my heart was damaged, I would be able to keep up with my profession and the physical activity I enjoyed.

During the operation to insert the stint, everything seemed to go well. I even cracked a few jokes with the doctors. Then I started throwing up blood. An undetected ulcer had suddenly ruptured. I lost four units of blood and went into a state of semi-consciousness. I could hear a woman’s voice in the background repeating over and over, “Stay here Dr. Winkler, don’t leave Dr. Winkler.” I felt two wet, slimy objects on my chest and literally got the ‘”shock of my life.”

I was shocked a second time, then a third. I do not remember the third shock. What I do remember is that I was standing on the other side of the room, looking at doctors and nurses around a table frantically working on a body. I watched the body rise as it was shocked. I watched the body arch and fall back to the table. Suddenly everything went black. All I can remember after that is fighting hard not to be pulled into a large black tunnel.

I remained in a coma for three days and my son said that when I woke up I looked up at the doctor and said, “That was a shocking experience.” I don’t remember that bit of humor but I think it’s a vital part of my resilience.

When I left the hospital 10 days later on a bright sunny day, I saw a beautiful butterfly. I was already beginning to live my life differently and to appreciate life with a greater sense of peace and gratitude. I would be able to spend time with my family and friends. I would be able to continue in a profession that I love.

Our resilience is measured by how we react and respond to events in our lives. If we are able to grow from those events that put obstacles in our way, we are closer to re-establishing our balance.

I have been fortunate in that I was able to continue climbing. In fact, I have climbed the Tetons in Wyoming and Mount Rainier in Washington since the heart attack. What I learned from my circles being out of balance and from practicing the balancing on a daily basis has been the key to survival for me.

That beautiful butterfly opened my eyes and I hope sharing with others about the circles of life and the rules of climbing will open eyes for others before it is too late.

Applying the Rules

There are three rules of climbing that fit almost any leadership situation. The first rule of climbing is “If this does not kill me, I am sure it will make me a better person.” We have all faced situations for which this rule applies.

I remember the Confederate flag issue being raised during a school board meeting. We were picketed both inside and outside the building because of the decision I had made to prohibit displaying the flag on school property. It was like one of those times stuck on the side of the mountain, legs shaking, thinking I am going to fall. I had to find points of balance.

We listened to the issues from the pro-Confederacy group picketing the meeting, and I offered to meet with them to see if we could reach a win-win conclusion. As it turns out, we met for five or six follow-up visits. The group had some interesting information about the history of the flag and the culture of the time. They shared the history of the times that went beyond the Confederate flag. This created a balance.

The second rule of climbing is a step more serious: “I don’t care if I grow from this situation, just let me live.” I once found myself in a situation in which the board membership had changed over the years to a point that the board and I differed markedly in our values. In an effort to resolve our differences, I invited a colleague to work with us on conflict resolution. After our sessions, the best advice he could give was that I get out of there. Maybe I would have grown if I had stayed, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to get out of there and go where I could practice my profession.

The third rule of climbing, and the hardest to digest, is this: “You die, we split your gear!” While climbing with a friend in the Alps, I lost my balance and slipped off a ridge in some icy snow. As I went over the edge, I reached back and slammed the ice pick into the snow. I hit pretty hard and it yanked the handle of the ice pick out of my hand. I continued to fall with the ice pick attached to my wrist. There I was, hanging with an ice pick and a dislocated shoulder. My friend leaned over and shouted, “You die and I get all your gear!” In the face of danger, there was humor.

The truth is this: School districts need effective leaders. If we allow the challenges of the superintendency to “kill” us, someone will simply pick up our Palm Pilot, keep the appropriate addresses and delete the rest, pick up where we left off on our Franklin planners and move right on.

Restoring Balance

Part of resilience is taking responsibility for the things we do wrong and the things we do right. I was fully responsible for my heart attack with the stress I had placed on my body for many years. Yes, there were some genetics that contributed to the heart attack, but I was responsible for not working at balancing my life. I did not listen to the whispers of the universe, our Creator, our ancestors—all who are there for us if we can hear them. We can only hear if we are quiet and listen.

The pressures placed on us and those we place on ourselves can pull us out of balance. People come at us with their own scripts in life, their own scars and their own issues. We find ourselves living not by our values and beliefs, but by those of others.

I have grown to understand balance as knowing my values and beliefs and being able to peacefully get outside, feel my own balance, climb with that sense of confidence and see clearly despite all that is going on around me.

I learned the meaning of the four circles of balance and the depth of the rules of climbing after the heart attack. But I don’t think you have to go through a traumatic and tragic experience to live a more resilient and peaceful life. Climbing, like leadership, can be safe and enjoyed for a lifetime if practiced with the safety and caution that is also a part of taking a risk.

Harold Winkler is superintendent of Cabarrus County Schools, P.O. Box 388, Concord, NC 28026. E-mail: winkler@cabarrus.k12.nc.us