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What It Means To Be a Spiritual Leader

A superintendent sees special moments in day-to-day operations by FREDERICK J. STOKLEY

Defining spirituality is a challenge. In ancient writings, human beings are seen as simultaneously mystifying and transparent, good and evil, sinful and redeemable. A passage in Antigone speaks to the capacity of humans to attract and repel “much there is that is strange, but none stranger than man.”

While admitting that spirituality is mysterious and defies succinct definition, we know it is distinct from religion and forms the context or basis for religious belief to arise.

Every religion has its philosophy, its particular understanding of life. The followers of that religion believe in that philosophy and act according to their belief. This is the essence of religion. All religions have these two factors in common—belief in a certain theory or philosophy and actual conduct in accord with that belief.

All of us have a philosophy, some understanding of the world that guides us in our day-to-day lives. We may not adhere to any formal religion or philosophy, but still we possess our own personal understanding of life and the world we live in. Some philosophers call this our “world view.” It is this world view that serves us as the standpoint from which to decide our actions and conduct in society. It is something basic and universal. Is this world view what we refer to as spirituality?

Powerful Encounters
Spiritual experiences can be described as the conscious recognition of a connection that goes beyond our minds or emotions. It's the experience that may leave us without words to describe it. Most of us have experienced this essence of our human life in powerful encounters with nature—from glorious sunsets to the sound of the ocean. Or we may have been deeply moved by a piece of music or by a certain soul-to-soul flow between ourselves and someone else that lifts us beyond the mundane.

In school, the use of music, art, drama and literature with religious themes is permissible if it serves an educational curriculum goal and as long it does not promote a particular religious belief. You can study the significance of a religious holiday or present school concerts of sacred music. It's useful to see how much leeway our courts have given schools in this realm—much more than many of us believe they have.

Harvard Professor Howard Gardner with his multiple intelligences model paved the way for expanding our concept of intelligence. The personal intelligences he outlined included intrapersonal intelligence, which involves knowing and managing one's own feelings, and interpersonal intelligence, which is the ability to understand and get along with others. Gardner has since considered the addition of three new intelligences: a naturalist intelligence, a spiritual intelligence and an existential intelligence. While evidence to support the inclusion of each is varied, Gardner's ideas have much to do with the abilities or capacities that schools could promote.

Religious Schooling
These are challenging times for educators. Outside forces such as state standards, high-stakes testing and the influence of a violence-saturated commercial culture put conflicting pressures on us. Just at the time when a more holistic student-centered approach to learning is needed, it's becoming harder to provide. The school shootings and youth violence that fill the headlines highlight the need to implement an effective social curriculum and programs that reach every young person. For many children today, school may be the only place where they can learn positive social and emotional skills and experience a sense of connection to a larger community.

Going in this direction means moving into our hearts too. As we look within and examine ourselves, we will be better able to take care of the whole of every child we work with, to use our own empathy and compassion for children, to dissolve the barriers between heart and intellect, and to help them develop their spirit as well as their minds.

My first superintendency in a public school district was in Waltham, Mass., starting in 1971 after I completed my doctoral studies at Harvard. Before moving to Cambridge, Mass., for my two-year residency, I had been a principal and teacher at Catholic high schools in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., as a Christian brother in the teaching congregation founded by John Baptist de La Salle in 1680.

Although I found differences between the public school and Catholic school settings, I was surprised to find how similar they were. Certainly there was no study of the Catholic faith or participation in religious practices in public schools. What was similar was a ministerial approach toward and reverence for the young. Both systems’ missions focused on the young learner. I found in working with public school administrators and teachers a dedication and commitment similar to what I experienced in Catholic schools.

In my view, this common ground had a spiritual basis. Consequently, the move from a religious school culture to a public one was much easier than I had anticipated. Conversations about learning, curriculum and school operations with peers and staff were similar. Concerns about individual students, grading, discipline and the myriad issues involved with educating the young were no different. Importantly, caring about the welfare and development of young learners was much the same. This deep commitment in both settings, I believe, found its source in that human trait we call “spirituality.”

Defining Relationships
In my view, to be a spiritual leader requires us to be at peace with ourselves. This can come about through personal experiences. Feedback from others may tell us how we are coming across and affecting others in our relationships. For more than 30 years, I have been a trainer with the National Training Labs, based in Bethel, Maine, and Alexandria, Va., where I and other behavioral scientists annually spend a week or two at retreat locations.

These human interaction laboratories introduce people to group dynamics and interpersonal relations using experiential methods and theoretical frameworks. Trainers and participants can increase their understanding of themselves as individuals, increase their understanding of their own and others’ interpersonal styles, and learn about the nature of groups as living systems and the role of individuals within those systems. Participants improve their capacity to relate effectively to others and appreciate the richness that individual differences add to personal relationships.

Spiritual leaders must feel free to be themselves and have confidence in talking about themselves, especially talking about those areas known to one’s self and not known to others. The content of these self-revelations vary and depend much on the physical setting and with whom the conversation is taking place. My own experience with taking some risks in this area and confiding in others, for the most part, has proven beneficial and has moved my relationship with others to be more trustful and open.

