A Way to Engage, Not Escape

By understanding and respecting our connections, we can welcome life’s uncertainties by ROGER SODER

In a time when educational leaders are told to focus on numbers-driven, outcome-based, bottom-line accountability, the idea of spirituality in leadership can seem quaint, irrelevant and downright squishy. What possible use can spirituality have for leaders, other than perhaps to serve as a brief and unreal respite from the rough-and-tumble world?

Respite might well be enough, given the harshness of that world, and we might want to consider the claims and implications of spirituality for no other reason. But welcome respite should not obscure a curious aspect of spirituality. A closer look reveals something more, something paradoxical: Spirituality is critical not as a way to escape but as a way to engage. Joining spirituality to leadership is a pragmatic, down-to-earth way to engage ourselves intelligently, effectively and ethically.

To join in that closer look, we first must provide some sense of what we mean by spirituality. Because of my natural bent and lack of training, I am unable to put forth strict definitions that would satisfy philosophers or theologians. Rather I approach spirituality by more mundane means, drawing on the observations, experiences and, if I may, the wisdom of people across time and across cultures.

Sometimes we can learn about spirituality not from people but from animals and how people respond to animals. I learned something about spirituality on a cold gray Seattle afternoon five years ago, on my way across the University of Washington campus to the library. Approaching the main quad, I saw a crowd had gathered; several hundred people were looking at something atop a three-story campus building. There amongst the gargoyles and busts of scholars long past was a snowy owl. Ignoring the crows that were dive-bombing it from time to time, the owl was, well, just there, silent, unmoving—as were we, just there, just taking in the sight of this magnificent creature.

Newcomers on the scene would see the crowd gazing at something, would follow the line of sight, see the owl and, through silence or a quiet “wow” would show their own sense of wonder. From person to person we passed on what little was known. I found out later that it had been many decades since a snowy owl was sighted this far south. Climate change and scarcity of food on the Arctic tundra had pushed this bird many hundreds of miles from its normal home. Here the owl was, in the middle of a large urban research university. In the presence of the bird, in that pausing and silence, we had a dim reminder of connections between humans, other animals and the earth, our only home.

Spirituality has something to do with understanding and respecting those connections. As the old saying goes: We can’t put it together; it is together.

Understanding the Whole
Everything is connected. Everything exists in relation to everything else. What we need to understand is what those connections actually mean. To say “It’s us over other peoples; it’s us over the animals; it’s us against the environment” is a way of talking about connections. But that way of talking is wrong ethically and ecologically and it is wrong in fact. The earth and everything on it do not exist at the behest and bidding of humankind. What we need is an understanding of the balanced and modest role human beings play in relation to everything else.

Spirituality, then, involves an understanding of connections between humans, other animals and the environment—an understanding that puts humankind as a small part of the whole, despite our apparent immense power over the environment. It is an understanding that emphasizes a long-term time perspective because only with a view of tens of thousands of years and beyond can we hope to understand the real impact of our actions. Finally, spirituality suggests an understanding that we don’t understand everything, which means we must learn to tread carefully; we must learn to be more tentative, gentle, modest and cautious.

Much of what I am suggesting here as the basis of spirituality is rejected by many leaders. The very terms I am using seem contrary to notions of power, control, assertiveness, ambition, profit-and-loss statements and other images of leadership. Can we seriously expect a candidate for the superintendency to talk to a board of directors about the need to be tentative, gentle, modest and cautious? But before we reject spirituality out of hand, let us consider what happens when the virtues and habits of mind of spirituality are absent in our daily lives as leaders.

When we don’t understand gentleness and modesty as a part of spirituality, we become too sure of ourselves. We develop a wrong, arrogant and perilous sense of power over other people and other things. We assume we are in charge and that all is for our benefit and, with that assumption, we are little better off than Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice in “Fantasia,” with about as much sense and about as much chance of survival.

Assuming that we know it all, or at least know enough to lord it over everything else, we end up on dangerous ground. Part of that dangerous ground involves social engineering on a massive scale. Consider the historical fact that it was arrogant self-confidence that brooked no opposition that led Bolshevik leaders to embark on terror and genocide with the slogan, “We shall drive mankind to happiness by force.”

In our own time in our own organizations, we do not see terror and genocide as change strategies, but often in our own moments of supreme self-confidence we claim to understand the needs of people better than they themselves. We will drive humankind to the happiness we know they need, not with terror but with workshops facilitated by outside change agent consultants who, with happy-face smiles, will assure the weary poor dears that although change is, yes, we know, threatening, we will all be the better for it.

With the arrogance of assuming we know it all and assuming that all the resources out there are predestined for our personal use, we experience a rootless ambition and a corresponding rootless dissatisfaction. “I would annex the universe if I could,” said British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, and there are many today who would like to do the same. Likewise, it is the legend of Faust that lingers in a dim recess of our mind: If you can satisfy me, you can have my soul. But the more we have (in the way of what we think of as power or resources), the more we want. We are like the birthday child who opens the last of the presents only to look around and ask, “Is that all?”

