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Center for Enlightened Leadership

Book Review: The Spiritual Dimension of Leadership: 8 Key Principles to Leading More Effectively

The Spiritual Dimension of Leadership is very different from any other book I have read on education or leadership, and came to me in a way that was serendipitous indeed.  Having recently been excessed from my position, faced with growing public criticism of the profession of teaching, and dealing with the vagaries of APPR and the Danielson rubric, the timeliness of reading this book was important for me.  I had been frustrated of late with the direction my career and education in general had been headed.  To many teachers, it must feel as though the validity of their chosen path has been called into doubt.  Our performance reviews and end-of-the-year summative evaluation do not define us.  We cannot be reduced to a few numbers on a graph.

If asked to describe my religious background, I would jokingly reply “recovering Catholic.” It doesn’t matter what your religious affiliation is—agnostic, Taoist, Judeo-Christian, etc.—this book transcends religion and inspires leaders to discover and remain true to their core values.  I’ve been something of a spiritual seeker for most of my adult life.  I’ve read books on the Tao, Buddhism, and Zen.  I’ve dabbled (with my wife) in transcendental meditation and for a time was a member of a local Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.  Books by Krishnamurti, the Dalai Lama, and Carlos Castaneda share space on our shelves, along with a host of other religious and spiritual authors.  This book belongs in the same bookcase.  Among the most impressive books I’ve read in the last ten years, The Spiritual Dimension of Leadership belongs on every principal’s bookshelf.

The foreword by Dawna Markova sets the tone from the start.  It is one of openness and true reflection.  Like an etymologist, she dissects the roots of the words used to describe the authors and their work: professional, profiteri, meaning an avowal of faith or belief; educate, educare, meaning to draw out that which is within; to lead, laithjan, to cause to go on one’s journey; spiritual, spirare, to breathe; and principle, principe, foundation.   Understanding the origins of these words, truly understanding these origins, gives one an appreciation of the depth of thought the authors have put into this little book.

The authors use the Introduction to loosely define spirituality as “each human beings personal relationship with the Divine…an energy that can help you grow and evolve into better and better versions of yourself…Cumulatively, it is the energy that has the power to transform our world and truly make it better for all of us.” What the authors see as the “overarching theme” of the book is that the “expression of… spiritual principles of leadership will help you to become a better human being and a better leader.”

The book is laid out in eight chapters describing the eight principles of leadership: The principles of Intention, Attention, Unique Gifts and Talents, Gratitude, Unique Life Lessons, Holistic Perspective, Openness, and of Trust.  I will examine several of these chapters in some depth, and provide an overview of the text as well as my general impressions.

The Principle of Intention    Almost everything we do starts with an intention.  We may have an intention of what we want to achieve and why we want to achieve it, but what is the focus of the reasoning?  Is it self-centered or other-centered?  Do we want our students to succeed so we look good, or because we truly want the best for our charges?  Understanding our own motivations requires self-reflection.  The authors believe that “most leaders do not have a strong enough appreciation of the power of intention as a force for shaping reality.” The intentions that carry the most force are the ones that will benefit people other than yourself.  This is not to say that your intentions cannot benefit you.  An example given is that of being healthy.  If you are healthy, you obviously benefit, but you also put yourself “in a better position to serve others.”

Spoken and written words are crucial to manifesting your intention.  The spoken word, in particular, has the power to accelerate change.  The process of sharing your thoughts—your intentions—aloud ramps up the power they have and enlists other in implementing those intentions.  Likewise, the written word is a way of putting your thoughts into a “physical form that can be felt and touched.”  The discussion of the different frequencies associated with thought, speech and the written word may be a bit esoteric for the typical reader, but this resonated (pun unavoidable) with me.

Actions must align with intentions.  A leader must have the integrity to “walk their talk,” and be open to being called on it when they don’t.  Some ways the authors suggest to help ensure that action and intention are aligned include: create a cadre of truth tellers within your organization (no yes men); keep a journal or engage in some other reflective practice; teach higher education classes (!) which force you to be reflective about the actions you take; mentor someone who wants to move up in the profession; create an atmosphere where supervision is mutual and have your staff supervise you.