The spiritual leader must view those with whom he or she works in a positive light and not be judgmental or critical unless there is sufficient cause. This approach is empowering and builds confidence in others.

I feel strongly that those characteristics that define relationships between the teacher and student should also define the relationships between the principal and teacher, principal and central-office staff, superintendent and staff and superintendent and school board. We know the learning taking place in classrooms is proportional to the level of trust and respect that exists between teachers and students.

We want students to feel safe, to take risks, to explore, to ask questions, to feel sufficiently free to converse with the teacher, to be engaged in meaningful projects, and look forward to coming to school each day. For students to feel ownership for what happens in their classrooms and to feel they can influence what is taking place requires a relationship between the teacher and student to be one of mutual respect.

These same characteristics—openness, mutual respect, trust, and freedom to be oneself—define the characteristics that should exist in all the relationships in a school and school district. When this culture exists, a spiritual dimension can exist.

Spiritual Moments
As a superintendent overseeing day-to-day operations of a school district, I believe the spiritual dimension enters when problems arise that have a strong impact on individuals. The issue could involve a parent, teacher, student, administrator, staff member or anyone involved directly or indirectly with the schools. When someone reaches you on the telephone or comes to your office to discuss an issue of great concern, you may be required to drop whatever you are doing and give the concerned individual your full attention. A clear understanding of what is being said requires careful listening and communicating a sense of care and empathy. You want the concerned person to feel heard and understood.

To some extent, this is therapeutic and could be described as “reflective listening” as defined by the noted psychologist Carl Rodgers. When the person ends the conversation and believes something will happen in response to the concerns expressed, this could be considered a spiritual moment.

In conducting meetings, the tone or climate approaches a spiritual dimension when those attending feel free to safely express their views and when all make an effort to listen and respect what is being stated. Most often decisions will be made by consensus and not by voting or the arbitrariness of the leader. Participants at the meeting will feel ownership when they, similar to students in the classroom, have an opportunity to influence decisions.

The spiritual leader sees the complex system or organization as being horizontal—that is, despite disparate titles and compensation levels, he or she sees others as equals working together in a learning community with a clear and common purpose. The very mission of the schools, which is to educate the young, also inclines most educators to be spiritual.

Some school experiences that might be considered spiritual are:

* Inspiring a student to voluntarily assist those in need, such as the elderly or disabled;

* Comforting the student who recently has lost a close friend or relative;

* Encouraging students to visit an infirm classmate at home or in the hospital;

* Attending wakes, memorials and funeral services of colleagues, parents and students;

* Giving heartfelt sendoffs to those who are leaving for new positions or retiring;

* Collecting and distributing food for those less privileged;

* Voluntarily working in food kitchens; and

* Accepting the differences of others based on sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, physical stature, social and economic status, gender and so forth.

Fragmented Lives
Our pragmatic orientation places a premium on technical logic. Our tendency to specialize and compartmentalize leads us to dichotomize work and play, male and female, career and family, thinking and feeling, reason and spirit. We relegate spirituality to churches, temples and mosques for those who still attend them. We shun it at work. A recent study of spirituality in the workplace, published in The Great Writings in Management and Organizational Behavior, concluded that “people do not want to compartmentalize or fragment their lives.”

The search for meaning, purpose, wholeness and integration is a constant, never-ending task. To confine this search to one day a week or after hours violates people’s basic sense of integrity of being whole persons. In short, spirituality is not something one leaves at home.

Leadership is a relationship rooted in belonging to a community. Leaders embody their group’s most precious values and beliefs. Their ability to lead emerges from the strength and sustenance of those around them. It persists and deepens as they learn to use life’s wounds to discover their own spiritual centers. As they conquer the demons within, they achieve the inner peace and bedrock confidence that enables them to inspire others.

Leading is giving. It is serving. Leadership is an ethic—a gift of oneself to a common cause, a higher calling. The essence of leadership is not giving things or even providing visions. It is offering oneself and one’s spirit. Leaders cannot give what they do not have or lead to places they have never been. When they try, they breed disappointment and cynicism. When their gifts are genuine and the spirit is right, their giving transforms a school or school district from a mere place of work to a shared way of life.

Fred Stokley recently retired as superintendent of the Ridgewood Village, N.J., School District. He can be reached at 120 Central Park South, #2B-C, New York, NY 10019. E-mail: FJStokley@aol.com

Additional Readings

Fred Stokley suggests the following books related to this subject:

The Heart of Learning: Spirituality in Education, by Steven Glazer, Tarcher/Putnam, New York, N.Y.

Schools With Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, ed. by Linda Lantieri, Beacon Press, Boston, Mass.

Education and the Soul: Towards a Spiritual Curriculum, by John. P. Miller, SUNY Press, New York, N.Y.

To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, by Parker J. Palmer, Harper, San Francisco, Calif.

Spiritual Intelligence: The Ultimate Intelligence, by Dana Zohar and Ian Marshal, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, England