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Why Spirituality, and Why Now?

Beyond thinking and acting, AASA’s leader offers rationale for a third key dimension by PAUL D. HOUSTON

Several years ago I started injecting the issue of spirituality into my speeches to members—public school system leaders. I did so with some trepidation. After all, we are very concerned in our business about the separation of church and state. Besides, some might wonder what spirituality had to do with educational leadership.
First, the separation issue is important. It is clear to me (even if it is not clear to the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court) that it is inappropriate for the government to use its power and resources to establish religion. However, religion is specific and spirituality is generic.

The metaphor I would use is one of pipes, which come in many kinds—large, small, plastic, copper, round, oblong and so forth. Pipes, like religions, come in all forms. You choose the pipe that best suits your needs. Yet what flows through the pipe is essentially the same thing whether you are a Buddhist or a Baptist. Religion gives us a rubric for working with the deity, while spirituality is the energy that connects us to the deity.

Second, as I talked with school leaders across the country, I heard them profess a longing for meaning and comfort. Our jobs are difficult and draining. They sap our physical and moral energy. We must replenish our supply. One way to do so requires we go inside ourselves and find that part within us that is more than flesh and bones. I have pointed out that the work we do is more of a calling and a mission than a job—what Cornel West once described as “soul craft.”

It is difficult to reconcile the work of leaders as strictly management when so much of it deals with the aspirations and dreams of people, when so much of it affirms or denies their very essence. When you mess with folks’ lives, you’d best be aware of the spiritual nature of what you are doing because at the core of our humanity is that golden cord of connection to the infinite.

All leaders must be attuned to the third dimension beyond thinking and doing—to what it is to “be” a human in touch with the divine. But educational leaders, because of their responsibility for the future through touching the lives of children, have an even greater obligation.


Thirsting for Purpose
For this reason, I began talking about the spiritual nature of educators’ work. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the controversy I anticipated. Rather than creating protest, this became the one part of what I was saying that prompted the most followup and support. Clearly, a hunger in our midst exists for finding our deeper purpose and for conducting our work in a more enlightened manner.

So when Jay Goldman, the editor of The School Administrator, asked me what we should do as a theme issue, I immediately replied, “Let’s do something on leadership and spirituality.” He gulped hard but responded affirmatively and here it is. Jay has solicited views from a wide range of people. While the writers do not always agree with each other on the subject, you are about to be treated to a journey of discovery as thoughtful people grapple with what to say on the subject of spirituality and leadership. What they do agree on is that it is an important topic and one worth every leader worrying about.

Thriving on Chaos
The first article is by internationally acclaimed author and speaker Deepak Chopra, who points out that leaders are the symbolic soul of the groups they lead and that great leaders respond from the higher levels of spirit. Importantly, Chopra points out that in our chaotic environment, it is leaders who thrive on the chaos because they understand the underlying spiritual order.

Chopra reminds us that leadership is the most critical choice one can make because it is a choice to “step out of the darkness” and that only one who can find wisdom in the midst of chaos will be remembered as a leader.

Michael Fullan grapples with the issue of spiritual leadership and comes to agree with Webster’s that spirituality is about a “life-giving force.” Fullan is most interested in helping leaders connect to the bigger picture, which is where true leadership occurs. And leadership is about what happens on the ground in organizations. True spiritual leaders are lofty but lowly at the same time. They tie the infinite and sublime together. And most of all, they get the right things done.

Professor John Hoyle, who has written about leadership and love, but who also was one of the authors of AASA’s Standards for the Superintendency is able to connect the higher issues with the very practical challenges of the workaday superintendent. He points out that without a sense of spiritual awareness, leaders lack an understanding of human motives. All of us need a sacred narrative that gives us a sense of larger purpose. Without that, we risk becoming narcissistic and selfish. Hoyle goes on to demonstrate that issues like achievement and morale stem from these higher places.

Rachael Kessler, who wrote The Soul of Education: Helping Students Find Connection, Compassion and Character in Schools, demonstrates that good leaders create community through personalizing, pacing, giving permission and providing protection. She even goes so far as to declare that “grace” is an ingredient of good leadership. One is tempted to point out that amazing leaders show amazing grace. As I myself have suggested, solid leaders are both effective—they make a difference in their organization—and affective—they make a difference in the lives around them.

Roger Soder makes the case that spiritual leadership is about making connections and about the way we engage others in our lives and in our work. He asserts that all things are connected and that coercion will fail as a leadership tool. He quotes the Bolshevik leaders who embarked on a reign of terror and genocide with the motto: “We will drive mankind to happiness by force.” That reminded me of many of our reform mandates that are attempting to punish people into excellence. Not only is that approach lacking in spiritual grace, it is just plain ineffective.

Defining Enlightened Leadership
My friend Steven Sokolow, a longtime superintendent, summarizes some of the work he and I are doing together on the issue of enlightened leaders. Steve and I are working on a series of books on the subject. He reminds us that we do the work we do because it is at the core of who we are. That is both the gift and the curse of educational leaders. Our work has such meaning, yet it is hard to separate from our essence.

Sokolow shares our definition of enlightened leaders—they not only know the right things to do and the right way to do them, they also do them for the right reasons. Before you go somewhere you need to know where you are and who you are. There are a number of principles for enlightened leadership and Steven shares several of those with you—intention, attention, gratitude and trust, to name a few.

Jeffrey Solomon and Jeremy Hunter delve into the psychological basis for spiritual leadership. They, too, believe it has much to do with connection, but in their case they argue for the connection to things beyond and within one’s self. They also argue that engagement is central to all this. They give examples of what they are talking about and point out that these leaders possess equanimity and calm, establish genuine connections with those who work with them, provide a safe trusting environment, and live in the moment by de-emphasizing their own ego.

Best-selling author Margaret Wheatley, better known for her work on the connection of leadership and the new science, demonstrates that perhaps it is a short leap from physics to metaphysics. She sees our times of turbulence as the wellspring for spiritual action. She points out chaos can’t be controlled. People want their leaders to stop the chaos, to make things better and to create stability. But in fact, the real role of leaders is to help people move into a “relationship with uncertainty and chaos.”

Wheatley shares some basic wisdom of the times. Among them: life is uncertain, life is cyclical, meaning is what motivates people, service brings joy, and courage comes from the heart.

We end this special effort with words from Fred Stokley, a longtime practicing superintendent. He draws a comparison of our work that I share—it tends to be ministerial. We have to have a reverence for the young and we must be at peace with ourselves if we are to lead others. Since we have an impact on others, we must be sensitive to what we do, who we are and how we go about our business. That is the essence of spiritual leadership.

Ministerial Connection
I have pointed out that our role as leaders bears a much closer connection to ministers than it does to CEOs. Our authority comes not from our position but from the moral authority we are entrusted to carry as we build a future through our children. We get our work done, not through mandate and fiat, but by gathering folks together and persuading them to do what is right. To carry this out requires a higher connection than the direct line to the state department of education or the president of the school board.

Thus we end our little journey through lightly explored territory. What we come back to is that spiritual leaders lead from within—they must know themselves and have a sense of purpose and connection to the infinite. But they live in this world as well and the impact of what they do affects others, and their ultimate goal must be to have an effect that is greater than themselves—and to remember that on this earth God’s work must truly be our own.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.