The Highest Form of Leadership

How we can help tomorrow’s leaders catch the spirit by JOHN R. HOYLE

Herman Smith, superintendent of the Bryan, Texas, schools, has sought spiritual guidance since his boyhood. After 25 years in education, including three superintendencies, he was reminded about the spiritual side of his role as superintendent by a minister who conducted his mother’s funeral not long ago.

When asked by the minister how he liked his job as superintendent, Smith responded that he enjoyed his role in spite of the many demands and pressures. The minister then told him: “Never forget that you are a spiritual servant in your role as superintendent. You can have as much or more positive impact on the spiritual lives of others as those of us in the clergy.”

Smith takes the minister’s message to heart. Each morning before arriving at his office, he seeks guidance from a higher source to be positive throughout the day. This time of searching for spiritual strength enables him to face difficult personnel, budget and community problems with a positive resolve to seek the spiritual best in people and the complex issues before him.

Likewise, Scott Peck in his book Further Along the Road Less Traveled writes: “The founders of every major religion in the world supplied basic truths as signposts for our spiritual journey.” These signposts provide school leaders with reminders about the way to treat and serve others each day and moment.

Beyond Knowledge
The role of school system leader calls for a power greater than mere human knowledge and experience. The spiritual and administrative sides are of equal importance when guiding a school system dedicated to helping each student become a successful, ethical individual.

Not only religious leaders have recognized the need for people to display spiritual leadership in their daily lives. People from other walks of life including psychologists and biologists have recognized the need for vital connection between leadership, spiritual values and the well-being of ourselves and our communities.

Without a spiritual side, a leader lacks depth in understanding human motives and can destroy organizations and innocent lives. Psychologist Thomas Moore writes in his book Care of the Soul: “In spirituality, we reach for consciousness, awareness and the highest values. … This spiritual point of view is necessary for the soul, providing the breadth of vision, the inspiration and the sense of meaning it needs.”

American biologist Edward O. Wilson explores the evolutionary origin of moral and religious beliefs and describes the human need to search for our spiritual past beyond mere existence. Wilson believes all people seek the spiritual essence of their origin. “People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of a larger purpose, in one form or other, however intellectualized,” he asserted. Leadership devoid of a sense of this sacred spiritual narrative leads to narcissistic behaviors of greed, control and amorality.

Gifted leaders today recognize that the functions and strategies of leadership fall short without the spiritual side. Leaders of America’s school systems know about the power of servant leadership in creating successful schools. The empowerment of staff, teachers and students and the practices of site-based decision making and academic teaming are widespread. Collaboration and caregiving are the lexicon of university professors and corporate managers who wish to emphasize bottom-up rather than top-down leadership.

If the literature and best practices espouse inclusive, student and worker centeredness, then why are line-and-staff organizational charts the operating model for 95 percent of our school districts, universities, state departments of education, corporations and government agencies? Is the line-and-staff model used to ensure an organization’s task efficiency or is it a mending wall to separate management from the workers? The organizational chart does not close the door to the spiritual side of leadership, but it clearly suggests which doors you should open in the organization.

A Forceful Spirit
System administrators can be spiritual leaders and take charge of a given problem. In truth, sometimes assertive and forceful leadership is the only strategy for school leaders. When students are not learning, teachers are not teaching, administrators are not administering and support staff are not supporting, the superintendent and other administrators must take charge and create changes in attitude, performance and, if needed, personnel.

Spiritual leaders cannot allow children and youth to fail nor can they stand idly by and ignore incompetence. The leader is responsible for inspiring staff, teachers and community to do what is right for each child. To ignore children failing and blaming it on the child’s background or family is spiritless.

Spiritless leadership abounds in for-profit health management organizations, limited retirement options for the elderly, inadequate programs to reduce poverty and frequent political takeovers in urban education. Why has Wall Street questioned the accounting practices of the Edison Schools, a for-profit company? According to Education Week, the Federal Trade Commission announced that Edison had “failed to disclose that money it reported as revenue had never actually passed through its hands.” Where was spiritual leadership in the fall of Enron and Arthur Andersen? Why were 4,000 employees fired and exorbitant bonuses given to selected Enron executives?

