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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Want a Leadership Edge? You Already Have What You Need

10 tips for responding to challenging situations
By Danny Bauer — April 08, 2024 4 min read
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Meet Sarah, a principal at a typical urban high school.

Like many principals, Sarah was dedicated yet also found herself overwhelmed by the daily challenges of the role. Staff conflicts, student discipline, and the pressure to meet performance targets tested her limits. Her response to challenging situations, especially during high-stakes meetings, was markedly different from and misaligned with the leadership presence she wanted to exhibit.

During one tense meeting discussing student discipline, a colleague questioned Sarah’s proposal for how to address discipline, suggesting it was “tone deaf” and not grounded in reality. “We need a principal who supports us,” the teacher said. Sarah immediately fired back, “Perhaps if you actually cared about kids and focused on building relationships, we wouldn’t have these problems.”

Immediately, Sarah was ashamed. Worse yet, her ego got in the way of an apology and ownership. Everyone sat silent and uncomfortable. Not only did her reaction shut down constructive dialogue, it also alienated her colleague and others who might have shared similar concerns. This moment highlighted a leadership approach driven by immediate emotional reactions rather than thoughtful, inclusive decisionmaking.

As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says, “The emotional tail wags the rational dog.”

Fortunately for Sarah, she discovered mindfulness, and something interesting happened. The challenges remained the same, but Sarah did not. She found her leadership edge though quieting her mind and learning to be less reactive. By watching her thoughts and emotions while meditating, she learned to observe and remain unattached. This skill transferred to the usual day-to-day of school leadership.

One particularly tense morning, a conflict erupted between two staff members right before school. In the past, Sarah would have reacted automatically, driven by stress and emotion. But this time, she paused, took a deep breath, and centered herself with a mindfulness technique she’d learned. This brief moment of mindfulness allowed her to approach the situation with a calm focus, facilitating a resolution that left all parties feeling heard and respected.

Her transformation wasn’t magic. Even better, she already had everything she needed to leverage this leadership edge. And best of all, you do, too.

Your Leadership Edge

Mindfulness is intentional and sustained awareness. Through training, it helped Sarah navigate the complexities of school leadership with confidence and grace. This ancient practice became her leadership edge, which she refined through the practice of meditation—the deliberate training of attention. This practice enabled Sarah to break free from automatic responses, conserving her mental and emotional energy for what matters most.

The benefits of Sarah’s story can be yours, and it illustrates the benefits of being a mindful leader:

Decisionmaking. Mindfulness encourages a pause before reacting, allowing leaders to explore more thoughtful decisions.

Empathy and communication. A mindful leader is better equipped to listen and understand and connect with all stakeholders.

Stress management. Regular mindfulness practice can reduce the stress that accompanies school leadership, leading to an improved quality of life.

Innovative thinking. By quieting the mind and clearing it of clutter, mindfulness opens the door to creative problem-solving and innovative thinking necessary to take a campus to the next level.

10 Tips to Maintain Your Practice

Adopting mindfulness might seem challenging amid the fast pace of school leadership, but it’s much more accessible than most think. Here are 10 tips to integrate this practice into your life and leadership:

Tip 1: Embrace grace. Begin. And begin again. This is one of the most useful teachings on all topics.

Tip 2: Forget perfection. There’s no “perfect” session. Each sit is its own experience.

Tip 3: Start early. Before the day slips away. It’s a serene bridge from work to family life.

Tip 4: Choose your spot. A dedicated place sets the stage.

Tip 5: Environment matters. Hygge is a Danish word for a cozy environment. Think pillows, blankets, candles. Create an environment that supports your practice.

Tip 6: Everything is an opportunity. Most people default to scrolling on their phone. Resist. Practice instead when you feel the urge to grab your phone.

Tip 7: Two is better than one. Meditation is often done alone, but who can you connect with to encourage and challenge you to keep going?

Tip 8: Embrace your wandering mind. The mind wanders. That’s OK. Notice. Gently return.

Tip 9: Journal the journey. Track your practice. Revelations. Challenges. Growth.

Tip 10: Start Small. The first step is what matters most. Maybe you begin meditating three minutes, build to five, then increase to 15.

Call to Action

Why not start right now? Take a minute to close your eyes. Allow yourself to settle in your seat. Feel your body in your chair, your feet on the floor. Begin to focus on your breath. Notice that it’s automatic. You don’t have to will yourself to breathe in or out. As you breathe in, you might note in your mind, “breathing in.” On the exhale, you might think, “breathing out.” As your mind begins to wander—and it will wander—begin again and bring attention back to your breath. Do this for as long as you’d like, and when you feel ready, gently open your eyes, acclimate yourself to your surroundings, and pat yourself on the back for finding a few minutes to dedicate to your practice.

The transformation that Sarah experienced is not unique to her and is available for any school leader willing to look inward and develop a mindfulness practice.

And the biggest gift? The challenges will not change, but you will.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.

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