Why Spirituality, and Why Now?
Beyond thinking and acting, AASA’s leader
offers rationale for a third key dimension
By PAUL D. HOUSTON
Several years ago I started injecting the issue of spirituality
into my speeches to members—public school system leaders.
I did so with some trepidation. After all, we are very concerned
in our business about the separation of church and state. Besides,
some might wonder what spirituality had to do with educational leadership.
First, the separation issue is important. It is clear to me (even
if it is not clear to the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court) that
it is inappropriate for the government to use its power and resources
to establish religion. However, religion is specific and spirituality
The metaphor I would use is one of pipes, which come in many kinds—large,
small, plastic, copper, round, oblong and so forth. Pipes, like
religions, come in all forms. You choose the pipe that best suits
your needs. Yet what flows through the pipe is essentially the same
thing whether you are a Buddhist or a Baptist. Religion gives us
a rubric for working with the deity, while spirituality is the energy
that connects us to the deity.
Second, as I talked with school leaders across the country, I heard
them profess a longing for meaning and comfort. Our jobs are difficult
and draining. They sap our physical and moral energy. We must replenish
our supply. One way to do so requires we go inside ourselves and
find that part within us that is more than flesh and bones. I have
pointed out that the work we do is more of a calling and a mission
than a job—what Cornel West once described as “soul
It is difficult to reconcile the work of leaders as strictly management
when so much of it deals with the aspirations and dreams of people,
when so much of it affirms or denies their very essence. When you
mess with folks’ lives, you’d best be aware of the spiritual
nature of what you are doing because at the core of our humanity
is that golden cord of connection to the infinite.
All leaders must be attuned to the third dimension beyond thinking
and doing—to what it is to “be” a human in touch
with the divine. But educational leaders, because of their responsibility
for the future through touching the lives of children, have an even
Thirsting for Purpose
For this reason, I began talking about the spiritual nature of educators’
work. Then a funny thing happened on the way to the controversy
I anticipated. Rather than creating protest, this became the one
part of what I was saying that prompted the most followup and support.
Clearly, a hunger in our midst exists for finding our deeper purpose
and for conducting our work in a more enlightened manner.
So when Jay Goldman, the editor of The School Administrator, asked
me what we should do as a theme issue, I immediately replied, “Let’s
do something on leadership and spirituality.” He gulped hard
but responded affirmatively and here it is. Jay has solicited views
from a wide range of people. While the writers do not always agree
with each other on the subject, you are about to be treated to a
journey of discovery as thoughtful people grapple with what to say
on the subject of spirituality and leadership. What they do agree
on is that it is an important topic and one worth every leader worrying
Thriving on Chaos
The first article is by internationally acclaimed author and speaker
Deepak Chopra, who points out that leaders are the symbolic soul
of the groups they lead and that great leaders respond from the
higher levels of spirit. Importantly, Chopra points out that in
our chaotic environment, it is leaders who thrive on the chaos because
they understand the underlying spiritual order.
Chopra reminds us that leadership is the most critical choice one
can make because it is a choice to “step out of the darkness”
and that only one who can find wisdom in the midst of chaos will
be remembered as a leader.
Michael Fullan grapples with the issue of spiritual leadership
and comes to agree with Webster’s that spirituality is about
a “life-giving force.” Fullan is most interested in
helping leaders connect to the bigger picture, which is where true
leadership occurs. And leadership is about what happens on the ground
in organizations. True spiritual leaders are lofty but lowly at
the same time. They tie the infinite and sublime together. And most
of all, they get the right things done.
Professor John Hoyle, who has written about leadership and love,
but who also was one of the authors of AASA’s Standards for
the Superintendency is able to connect the higher issues with the
very practical challenges of the workaday superintendent. He points
out that without a sense of spiritual awareness, leaders lack an
understanding of human motives. All of us need a sacred narrative
that gives us a sense of larger purpose. Without that, we risk becoming
narcissistic and selfish. Hoyle goes on to demonstrate that issues
like achievement and morale stem from these higher places.
Rachael Kessler, who wrote The Soul of Education: Helping Students
Find Connection, Compassion and Character in Schools, demonstrates
that good leaders create community through personalizing, pacing,
giving permission and providing protection. She even goes so far
as to declare that “grace” is an ingredient of good
leadership. One is tempted to point out that amazing leaders show
amazing grace. As I myself have suggested, solid leaders are both
effective—they make a difference in their organization—and
affective—they make a difference in the lives around them.
Roger Soder makes the case that spiritual leadership is about making
connections and about the way we engage others in our lives and
in our work. He asserts that all things are connected and that coercion
will fail as a leadership tool. He quotes the Bolshevik leaders
who embarked on a reign of terror and genocide with the motto: “We
will drive mankind to happiness by force.” That reminded me
of many of our reform mandates that are attempting to punish people
into excellence. Not only is that approach lacking in spiritual
grace, it is just plain ineffective.
Defining Enlightened Leadership
My friend Steven Sokolow, a longtime superintendent, summarizes
some of the work he and I are doing together on the issue of enlightened
leaders. Steve and I are working on a series of books on the subject.
He reminds us that we do the work we do because it is at the core
of who we are. That is both the gift and the curse of educational
leaders. Our work has such meaning, yet it is hard to separate from
Sokolow shares our definition of enlightened leaders—they
not only know the right things to do and the right way to do them,
they also do them for the right reasons. Before you go somewhere
you need to know where you are and who you are. There are a number
of principles for enlightened leadership and Steven shares several
of those with you—intention, attention, gratitude and trust,
to name a few.
Jeffrey Solomon and Jeremy Hunter delve into the psychological
basis for spiritual leadership. They, too, believe it has much to
do with connection, but in their case they argue for the connection
to things beyond and within one’s self. They also argue that
engagement is central to all this. They give examples of what they
are talking about and point out that these leaders possess equanimity
and calm, establish genuine connections with those who work with
them, provide a safe trusting environment, and live in the moment
by de-emphasizing their own ego.
Best-selling author Margaret Wheatley, better known for her work
on the connection of leadership and the new science, demonstrates
that perhaps it is a short leap from physics to metaphysics. She
sees our times of turbulence as the wellspring for spiritual action.
She points out chaos can’t be controlled. People want their
leaders to stop the chaos, to make things better and to create stability.
But in fact, the real role of leaders is to help people move into
a “relationship with uncertainty and chaos.”
Wheatley shares some basic wisdom of the times. Among them: life
is uncertain, life is cyclical, meaning is what motivates people,
service brings joy, and courage comes from the heart.
We end this special effort with words from Fred Stokley, a longtime
practicing superintendent. He draws a comparison of our work that
I share—it tends to be ministerial. We have to have a reverence
for the young and we must be at peace with ourselves if we are to
lead others. Since we have an impact on others, we must be sensitive
to what we do, who we are and how we go about our business. That
is the essence of spiritual leadership.
I have pointed out that our role as leaders bears a much closer
connection to ministers than it does to CEOs. Our authority comes
not from our position but from the moral authority we are entrusted
to carry as we build a future through our children. We get our work
done, not through mandate and fiat, but by gathering folks together
and persuading them to do what is right. To carry this out requires
a higher connection than the direct line to the state department
of education or the president of the school board.
Thus we end our little journey through lightly explored territory.
What we come back to is that spiritual leaders lead from within—they
must know themselves and have a sense of purpose and connection
to the infinite. But they live in this world as well and the impact
of what they do affects others, and their ultimate goal must be
to have an effect that is greater than themselves—and to remember
that on this earth God’s work must truly be our own.
Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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