Professional Development Opinion

Lead With an Open Heart

By Starr Sackstein — August 22, 2018 3 min read
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Leadership is hard work. It isn’t always easy or forgiving and when folks respond in challenging ways to tough decisions leaders make, it is too easy to start shutting people out, but to be a great leader, we must transcend those challenging experiences and remain open in every important way.

My mentor suggested I read Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky and as I did, I realized that many things they talk about are ways we can all improve as leaders. However, what resonated most were their final thoughts on the emotional space for doing the job of leadership well.

A sacred heart means you may feel tortured and betrayed, powerless and hopeless, and yet stay open. It's the capacity to encompass the entire range of your human experience without hardening or closing yourself. It means that even in the midst of disappointment and defeat, you remain connected to people and to the sources of your most profound purposes." (229-230)

As an educator, I often struggled to stay clear on my purpose when it came to the politics of the job. With the students, it was easy. Adolescents although challenging, are kids and often don’t have the words and/or experiences to really communicate effectively; that’s part of our job to teach them. Perhaps that’s why I loved being in the classroom so much. My heart was always open and full with students. Although one may have been having a bad day, 140 others weren’t and they helped to fill me with continued purpose.

Leadership is a little more difficult in this realm (at least for me). My purposes are clear, but often my inexperience and/or setbacks led to me wanting to shut down emotionally. Sometimes, I wanted to close myself off to protect myself from burn out and/or ugly, negative thoughts. What I realize now, heading into my second year in leadership is that adults, as much as adolescents, need their leaders to be open and positive as often as possible.

Change is hard work and they have lifetimes of experiences that scream change isn’t necessary. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. As a leader, I need to inspire them, collaborate with them and fill them up with confidence to make the hardest changes for the benefit of the kids that sit before them. The world is different now and so must teaching be to better prepare the students for the world they will go boldly into.

In Leadership on the Line, the authors discuss the “virtues of an open heart": innocence, curiosity and compassion and these hallmarks of great being a great human are what makes great leadership possible.

As leaders, we must remain innocent, not in the guilty versus innocent sense, but in the way of young children. We need to be able to see things differently and allow for some unrealistic and sometimes silly ideas to be played out. As an educator in the classroom, this was easy for me, even working with 17 and 18-year-old children. My colleagues used to laugh at me because I always made my classroom “pretty” and gave out stickers, the smelly kind when students did a good job. “Don’t they think it is stupid?” “Nope, they love it!” And really what is wrong with that?

We need to realize that all of us have this silly capacity within us and giving space to indulge it can produce an enormous amount of brilliant ideas. These ideas can change the way we see things and sometimes we must change our lens.

In this way, curiosity is essential too. We must feel free to wonder and dig deeper and follow these ideas until we see what works for students and how to best support them.

And lastly, we must have compassion for those we are working with because all of this stuff is hard and people will get it at different times and in different ways, just like our students. So we must keep our hearts open, empathetically allowing people to struggle and then to offer a hand.

Ultimately, as leaders, we have a big job of helping adults help children while promoting an atmosphere that embraces change, failure, and growth for the greater successes that come from them all.

How do you ensure a “sacred heart” when you lead? What do you struggle with and how can we help? Please share

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