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Cultivating Leadership Presence and Resilience Through Mindfulness

A leader’s inner world needs as much attention and training as the ‘external’ skills of leadership, if they are to survive and be effective, argues Maggie Farrar.

And still like air I rise…

Maya Angelou

I have always loved this poem from Maya Angelou, embodying as it does strength, presence, resilience and human fortitude. Characteristics I have been humbled to observe in many of the school leaders I have worked with during the time of COVID-19.

For many of them, it has been a time of profound personal exploration. As their outer world became uncertain, unsafe and turbulent – their inner resources were drawn upon like never before. As leaders they were called upon to stay focused and present, even while chaos and uncertainty was their daily experience. They learned to create a sense of inner safety and balance as they found the strength to not only lead through the pandemic but also thrive and flourish as a result.

So how did they, like Maya Angelou says, rise to meet the challenge? The answer sounds simple, but required diligence and practice. They cultivated leadership presence. They came into the present moment. They practiced Mindfulness.

What is this and why does it matter, you may ask.

I have spent many years working with leaders on leadership development and school improvement. Looking back now, much of that development was focused on the outer world of leaders, on strategy, on leading teams, on financial management, on attending to the quality of teaching and learning and so on. It’s familiar and important, but I would suggest that exploring the “inner world” of leaders warrants at least 50% attention in all leadership development.

Mindfulness is a simple way to do this. By definition, it is the basic human ability to be fully present, cultivating total awareness of what’s going on around us, and interpreting that with curiosity and without judgement. When we practice Mindfulness we are more present and more likely to respond, rather than react to the world. We are calmer, less likely to be overwhelmed and less stressed. We find more joy and wholeheartedness in our work and in our lives.

So how do we develop these skills?

During the time of COVID-19 I have worked with over 400 leaders and I find there are three common challenges they experience that erode their wellbeing, resilience and leadership effectiveness; an addiction to busy-ness, borrowing trouble from tomorrow and falling into the ‘sacrifice syndrome’. Through simple Mindfulness practices they have discovered how to address these challenges, cultivating presence and resilience on a moment by moment, day by day basis. This has had a significant impact on their leadership.

Addicted to busy-ness and cultivating the power of the pause

It’s easy to become consumed by busy–ness. But the notion of ‘never a wasted moment’ comes at a cost to leaders. As does the myth of multi-tasking. For many of us, particularly when the ground is pulled from under our feet – busy-ness is a haven, a way to feel in control and be of value, when all else feels uncertain. As a result we can unwittingly drop into autopilot – rushing through the day, going through the motions, barely present to ourselves and others.

As one school leader said to me; “I feel like I spend the day skimming stones across a river – except I’m the stone, catapulting myself into the day, leading pretty superficially and never really knowing if I will get to the other side.”

When we notice this impulse to rush, instead of slipping into the ‘never enough time’ spiralling thought, Mindfulness encourages us to practice the power of the pause. We practice ‘STOP’.

S – Stop – yes just that.

T – Take a breath – or a couple of breaths, very intentionally and feel your body grounded, making contact with the earth and becoming still. When overwhelmed the first thing that goes is our breathing, so learning to regulate the breath can help reduce stress.

O – Observe what’s going on – a micro moment of pause gives us the chance to check in on assumptions we might be making, to register any fear or anxiety that might be bubbling up – and wait.

P – Proceed – now we can decide what we will say or do in the next moment of our day and respond from a place of calm, clarity and deeper understanding.

As a result of creating micro pauses throughout the day school leaders have reported that they are more balanced and calmer, even in the midst of great pressure. They now give themselves the time to be with real difficulty, acknowledging and staying with it long enough to understand it and respond wisely, choosing the most appropriate way to lead – moment by moment. All it takes is the reminder to ‘stop and take a breath’.

Borrowing trouble from tomorrow and cultivating a wise relationship with thoughts

So much of our time, particularly when things are uncertain, is spent in our heads, worrying about the future, or going back over what has already happened and generally giving ourselves a hard time. So we end up walking down the corridor – but in our minds we are in tomorrow’s meeting, or a senior team meeting or mentally in a conversation with a parent. We are not present.

When we practice Mindfulness we become aware of our thoughts, learning to see them as mental events and nothing more than that. We become intimate with those which take up frequent residence in our minds. We notice those that are ‘sticky’, that entangle us and pull us away from the present moment.

Notice and label the thought. saying ,“worrying is here, planning is here, judging myself is here” – by labelling in this way rather than saying “here I go judging and beating myself up again” we can de-centre from our thoughts and see them as ‘not me’ but as mental ‘visitors’ who come into our minds uninvited.