Leadership without spirit promotes schools with low teacher morale, disturbing numbers of school dropouts, unethical student accountability reporting, school violence and alarming failure rates. Why has spiritual leadership been silent while incarceration rates escalate among African American and Latinos in our prisons and when the deplorable condition of many nursing homes diminishes the dignity of our confined elderly? These broken lives and organizational breakdowns are often the result of spiritless leadership.

Spiritual writer Charles Swindoll warns us about self-centered, winsome charlatans who claim to be servant leaders to others. Wall Street, the clergy, corporations, education, military, politics and other professions have scars inflicted by wolves in servants’ clothing. These corrupt insider traders, self-centered TV evangelists, unethical CEOs in business and education and bought politicians fake their service vision to take advantage of vulnerable people and make it more difficult for authentic servant leaders. Spiritual leading is encouraging others to seek the highest vision, reach for the finest human endeavors and serve before being served.

Teaching Spirit
The spiritual side of leadership can be taught and caught. The risk is much greater in claiming to teach morals or spirituality to anyone—it is much easier to teach standards and test them than to teach the spiritual and test it. With that caveat, I offer the following suggestions for making spiritual leadership part of the curriculum for the preparation and nurturing of school system leaders. In this endeavor, I advocate that discussion extend beyond university courses for aspiring school system leaders, but also to the professional development of practicing school system leaders.

* Conduct spiritual discussions. How should spiritual leadership be taught? “Spiritual leadership is not something you teach by writing spiritual principles on the white board; it is much deeper than that,” Steve Shidemantle, my research assistant, said. “Ethical and moral dilemmas should be presented to class members and the professor. Small conversation groups could then consider alternative solutions or actions and present them to the entire on-site or distance class for general discussion.”

Shidemantle and I agreed these solutions could be aligned with the “true-north” principles outlined by Stephen Covey and the core values identified by Robert Kidder and embraced by most people around the world: honesty, fairness, compassion, respect and responsibility. In addition, the five AASA skills for ethical leadership can be general benchmarks for investigating and learning spiritual leadership. The AASA skills are as follows:

* Demonstrate ethical and personal integrity;

* Model accepted moral and ethical standards in all interactions;

* Promote democracy through public education;

* Exhibit multicultural and ethnic understanding and sensitivity; and

* Implement a strategy to promote respect for diversity.

To examine each skill listed above, educators could select articles centered on each skill from magazines, newspapers or the Web about corporate, medical, religious or educational corruption calling for reflection and how the spiritual side was missing in the process that perhaps led to the scandal.

* Create the spiritual self. Organizational theorist Richard Boyatzis at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, writes: “Great leaders move us. They do it through establishing a resonance with those around them. Boyatzis tells his graduate students to develop a vision of the ideal person they wish to be, to develop a learning agenda that focuses on new personal habits of mind to try and to use class partners to help them identify the missing parts in their quest for spiritual resonance with others.

* Assign books on spiritual leadership. A powerful way to teach spiritual leadership behaviors and thinking is to debate the spiritual leadership concepts developed by gifted writers. (See book list below.)

These books, along with sharing stories of great spiritual leaders in history, can inspire current and future school leaders to use spiritual leadership. Psychologist Thomas Moore sums up the power of spiritual leadership with these words: “Taking an interest in the soul is a way of loving it. The ultimate cure, as many ancient and modern psychologies of depth have asserted, comes from love and not logic.”

The spiritual journey to become triumphant school system administrators is difficult when the path seems to be uphill. Great leadership is never easy. Early in World War II when the survival of the British Empire was in doubt, Winston Churchill was asked, “What is our aim?” He replied, “I can answer in one word: Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of terror. Victory however long and hard the road may be.”

The road to victory in American education will be won by gifted, well-prepared system administrators who lead with both head and heart to ensure that every child—black, white, brown, rich or poor—will find success and happiness in his or her life.

John Hoyle is a professor of educational administration at Texas A&M University, College of Education, College Station, TX 77843. E-mail: jhoyle@tamu.edu. He is the author of Leadership and the Force of Love: Six Keys to Motivating with Love.