Education Opinion

Leadership Is a State of Mind

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 17, 2014 4 min read
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We don’t see the world as it is, we see it as we are. - Anaïs Nin

How is it that some people can be facing the most difficult or oppressive situations and can have a hopeful and positive outlook that draws you to them? At age 11 Malala Yousafzai began blogging for the BBC about the Taliban’s threats to deny girls an education. Her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai had founded the school she was attending, so perhaps some of her courage came from him. At the age of 11, she gave a public talk entitled “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education.” In 2012, she was shot in the head by the Taliban. One cannot hear her story without being moved her courage, intelligence, and thoughtfulness, but it is her positive outlook that calls her to mind in this post. She confronted the oppression of being a girl in Pakistan, denied of basic rights, shot for speaking out, and, still, she refused to let that experience stifle her spirit. She shared her state of mind with NPR host Michel Martin in December of 2013:

I don’t feel, really, that something has happened to me. When I think of Malala, I just - in my mind, there’s some pictures in which a girl is lying on a stretcher and her forehead is bleeding, her ear is bleeding. I don’t think that’s me because I am feeling that I’m just a normal girl. And I’m feeling now really powerful and courageous because the prayers of people and the good wishes of people and the cards and the teddy bears that people have sent me made me more powerful. So I’m really happy now. And I don’t feel like - as if I was shot once.

Anderson Cooper’s special “CNN Special Report: The Survivor Diaries” chronicles the year-long experience of Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a young woman who lost part of her leg in the Boston Marathon bombing. In his blog, Anderson Cooper wrote:

To say Adrianne was inspiring in those dark, difficult days is an understatement. Her left leg was gone below the knee. She would need a prosthetic limb. But Adrianne wasn’t just facing the difficulty of learning to walk again. Adrianne was a dance instructor. Dancing is what gave her a sense of freedom; it’s what gave her joy.

In the CNN special, Adrianne said she credits some of her recovery to her capacity to accept there will be good days and there will be bad days. She too is refusing to be limited by the experience. She meets each day as it presents itself. If it is a bad day, so be it. Tomorrow might be a better one. Adrianne comes out of those days, when they occur, and returns to a positive state of mind in which she dedicates herself to the physical work she must do in order to recover her ability to dance and live her life.

What does this have to do with our work as educational leaders? How we meet the challenges of the day, our state of mind, our capacity to accept the bad days and the good days for what they are, makes a difference in ourselves and in those we ask to follow us. In his book, Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work, David Rock explains how our brain’s "...hardwiring drives automatic perception...our nonautomatic perception is driven by how we consciously choose to focus our thinking” (p.47). Even if we automatically see “another bad thing coming down the pike”, we can develop the capacity to shift that thinking, consciously, to “how can we work with this” instead of “we have to work with this”. How can we expect teachers to bring happiness and excitement into their classrooms if we lead without being positive and inspiring?

Carol S. Dweck explains, in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, that people have one of two types of mindsets, a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. In short, the growth mindset is one of “I can.” The fixed mindset is one of “I can’t.” Simply reading those two sentences, one can immediately feel the hopefulness that undergirds one and the hopelessness that undergirds the other. One sets limits and the other expands possibilities. Recognizing which one represents our view of the world allows us to make deliberate choice. We posit that both Malala and Adrianne have the growth mindset. They may have had that as part of their nature, or they may have developed it.

We may be so focused on what to do and how to do it, we are pulled away from the most important work, knowing who we are. How we are in our work with others begins within us. We do see the world as we are, through our own eyes and our own experiences. But, we can change the habits of our minds. We are in the growth business; if we are not believers in growth, we should move on to make room for those who are. Warren Bennis says...”people begin to become leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be” (p.49). Like Malala defining herself as larger than the bullet and Adrianne struggling back to dance, we have jobs that ask us to reveal who we are at every turn. As leaders, we’d better know who lives within.

Bennis, Warren (2009). On Becoming a Leader. Philadelphia: Basic Books
Dweck, Carol S. (2008). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballentine Books
Rock, David (2006). Quiet Leadership: Six Steps to Transforming Performance at Work. New York: Harper Collins

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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.