Wednesday / July 24

Mindful School Leadership: The Well Focused Leader

This post was originally published on Finding Common Ground.

School Leaders’ Dilemma:  Distraction:  The New Normal

Catherine, a busy school principal in a large urban school in New Jersey, recounts her workday in exasperation at a recent mindfulness and school leadership training session offered by Lead Smart Coaching. During our session, she speaks wearily of trying to meet expectations for quickly changing deadlines; trying to focus despite loud meetings in adjoining offices and throughout the school building; attending 2-3 hour, back-to-back meetings,; and skipping lunch or eating lunch standing up.  She describes “being shot out of bed like a cannon” in the morning and going nonstop until she crashed into bed at night. Does this sound familiar? Many of my school leader clients, like this stressed out principal, are well past functioning in their challenge zone and are into their crash zone!

We are all too familiar with the high stakes, high demand, high expectations of school leadership. We want school leaders’ focused motivation, confidence, creativity and strategic thinking. We expect school leaders to recover swiftly in the face of adversity, to adapt successfully to the impossible, to be available 24/7, and to respond at lightening speed to complexity and to change. School leaders today are reporting record levels of stress and overwhelm with real consequences for schools and student performance, not to mention school leaders’ well being.

Instinctively, we know what mindfulness is, and how to be mindful in our daily life. We know the sense of being fully present to a eating a wonderful meal or having a great conversation. We know too when we are sidetracked, spaced out, lost in thought, or worked up, and just how easily we are distracted, how our attention can be diverted by our own thoughts. Moments of mindlessness are all too familiar: snacking without realizing that we are eating, surfing the web partially while listening to music, texting while driving. Too often, the near-constant stream of running mental commentary, the seemingly endless array of judgments about ourselves, others, our environment, is mentally exhausting and keeps us from being fully present.

A Mindful Revolution:  A Well Focused Mind is a Well Focused School Leader

Distraction, multitasking, “continuous partial attention”, cognitive overload: the education sector is addicted, and not just because it is experiencing more accountability pressure than at any time in American history. “Occupations shape people,” wrote Dan C. Lortie in his classic study of the teaching profession,[i] and most educators have almost no day-to-day socialization or support for sustained attention to or focus on their own learning. This fracturing of focus is now coupled with intense performance demands based on standardized tests. It is a blunting brew. “I came into the superintendency wanting to bring reflection and focus to every aspect of my job,” a school leader recently told me. “I feel like I’ve lost that right now.”

The education sector’s addiction to distraction is both a reasonable adaptation and a terrible dysfunction—a hostile and non-empowered way of dealing with the maddening conditions of the work. We can’t solve these problems by getting more distracted.

Mind wandering is universal and an integral part of mindfulness meditation. Scientists tell us that nearly half of your waking day is spent in mind wandering, and that mind wandering is linked to negative mood. Consider this: you’re preparing for work, brushing your teeth. Your mind drifts from the sensation of the holding the toothbrush and feeling the toothpaste to thoughts about an intensely difficult meeting planned for later that day with a member of your executive staff. Unconsciously and reflexively, you begin to tense the muscles in your neck and upper back.  Your thoughts speed up, cascading into one another, anticipating the worst. You finish quickly, feeling the pinch of time. It’s no surprise that this diffused and unstable focus impairs performance. What may be surprising is just how often our attention is drifting like a cork bobbing on a fast running stream.

According to this research, while mind wandering occurred less when people engaged in pleasurable activity, they were still inclined to negative thinking. When you’re focused on a particular activity rather than thinking about something else,  you’re happier, scientists say. In these studies, a greater predictor of happiness was not the activity itself–external events and circumstances–but what you’re thinking and whether you’re engaging in mind wandering. Mind wandering causes unhappiness, not the other way around.[ii]

Your task is to bring the wandering mind back to the object of attention, which is generally your breathing since it is always with you, and to change your relationship with the running mental commentary of judgments, criticisms, analysis, planning, etc. You don’t try to suppress or grasp, or push away the thoughts and emotions. You are not striving to have a different experience. You accept things as they are:  the pleasant, unpleasant, and the neutral.    This act in itself for many school leaders is a huge step toward self-compassion and well being.

To deliberately bring the wandering mind back is important for many reasons. The mind is a ‘narrative making machine’ with the ‘on switch’ continually engaged. When you notice that the mind has wandered, you are already back, a critically important part of re-setting focus. As you bring the mind back, you build focus and concentration.  You notice where the mind is–in a distressing thought for example, noticing sensations in the body, stiffness in the lower back or pain in the upper neck, whether your breathing has turned into panting, for instance. In this noticing there is a lot of information about your stress level, the state of your well being. Conversely, you may notice that in this moment, you are well, that you feel a sense of ease in your body and in your mind. You make the connection between what you think and how you feel—connecting the mind with the body. For school leaders, this is powerful form of integration and congruence:  your thoughts and body awareness  align. This alignment is the basis for trustworthy and authentic leadership.

Mindfulness training builds the capacity to direct attention amidst the external distractions of daily life and the flexibility of awareness to recognize what is happening in the moment.

[i] Lortie, D.C. (1974) Schoolteacher: a sociological study. University of Chicago Press.

[ii] Goleman, D. (2013) Focus, the hidden driver of excellence. New York, New York: HarperCollins Publisher. p. 47

Written by

Valerie Brown, JD, MA, ACC is Principal of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC, specializing in the application and integration of mindfulness and leadership training in daily life. She is an international retreat leader, ICF-accredited leadership coach, speaker, and author of The Mindful School Leader (Corwin, 2014).

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