Education Opinion

Healthy Leadership Requires Healthy Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — March 23, 2017 6 min read
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It is too often the case that the world of a leader becomes encapsulated, limiting thoughts and possibilities. After working for several years in the education environment of a district or school, it becomes easy to assume that the way things are the way they will be. But, lives involve choices and we all have them, even in our most difficult moments. The world must expand in order for perspectives to change and growth to unfold. Yet, in those most difficult moments we tend, at least some of us, to hunker down and to close off. We go into protectionism rather than into the potentially expansive place of vulnerability. We forget the now classic lessons that most of this generation of leaders one read. “The spiritual journey that leaders must take, and inspire others to take, begins with ourselves but not necessarily by ourselves” (Bolman & Deal p. 63).

How does a spiritual journey relate to our professional lives? It takes us to our source and from there clarity follows and strength arises. The journey begins within when we search reflectively to find the inner sources from which we benefit and allow ourselves to feel where we are broken or divided, to find those places or thoughts or feelings that don’t settle easily. This is not a comfortable task as it requires looking into the darker places that we are oft encouraged to hide or ignore. A companion helps, one who can ask open and honest questions and listen well. These gifts can be found in an executive coach, a mentor or friend, a spouse or partner, a close colleague, or a spiritual guide. But the role of an “other” is important. Without that “other” person or persons, it is possible to be imprisoned within one’s own mindset without finding a pathway out and remember we become practiced at avoiding the very spots we might need to examine.


With so much happening in this century, in our work, in our families, and in the world, the attempt to think things through can result in a rolling internal tape that is difficult, if not impossible, to turn off. Thinking through challenges, problems, and strategies is a good thing. Not being able to turn off the internal 24 hour news cycle (the one on the TV and the one in our heads) is most assuredly a stress producer. The belief that thinking about things will provide the best solutions is only partially true. Deciding where to stand is a question we begin investigate very young. It just gets more significant and more complex as we become leaders. Problem solving for much of what we do as leaders requires the thoughts of others. We must possess enough clarity in ourselves to invite others into the problem solving process or we risk having others make the decisions for us. The consequences are ours either way. And for those times when decisions must be ours alone, we must be able to be clear and focused all on our own.


To ignore this part of ourselves is to cut off one of the three essential sources of rejuvenation necessary for the journey toward recharging as human beings and as leaders. Author Greg Levoy writes about the value of the spiritual journey.

Spiritual journeys, like stories, have at their core a central question - as do our lives - and if we understand not even the answers but merely the questions that animate our own journeys, we’ve understood a lot (G.Levoy, p. 150).

For many, talking about spirit is uncomfortable, but it is difficult to imagine thinking about healthy human beings without acknowledging the soul. Some may find comfort, guidance, and renewal from religious practices, memberships in churches, temples and mosques or meditation practices. By soul we do not, however, mean religion. We mean that deepest part of oneself. Parker Palmer describes the soul like this:

... the core human reality that “heart and soul” language points to has been given many names by diverse traditions. Hasidic Jews call it the spark of the divine in every being. Christians may call it spirit, though some (e.g., the Quakers) call it the inner teacher, and Thomas Merton (a Trappist monk) called it true self. Secular humanists call it identity and integrity. Depth psychologists call it the outcome of individuation. And there are common idioms for it in everyday speech, as when we say of someone we know and care about, “He just isn’t himself these days”, or, “She seems to have found herself.”

How does one access the unique spiritual center we call soul? A motivating sliver, a nudge of discomfort is a broken place, a place of loss, aloneness, hurt, and a yearning for something to help us journey out of the dark hole presented by a life event. It can be the voice telling us we are on the wrong road or have taken a wrong turn. It is subtle, quiet but unrelenting. It is easier to explain away by identifying external causes: a difficult board of education member, an employee whose actions require investigation and discipline and maybe arrest and unwanted publicity, a parent who is advocating ceaselessly for one program or another, a student who has attempted suicide or any of the myriad of daily events of the leader’s life. But the truth is all these would be less draining if there was a soulful response from inside. Those challenges are regular occurrences in our field. It is how we meet them that will always make the difference.


The mood benefits of exercise are supported by striking scientific evidence. Exercise can be as powerful as antidepressant medication in treating depression, and, more broadly, regular exercise is linked with decreased anxiety, stress, and hostility (Otto & Smits p.7).

If this is so, then why aren’t we pulled toward exercise? Some might say we are in a cultural fitness craze. Gyms are almost as common as Starbucks. And, for many, the attendance at one or the other is meant to accomplish the same thing, a break from work and a sense of wellness.

Physical activity has scientific backing as an effective counter to stress. The reasons given for not exercising are a reflection of our belief that what is keeping us busy is more important than the need to be clear and healthy while doing our work. It is a question of value and recognition of what is important; getting things done, or being our best selves when doing so.

Anyone who has temporarily lost their health knows, the world stops, everything that was important takes a back seat to the journey back to health. So in addition to being a mind-clearing event, attending to the care and health of our bodies is inextricably connected to the leaders’ responsibility to attend to the body, mind and spirit wellness plan that provides the foundation for healthy leaders and through them healthy leadership.

Bolman ,LG.. and Deal, T.E.(2001). Leading with Soul: An Uncommon Journey of Spirit. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Levoy, G. (1997). Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life. New York: Random House
Otto & Smits (2011). Exercise for Mood and Anxiety. New York: Oxford University Press

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Illustration by johnhain courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.