Fact check the thoughts. We often fixate on the worst case scenario when overwhelmed, catastrophising about the future, and giving too much significance to past mistakes. Instead, with curiosity and kindness we can say, “this feels very real but it’s not necessarily true.” We accept that the thought is here, we sit with it for a moment and by de-centring and “fact checking” it we are more likely to let it go.

We re-adjust our attention away from our thoughts. We learn to “throw down our anchors”. We feel our feet, we feel our hands, we settle our attention on our breath. As we do this, the mind itself will start to become still. Each time it races away again, we notice this – and gently say to ourselves ‘not me’ and come back to one of our anchors. When we bring our attention to the body in this way, we can never be anywhere but in the present moment.

Beware of the sacrifice syndrome and practice renewal

In their book ‘Resonant Leadership; Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion’ (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Resonant-Leadership-Connecting-Mindfulness-CompassionCompassion/dp/1591395631) Richard Boyatsiz and Annie McKee explore the ‘sacrifice syndrome’. This is common among leaders especially at a time of threat or crisis. Leaders tend to cope by taking on more of the burden themselves. This action usually leads to a negative cycle that only increases the stress of the crisis and ultimately leads to burnout. We can all relate to this and I have seen its impact on colleagues first hand. How can we avoid this? By noticing the early signs of stress and practicing renewal on a moment by moment, day by day basis.

The quick ‘body scan’. Ignoring stress means it builds up until we no longer can ignore that headache, chronic back pain or stomach ache. Instead, at times of transition during the day such as after a meeting, or a phone call, or a lesson, we might stand and check in on our bodies asking “where am I holding tension?” We practice letting our shoulders drop, noticing if our stomachs are tight or our jaw clenched, we take 3 or 4 deep breaths, soften and let go.

Finding ‘micro moments of renewal’. Practice being connoisseurs of the ‘pause’. Turn waiting time into pause time. Find micro moments of silence. Deliberately place mental and physical ‘speed bumps’ into your day.

These opportunities offer themselves more often than you’d think– waiting for the kettle to boil, the meeting to start, the queue to move forward, the traffic lights to change. Notice the impulse to reach for the phone, notice the spiralling mind and stand – sit – wait – breathe. Then move on.

A pause, or a moment of silence is not a nothing. For leaders who practice, it’s a doorway, a switch, an opening to a little more calm, a little more steadiness, a little more wisdom and a little more presence.

The cultivation of resilience

These three simple practices are all connected to the cultivation of resilience

  1. Resilient leaders practice grounding themselves, being open to whatever is happening as it is happening and use the breath and body as an anchor.
  2. They cultivate a wholesome relationship with their thoughts recognising the ‘inner critic’ and ruminative negative thoughts as ‘mental fabrication’ and although very real – not true.
  3. They deliberately break the chain of memories and thoughts that keep us obsessing about our perceived failures and failures. They resist getting drawn into the past or wallowing in set backs. They model this for others.

So what does this mean for school leaders and school as organisations that want to embed these practices into their ways of working? Mindfulness is first and foremost a practice and this is both its strength and what makes it challenging to introduce in schools. It’s not a strategy, it is a set of practices. It’s not an intervention, it’s an invitation and it cannot be imposed, but it can be modelled and practiced intentionally on a daily basis. Leaders I have worked with have said ‘ it seeps into you’ the more you practice. And one large Multi Academy Trust I am working with have integrated ‘the courage to be compassionate’ as a value into their Trust ways of working. It’s not a quick fix but a long term commitment to work with and fully understand our inner life as leaders in order to respond more skillfully and thus become even more effective in our outer world.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to overcome is the guilt that leaders feel in taking time to cultivate these practices. Many struggle to make time for themselves a priority. This practice of Mindfulness and the cultivation of leadership presence is not selfish, it’s not introspective – it is ethical. We give this time to ourselves in order to be more available to ourselves and to others. We practice in order to show up in our outer world with a little more of our own natural wisdom. We practice in order to renew and sustain our leadership for a life time.

Practice Mindfulness as if your life depended on it – because it probably does.

Jon Kabat Zinn – Full Catastrophe Living

Maggie will be posting a monthly blog on Teaching Times sharing practices, case studies and short video clips from leaders over the School year 2021 – 2022. Look out for the first one in September 2021.

In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more and joining a growing community of school leaders cultivating leadership presence, composure and resilience through Mindfulness, sign up to the Empowering Leadership mailing list at www.empoweringleadership.co.uk

About the author

Maggie has worked as a teacher and in senior leadership roles in education for over 40 years. She was latterly Director for Leadership Development and Research at the National College for School Leadership and Interim Chief Executive. She trained as a mindfulness teacher at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and has integrated this into her current work, supporting leaders to thrive and flourish in the complex and demanding role of school leadership.

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