“The new reality requires all leaders to have unprecedented presence of mind as a starting point from which to lead.” Maria Gonzalez, Mindful Leadership: The 9 Ways to Self-Awareness, Transforming Yourself, and Inspiring OthersHaving presence of mind in the midst of crisis and trouble is vital to leaders whether inside or outside education. To understand how vital, we only need look backward to great leaders who demonstrated great presence of mind in the midst of calamity and trial. From George Washington to Winston Churchill to Mahatma Gandhi, we have countless examples of individuals who demonstrated this powerful presence of mind necessary for successful leadership.
Maria Gonzales, author of Mindful Leadership: The 9 Ways of Self-Awareness, Transforming Yourself, and Inspiring Others, offers leaders A List of "Abilities of Mind" important for successful leadership development. Taking her list and applying specifically to educational leadership, can bring both authenticity and presence to our school and district leadership positions and with it the success we desire for ourselves and our organizations. These abilities include the following.
1. The ability to calm yourself in the face of stress or difficult decisions. If you have been in educational leadership very long, you know difficult decisions are common-place. The situations requiring these kinds of decisions come at multiple times of day, and being able to project presence of mind to those around us is vital to success. We must have the ability to self-calm in the face of adversity and often emotionally charged situations. If we project anger in a tense situation with a parent or student, escalation of conflict will naturally result. If we act from panic, those around us panic. Effective school leadership demands that we are able to calm ourselves and then act with deliberateness and decisiveness. Acting from intense emotion or stress is interpreted by others as weakness, and educational leaders with the ability to calm themselves are seen as strong and worthy of followership.
2. The ability to understand what’s going on within yourself and how you perceive reality and the business reality. Being in touch with our "inner selves" is not some gimmicky, faddish suggestion only found in books on the self-help aisle at your local bookstore. It is truly an ability needed for successful leadership. Leaders who know what's going on inside themselves also understand that what's inside affects what is outside. They know it is impossible to entirely separate oneself inside from actions taken outside. Also, with this understanding educational leaders know that compartmentalization of our lives into within and without is impossible. In addition to understanding themselves inside, it is equally important for school leaders to be aware of their own perceptions of reality. Not only that, they understand that their perception of reality may be skewed and inaccurate. In addition, understanding that others have their perceptions too means being able to consider other perspectives for better decision-making. Skillful leadership begins by understanding yourself fully on the inside and understanding others too.
3. The ability to be present in the moment and clearly understand what you’re hearing or reading instead of being caught up in regretting or reliving the past of fearing and catastrophizing the future. School leadership requires being present in the moment because that is where everything is happening. While that sounds simplistic and most would consider it a given, in practice, many times school leaders are caught up in living in a past of regrets and glories rather than being in the moment. To be in the moment means reading and seeing what's happening now without judgment. It means letting go of the past. Being present means we are dealing with issues now, not fighting ghosts of the past. It also means engaging in leadership that focuses on now, not daydreaming of the future or dwelling on mistakes of the past. Leaders who demonstrate the ability to be fully present communicate to others that they are on the job and taking care of things.
4. The ability to imagine a life that is positive and fulfilling and to set in motion positive outcomes in your life and business. The ability to imagine life that is positive and fulfilling means being able to develop a vision for both our personal future and the future of our school or district. This ability means being able to imagine a successful personal life, and also imagine a school where all kids learn and all staff are compassionate and perform at a high level. It is from the perspective of vision and imagination that we set in motion action that makes positive outcomes happen. Imagining the positive future is a vital school leadership ability in an age where constant negativity about schools surrounds us.
5. The ability to know that all things pass and nothing is forever, whether it’s good or bad. The ability to know that all things are impermanent is a vital school leadership skill too. Impermanence means lots of things to leaders. It means our mistakes are OK. It means we don't have to keep replaying in our minds the bad decisions we've made in the past. It means we can take risks which is the currency of innovation. Knowing that all things pass means we can be assertive school leaders who can act creatively and innovatively in our positions.
Our new reality in our schools and school districts requires a presence of mind more than any other in the history of public education. Forces surround us, some benevolent, who want to see public education blossom and grow, some malevolent, who want to see public education dismantled and cast aside. In the midst of these forces, along with the rapid changes in society, policy and global connectivity, school leaders need “presence of mind” more than ever. Gonzalez’s List of Abilities of Mind can bring that presence and make us successful school leaders in a sea of change.