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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Green Emeralds

  Christa Metzger
  Christa Metzger

As I write this, the autumn sun is reflecting sparkling diamonds on the Bodensee, the lovely Lake Constance in Southern Germany. Every day I walk along the shore with my dog Max, who was privileged to fly across the Atlantic with me to this area that is known as the “Soul of Germany.” It’s still tourist season here. In mid-October the ships will stop their routes to all the cities along the lake on its German, Austrian, and Swiss borders. But now many visitors sit on the benches facing the lake, and walk or cycle on the path that goes all the way around it for about 200 miles.

Before I get too carried away, let me come to my point. It has to do with eye contact. Most people are fascinated by cute little Shih Tzu dogs, and Max receives lots of looks. (I still get a few, too, though not as many as when I was younger). So I’ve been observing what happens when I look at people as they pay attention to Max. Some smile back, others show annoyance or even fear. A few glance briefly and then look down again with no expression on their faces.

Okay, I’m still not quite where I want to be with this. Let me transition and state what I believe is an obvious and basic universal spiritual principle: People want and need contact with others. One way to establish this is through eye contact. There are exceptions in some cultures, but I won’t discuss these here. When someone makes eye contact with me, or even with me as Max’s companion, I feel acknowledged and respected; I sense that the person cares, at least a little, that I exist.

I vividly recall something that happened to me as a teenager—a memory that has influenced me all these years. I was a camp counselor that summer and sat in a large hall where we were to receive instructions from the camp leaders. At the conclusion, as we were conscientiously absorbing every word they said to us, those important people walked back through the rows of benches or chairs and made absolutely no eye contact with any of us “lowly” workers sitting on either side of the aisle. Hmm… I still remember how that made me feel—the absolute opposite of acknowledged and respected. I perceived them as haughty, arrogant, and unfriendly, and I didn’t believe that they really cared about us or the work they had just commissioned us to perform.

When I was a school principal, our new superintendent was introduced to us at a school board meeting. Because I pay attention to such things, it struck me that he never made eye contact with any of us. We soon learned that he was indeed a distant leader and into his own world. He seemed to care little about how we, his administrative staff, felt or what we thought. He believed in accountability, but apparently hadn’t heard about empowering leaders. His first mandate was for us to complete monthly reports that were so impractical and complicated that we barely had time to do all the activities on which we had to report.

Is eye contact really that important? When I was a superintendent, I would visit schools and walk around with the principals. I was always intrigued by how strongly a school’s climate (and we know from the research that climate is positively related to student achievement) seemed to be affected by this apparently simple act: the eye contact principals made with the children and adults in their schools. The responses included hugs from children and smiles of appreciation from staff members. I am convinced that these became some of the building blocks for meaningful, productive, and inspired relationships within that school’s community. Looking directly at a person also gave that individual the opportunity to visually, and sometimes verbally, share a joy or a concern that the principal could later follow up on.

While vacationing here in Germany, I’m reading a good book by Ken Wilber,. The Simple Feeling of Being. Wilber talks about spending the day in a shopping mall watching people pass by. “They were all as precious as green emeralds,” he writes. He hears the occasional joy in their voices, sees the pain on many faces, the sadness in their eyes, the burdensome slowness of their pace. But he registers none of that. “I saw only the glory of green emeralds, and radiant buddhas walking everywhere” (pp. 47-48).

Next time you stand before a group of your staff, in front of a class of students, or face someone just walking along, let your eyes tell them that they are green emeralds. You may notice the glint of a diamond reflected back to you.

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