In his book entitled The Mindful Leader: Awakening Your Natural Management Skills Through Mindfulness Meditation, Michael Carroll writes, "When we lead a career that is sharply focused on being more successful, more admired, or just more comfortable, we can deceive ourselves into neglecting the world around us. We end up managing our lives like projects rather than actually living them." To add to Carroll's points about authenticity, Dennis Sparks writes, "Outside-the-box leaders know that their authenticity is a potent source of influence and that honesty is at the heart of authenticity."
How then, does a 21st century leader develop this "authenticity"? How do we as school leaders avoid the pitfall of managing our lives like projects, instead of remaining authentic in the middle of them? The answers to these questions have been at the center of my own explorations in recent months. Those explorations have taken me through the writings of leadership experts like Dennis Sparks, Ken Blanchard, and Paul Houston. This same journey has also taken me through the writings of Buddhist thinkers such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield, Phillip Moffit, and Michael Carroll. It has even prompted me to attend a Buddhist retreat, which I posted about here.
So what have I learned from these masters of leadership and Buddhist thinkers? I have learned at the end of the day, what matters the most to leadership is being authentic. Being present at all times is the way to effectively lead and influence others. Being authentic is more than just being yourself; it also means acting with integrity, pulling off the masks we tend to put on, and courageously facing the truth of every moment of our day. Being present means being in the moment at all times. In practical terms, it means not getting lost in the "what-ifs" or "might-happens." Furthermore, it means being patient, and fully listening to others.
In the 21st century, school leaders would do well to foster authenticity and presence each moment of each day. How then, do we do that? Here's my own Four Principles for Fostering Authentic 21st Century Leadership and Presence. These are derived from my readings of the above, and my own mindfulness practice as well as my attendance to a meditation retreat this past summer.
1. Being authentic begins by leading from the inside out not from the top down. Being authentic with those we lead means offering daily, ourselves. There are no masks, and no room for hiding at the top if we want to be authentic leaders, and to truly be present for those around us. Top down leadership separates us from those we lead, and is sometimes useful, but it does not foster authenticity and presence. We must be willing to accept vulnerability as a normal part of our leading.
2. Being authentic means becoming an "open leader." In addition, we become totally present with all that is happening. Through deliberate practice we foster an openness that makes us totally available for what happens each moment of our day. Instead of following our thoughts off into planning, we sit and are present when others come to us with issues or problems. In the midst of crises, instead of being led off by our emotions, we choose to be present, which means we acknowledge our fears and concerns, but we are not led off by them. We remain present, which is the strength of being authentic, even in unfortunate situations.
3. Being authentic means we have a willingness to abandon our own version and vision of reality to engage the present. In practice, this means we aren't blinded by our truth and views. In the interest of being authentic and present, we simply let go of our versions of reality, or at least do not cling to them tenaciously. Being an authentic leader means understanding that we can't be attached to the idea of being right at the expense of everything else. Being an authentic and present leader means there's no room for "It's-my-way-or-the-highway" brand of leadership. Clinging to our own version and vision leads to inauthenticity and non-presence.
4. Being authentic means cultivating "complete generosity" or what Tibetan's call "jinpa." In practical terms, authentic leaders practice this by generously offering themselves to others without making ridiculous demands or placing lids on situations. Instead of trying to lead by always winning over or guarding our own point of view, we let go and lead by total exposure of our generous selves. We gladly take on a willingness to be vulnerable and express our humanity simply and authentically for the sake of generosity. We rid ourselves of the habit of thinking we need to place lids on ourselves and others. We grow and continually grow in generosity.
As leaders of 21st century schools and school districts, it is too easy to get lost in our own career advancement, the latest reform measures,being successful, or gaining admiration. These things lead away from authenticity, not toward it. We do sometimes turn our lives into projects instead of just being authentic. Take a moment today, and just be.