Mindfulness and Transformational School Leadership

By Christine Mason

Visions and Inspiration

“Transformational leaders do not think in one place and time, rather, they construct mental models that bridge the present to the future.” (Thoms & Greenberger, 1995)

Consider our world today. In Mindfulness Practices: Cultivating Heart Centered Communities where Students Focus and Flourish, with co-authors Michele Rivers Murphy and Yvette Jackson, I explored the potential for transforming our world through reducing violence and increasing compassion.  Our bridge to the future is mindfulness. We began that book by stating, “What if we pay less attention to what isn’t working, feel less pressure from the many mandates and demands that teaching and learning present, and develop a more caring lens. . . envision a balance of academics and conversations about life, a balance between doing well and feeling great…” (p.1). Admittedly, we are interested in transforming schools and have a distinct vision for the future of education.  As James MacGregor Burns (1978) and others have suggested, we believe in the power of long-term visioning and are interested in followers becoming leaders and moral agents for change.

If schools were not known to us as buildings with walls, inhabited by teachers and students, what then could learning be? How would our students learn? And how would staff facilitate their learning?  How would you lead? Have you considered some of your “wildest dreams” for schools? What of options for creating more balance between academic achievement and student and staff well-being? Have you and your teachers had a chance to brainstorm about radical options?

How Do Leaders Inspire Others?

Bernard Bass and Ronald Riggio (2006), in their book Transformational Leadership, describe four key elements of transformational leaders: Idealized influence, inspirational motivation, individualized consideration (empathy) and intellectual stimulation. They suggest that transformational leaders:

  • Are idealized and respected as role models
  • Encourage critical thinking, exploration, and creativity
  • Have the charisma to motivate and inspire others, and
  • Are genuinely concerned about others.

How would your staff rate you on the above components? Where is there room for growth?

In summarizing their findings from interviewing mindful school leaders, Valerie Brown and Kristen Olson (2015) discuss the need for leaders to show up “whole-heartedly” with the alertness and insights that come from the discipline of implementing their own mindfulness practices. Consider the difference between a leader with a preset agenda who overlooks the mindset of the teachers and another leader who, realizing the push and pull and the concomitant stress of staff, introduces flexibility, sometimes waiting patiently for the right time to advance ideas. To quote Brown and Olson, “leaders have to show up authentically to their leadership position, with fierce-energy, intense commitment, and a gracious willingness to admit their mistakes.” (p.187).   In considering the role of mindfulness for leaders, Brown and Olson conclude that mindfulness is “immensely helpful in cultivating calmness and stillness, the resilience, and self-compassion.” (p.187).  If schools are to move beyond the status quo into new roles for the future, teachers and leaders will need resiliency and self-compassion, for certainly mistakes will be made as new territory is explored.

After Inspiration there is Work to be Done

Kouzes and Posner (2007) suggest all transformational leaders:

  • “Model the Way” by publicly defining their values and by living them with integrity.
  • “Inspire a Shared Vision” by knowing their followers’ hopes, dreams, and values.
  • “Challenge the Process” by recognizing and supporting innovation.
  • “Enable Others to Act” by distributing power to members of the team and encouraging open communication. Gladwell (2008) describes this behavior as reducing the power distance between follower and leader.
  • “Encourage the Heart” by knowing, appreciating, and celebrating their stakeholders.

Modeling, inspiring, challenging, enabling (empowering), and encouraging – again reflect. How would you rate yourself? What work remains to be done?

Mindfulness seems to be a natural fit with the views and visions of many thought leaders who are attempting to help us understand transformational change. In recent interviews with change leaders, Chesley and Wylson (2016) report thatall 19 change leaders agreed that mindfulness is or would be helpful to deal with ambiguity and transformational change.” Most of those they interviewed reported that they used mindfulness “to manage and deal with ambiguity during transformational organizational change.”  In implementing change, mindful leaders are aware of progress toward the goals, and they are also mindful of how the change process is impacting individual teachers, staff, and students. Through this awareness, leaders will find time for dialogue, think-tanks, problem solving, celebrations, and a zillion and one strategies to help advance the school’s vision. As many principals know, sometimes you need to move backward or even sideways before advancing forward.

Mindfulness in Edmonton

Principal Doug Allen implemented mindfulness at Grandview Heights School and also Bessie Nichols School in Edmonton, Ontario (CA.) The goal at Grandview Heights was to help reduce stress at an affluent school where students and staff were under extreme pressure to continue to raise achievement. Allen began with a period of exploration, research, and discussion, followed by implementation of the Mindfulness Fundamentals curriculum produced by Mindful Schools. Judy Aldous (2014) describes the protocol that Allen used at Grandview: “It starts with the morning messages, which might involve a Sesame Street video about the importance of self-control. Throughout the day, teachers can lead ‘mindful minutes’, often at the request of the children who are feeling overwhelmed by the pressure and noise of going to school. Children learn to do quick body scans, as a way to relax.”

Leadership and Innovation

Consider what you know about mindfulness as you reflect on Kouzes and Posner’s (2007) conclusions regarding leadership: “leadership is inextricably connected with innovation” (p. 147). The effectiveness ratings of leaders increased when teachers saw them searching for solutions outside their systems and whenever they encouraged others to take the initiative and search for solutions. They suggest that “you don’t have to be at the top of your organization” (p.166) to guide change or to be a transformational leader; “encourage others to open their eyes and ears to the world outside the boundaries of the organization.” (p.166)

Kouzes and Posner encourage leaders who want to be transformational to allow teachers the autonomy and room to improve and tackle the challenges they face, giving teachers time to meet and find solutions, to be creative, so that they are empowered.

Opportunities to Transform the World: A Consideration

Where would you lead your school if transformation was a goal? Shields (2011), in a collection of research articles in the book Transformative Leadership: A Reader, writes that transformative leaders “are explicit about the goals to be achieved and the processes required to attain them. These include the transformative goals of liberation, emancipation, democracy, equity, and excellence” (p.9).  Shields acknowledges that some leaders are able to effect short-term change by coaching teachers and students to achievement on tests. However, Shields asserts that school leaders “must join forces to renew commitment to transforming education as a fundamental means of transforming our world” (p.12).

References

Aldous, J. (2014, October 20). ‘Mindfulness’ part of curriculum at Grandview Heights School. CBC News

Bass, B. & Riggio, R. (2006). Transformational Leadership (2nd ed.). Erlbaum

Brown, V., & Olson, K. (2014). The mindful school leader: Practices to transform your leadership and school. Thousand Oakes: Corwin Press.

Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership/James MacGregor Burns. New York: Harper & Row

Chesley, J., & Wylson, A. (2016). Ambiguity: the emerging impact of mindfulness for change leaders. Journal of Change Management16(4), 317-336.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The leadership challenge: The most trusted source on becoming a better leader. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mason, C., Rivers Murphy, M., & Jackson, Y. (2018). Mindfulness Practices: Cultivating heart centered communities where students focus and flourish. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Thoms, P., & Greenberger, D. B. (1995, August). Training business leaders to create positive organizational visions of the future: Is it successful? In Academy of Management Proceedings (1995, 1, pp. 212-216). Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management.

Shields, C. M. (2011). Transformative leadership: An introduction. Counterpoints, 1-17.

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