Professional Development Opinion

Leaders Need Strength and Soul

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 02, 2015 5 min read
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The morning newscasters around the world were reporting that a piece of an airplane wing has washed ashore on Reunion Island, it was big news, as it might be the first piece of an airliner that disappeared 15 months ago. One foreign correspondent reported that there had been “162 souls on board.” The phrase caught us. It is not how an American would likely characterize the human lives that might be lost. Juxtapose that to a recent Time Magazine article “A jailbreak shows prisons are only as strong as the people who staff them.” Is it strength or soul that matters to a leader?

It was decades ago when Bolman and Deal wrote about leaders as those who “contribute to the fundamental ethics of compassion and justice” (p. 107). That may seem pretty lofty these days. Amidst the everyday urgency of the leader’s role, a quiet but compelling voice calls for these virtues to expereince a resurgence in our organizations. The truth is, without the “ethics of compassion and justice

...the old management approach was pretty simple. Give people jobs. Tell them how to do these jobs. Look over their shoulders to make sure they do the jobs right. Reward or punish them depending on their performance (p. 110).

Sadly, that sounds like a lot of what is happening in some schools right now. Mandates, barriers and challenges and frustration and fatigue describe environments where “satisfactions of creativity, craftsmanship, and a job well done” (p. 111) are absent. In the flurry of what seems like unending demands, criticism, and challenges presented by barriers, perceived and real, leading with soul seems like a luxury. So, this year, how can leaders with soul find a way to restore compassion, justice, creativity, craftsmanship and acknowledgement for each of the people who work and learn within the school.

When doing research in the 1980’s Bolman and Deal

...were puzzled about the high incidence of frustration and burnout in American schools. We winced every time veteran teachers and principals told us they were counting the days to retirement. We met too many talented educators who had lost much of the hope and spark they had brought with them into the profession. Their biggest complaint: “It’s not fun anymore” (Bolman & Deal).

This was 35 years ago. These past few years haven’t been fun. The burnout we are hearing about today is not new. The common factors then and now can be found in the presence or lack of focus, passion, wisdom, courage and integrity (Bolman & Deal). When these five factors are present, being developed, and demonstrated, a different set of circumstances arise. They found that...

...pessimism was not universal. We also found teachers and school leaders who still had fire in their bellies and a smile in their hearts. They were excited and committed even though they encountered the same frustrations as their more-disenchanted colleagues. What did they have that others didn’t? What sustained their optimism and commitment? The more we explored such questions, the more we became convinced that the answers hinge on matters of faith, soul and spirit (Bolman & Deal).

There are those today who are leading and working in schools where excitement and optimism remain. But, we hear mostly about those who are tired, frustrated, overwhelmed, unhappy, and, indeed, count the days until the weekend, vacation or even retirement. Both can exist at the same time. Many of us can walk down a hallway and encounter the enthusiasm of those on fire about their work and those with less energy whose fire for the work is going out. The leader’s work is to find a way to be the wind that brings those embers back to life.

An environment of dwindling energy and the blame cannot serve children well. What was true in the 1980’s, and remains true today, is the empowerment of the workforce depends on whether the leader is concentrating on the rational side of the leader’s work alone. “Neglecting the spiritual dimension of work, they overlook a powerful untapped source of energy and vitality” (p. 147).

No blog post can fully address this complex idea of “leading with soul.” But we’d like to suggest that professional development, when only focused on the rational side of the business, will not bring the results everyone is looking for. Yes, there are some leaders who find a way to live in easy flow between the rational and emotional sides of themselves but many have been taught that the two can’t mix. That makes leading impossible since as human beings we are exactly that mix. Many places in the nation are preparing for school doors to open for a new year. As the inner work of readiness, let’s consider:

  • What will help me bring my strength of knowledge, my depth of commitment to children and my inspired soul to work each day?
  • How will my choices improve the nature and quality of my relationships this this year?
  • How can I empower the school system to change the view from “doing what they are told” to I make a difference and how will that change the way students are treated?
  • What will I do when my soul stops showing up in school? Who will tell me? Ho will I know?

Today’s news offers a blatant answer to what happens when the soul stops showing up. It is an extreme example. But as we work to keep ourselves in balance and create environments that are compassionate and just, let’s remember the soul gets lost in little steps along the way when we are not vigilant and when others aren’t telling us what needs to be heard. Even the magnificent strength of a lion cannot survive soulless men. Soon, as the foreign correspondent would say, all those learning, little souls will arrive at our doors. Let’s be sure we welcome them at our best.

You don’t have a soul. You ARE a soul. You have a body. - C.S. Lewis


Boman, L.G. & Deal T.E. (2001) Leading with Soul: An Uncommon Journey of Spirit. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Von Drehle, D, Henry, (2015, June 22). A jailbreak shows prisons are only as strong as the people who staff them. Time, 13-14.

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