If I were to sum up this chapter in one sentence it would be with a quote widely attributed to Gandhi: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

The Principle of Attention    What to pay attention to? With so much stimuli vying for our attention, what do we concentrate on?  How do we pay attention? The authors say we do so by what we think about, talk and ask about, write about, what we look at, and by what we do.  If we want others to pay attention to us we need to pay attention to them and to the little things that matter to them.  By exuding an aura of attention and focus people will naturally gravitate to you.  Attention and intention are inextricably linked.  A leader should select an intention and give it your attention.  This is accomplished by setting aside time to think about what you want to create, visualizing it as if it was already real, and both talk and write about that intention.

These principles are used in some eastern medicine practices and in applied kinesiology.  Positive language is used to realize a goal as if it already is the new status quo.  If you approach goals in a positive way, others will as well.  You must be the example for others to follow—act the way you want others to act.  Always be aware that when others are watching you, they are paying attention to what you are doing.

The Principal of Unique Gifts and Talents    Getting to know your staff and their unique gifts and talents is one of the key ways to maximize the tools that you have at your disposal.  By encouraging teachers and other leaders to express themselves and discover their hidden qualities, you act as a catalyst for their own “becoming.”  The leader should facilitate the sharing of these unique gifts by finding an appropriate forum to showcase these talents, even if not necessarily related to their job description.  As a personal example, I was recruited to be the press box announcer for the varsity football games by a fellow teacher who thought I had a good presence and speaking voice.  I would never have considered it on my own, being generally uninterested in football.  Six years later I am still doing it and also serve as emcee for the fall pep rally.  This has certainly elevated my standing in the community, within and without the school, where I am known as “the voice of Lindy football.”

The Principle of Gratitude    Gratitude is a feeling, an expression of love.  It can be an expression of love for others, in our past and in the present that have influenced us positively.  It is a self-actualizing process.  The more you express your gratitude, the more you will have to be grateful for.  This expression can be through thoughts, feelings, and actions.  The authors cite Nietzsche’s most famous reflection that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  Being grateful for the obstacles that you encounter is acknowledging the Universe’s role in creating a stronger, more powerful you.  I try to practice gratitude every day of my life.  Being excessed is an opportunity to seek employment in a school district that will appreciate and utilize my Unique Gifts and Talents as my current employers have not.  It is also a gift that has instigated me to accelerate this administrative program.  

The final four chapters of the book repeat the same themes with their own unique approaches and practices.  The Principal of Unique Life Lessons recognizes that the challenges we have faced and continue to face shape us.  It is up to us to reflect on those challenges and use them to “grow and evolve into better and better versions” of ourselves.  The Principle of Holistic Perspective recognizes that as the world becomes more and more highly specialized “people rarely think holistically or consider the underlying unity and connectedness of life.”  People need to be reminded that they are part of something greater than any one of us.  As a species, we can be greater than the sum of our parts.  The Principle of Openness involves having faith that the Universe will provide “a certain amount of bounty” to you and your organization; being open to possibilities; being open and honest in your communication to others and in being receptive to their communication to you.  “Openness is the key to everything…fear is the enemy of openness. It closes you down.”  Openness determines what you let in to your life.  It also determines what you let out.  “You are in a continuous dance with openness. Sometimes you lead; sometimes it leads.”  Finally, the Principle of Trust.  We all want to be trusted.  You cannot fulfill your vision if those who we need to help implement that vision feel we are not worthy of trust.  Just as you cannot expect someone to love you unless you have love first for yourself, we must first learn to trust ourselves—our instincts, insights and the value of our vision.  Experience teaches us what to put our trust in.  Authenticity attracts trust.  We must be authentic, and we in turn must be trusting of those that have placed their trust in us.

There are many for whom this book may seem a bit abstruse.  However, if one approaches the reading with an open mind and takes the time to allow the text to speak to them, it can be an invaluable book.  The authors feel that the principles of enlightened leadership already rest within each one of us.  We do not have to learn them, but rather let them come to the fore.  Becoming mindful of these principles allows us to put them into practice.  Doing so will make us better leaders and decision-makers as we shape those that will shape the future.

Final Thoughts    I have read many books on spiritual matters, as well as many on education.  The books on education have tended to be instructional in nature—very straightforward advice on dealing with time management, maintaining classroom discipline, designing coherent instruction, etc.  As its title implies, this book is truly different.  Although less than 150 pages long, it bears reading slowly, and re-reading (a task I will be giving myself this summer).  Much more conversational in nature, the lessons and examples deserve reflection and analysis that only can be accomplished by allowing the mind to slowly meditate on the text.  I would recommend it highly to anyone interested in leadership in education.

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