Lack of spirituality in leadership also leads us to act from a short-term time perspective. We are in a rush because others want things done now, and because we have convinced ourselves, in our self-importance, that if we don’t make it happen now it never will. The pressure for now, this very moment, pushes us to get things done immediately without necessarily considering implications. “Just do it” is the order of the day.

This focus on the immediate, the now, today’s payoff, is a dangerous business. As nicely shown by Stewart Brand in his 1999 book, The Clock of the Long Now, a short-term time perspective is dangerous because it narrows our understanding of connections and narrows the alternatives we might consider. With a focus on the short-term, we often make bad decisions. We ride backwards on a train, never seeing anything until it has passed us by.

Moreover, the focus on the now casts shadows on our relationships with others. In our haste to get on with it, we ignore or dismiss as “unsupportive” those people who might be trying to give us vital information about the reefs and shoals looming ahead. And in our haste, we sometimes treat people shabbily; we treat them as instruments to “just make it happen.”

Other dangerous fallacies are thinking we are the center, acting with arrogant self-confidence because we assume we know it all, and going for the short-term gain (which might be a loss in the long run). These shortcomings are consequences of ignoring spirituality, of ignoring connections, of being unwilling to be a modest small part of the whole.

Job’s Example
We would be better off as leaders, as human beings, if we were to take a cue from the Book of Job. There are many ways to interpret this complex part of the Bible. One way is this: Here is Job, wealthy, owner of all those cattle and those goodies, smug, self-centered. He knows it all, except one critical thing. He doesn’t understand connections. Near the conclusion of the tale, God poses for Job a thundering series of questions—Was Job there when God laid the foundations of the earth? Can Job tell when animals will give birth? Did Job set the stars in motion?—all pointing to Job’s lack of understanding. Job begins to act with a new spirituality as well as a new understanding of connections, the dangers of pride and the importance of modesty.

When spirituality becomes part of our leadership, we can begin to move in better ways. If the ancient wisdom of the Chinese classical text Tao Te Ching teaches us that “On tiptoe, your stance is unsteady,” that same wisdom also teaches us that we gain much more by becoming more centered, more grounded, with a better center of gravity.

With spirituality, we can slow down a bit, take a longer view, take a more modest view of ourselves and our circumstances. A longer time perspective will allow us to weigh and consider, to be more thoughtful, to reflect on connections and consequences. Our decisions will not be perfect (however defined), but they will most likely be better—better for ourselves, our community and our environment. By being less sure of ourselves, less full of ourselves, we will give ourselves the opportunity to listen more and learn better.

Direct Involvement
Spirituality is not some magic way of getting out of trouble or pretending that troubles do not exist. Spirituality is a view, a perspective, a way of engaging.

And engage we must. Do we want wise citizens behaving wisely in a free society and a healthy earth? Then we are going to teach them about wisdom and freedom and connections because nobody is born knowing about these things. But getting the necessary support to address such matters is difficult. It is a rough-and-tumble world. Resources are scarce and are easily turned to efforts and diversions other than schools. And even those resources within schools are hard to come by.

In a time of acquiescence to state political and bureaucratic demands for nothing but continuous testing of basic skills acquisition, it is difficult to teach about wisdom and freedom and connections. To secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and posterity and to do so in wise ways means, like it or not, a direct involvement in the world, a direct involvement in politics.

How specifically we become involved in politics and how we conduct ourselves depends in part on the situation. An ancient Buddhist text reminds us: “When you meet a swordsman, draw your sword; do not recite poetry to one who is not a poet.” And in our own time we must sometimes return fire with something close to more of the same if we don’t want to get run over. However, and it is a very large however here, involvement and conduct depend on more than the situation. Our actions must be guided, in the end, by the spirituality that will remind ourselves of relationships, connections, not being too sure of ourselves.

James Boyd White, professor of law and English at the University of Michigan, puts it this way: “Our most practical end is never definable in terms of material results but always and only in terms of a certain kind of community: a way of facing the uncertainties of life together.”

Spirituality can help us accept and even welcome those uncertainties as we engage the world and face together the challenges of school leadership.

Roger Soder is a research professor of education and co-founder of the Center for Educational Renewal, Box 353600, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195. E-mail: rsoder@u.washington.edu. He is the author of The Language of Leadership.

Additional Reading

Roger Soder has the following suggestions for reading on this topic:

The Immense Journey by Loren C. Eiseley, Random House, New York, N.Y.

Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership, translated by Thomas Cleary, Shambhala Publications, Boston, Mass.

Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings, by Matsuo Basho, translated by Sam Hamill, Shambhala Publications, Boston, Mass.