The "Heart" of Leadership

Two weeks off from school, I’ve taken Tom Schimmer’s advice and pressed the “Pause” button.  As well as enjoying time with my family I’ve been reading Paul Mariani’s, Thirty Days: On Retreat with the Exercises of St. Ignatius.  Spending 30 days of silence in a Retreat house, the author takes part in the five-hundred-year-old Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and comes to an understanding of what it truly means to put others before oneself.

In reflecting upon Mariani’s experiences, I began to see that his understanding really is the basis for effective leadership. Fran Norris Scoble, in perhaps the best essay I’ve read in the past year, Is School Good for the Soul, advances my premise:

It matters far less that we know what time class starts than that we know why we gather and how we are changed because we do.

As leaders, in putting others before oneself, we learn to appreciate that we grow into our real knowledge of a place and a people through the thousand unmarked interactions of the everyday and the commonplace.  In knowing “why we gather” we can view ‘mandates’ or ‘directions’ not as points of contention but rather as opportunities to design communities that encourage reflection and introspection: opportunities to lead while imparting a fundamental sense of possibility.  We can, in the end, invite those we lead to pursue inquiry with us and in so doing create a culture that allows us all to become comfortable and assured in our abilities to speak to the hearts of all – addressing not only what we are doing but also what we are feeling.

As I prepare to reengage with my school community today, I reflect upon Mariani’s understanding and become even more aware that, for me, leadership is not a goal, position or title but instead a process of engagement around moral purpose and identity:  an engagement which excitingly will always be built within the context of human relationships.

Putting others before oneself. Maybe Paul Mariani is right. Maybe finding out what those around us need truly is the basis of compassion. And maybe this is at the heart of leadership . . . I think it is.

3 Comments
  1. Gino, I wonder what your thoughts are on leadership in complex cultures where some relationships are broken, there is suspicion of those in (formal) leadership, etc. How would you approach a situation like this?

    • Great question, Brian and a wonderful topic for a post!
      I won’t go on and on with a response so I’ll try to keep it simple, hopefully not to my detriment.

      The school I work in now is representative of a “complex culture” within a District where suspicions of those in “formal leadership” can and do, unfortunately, arise.

      In looking at relationships and how/why they are broken, I would suggest that there are three points of origin: the philosophical, the procedural and the personal.

      The first speaks to differences of opinion in terms of what is best for a respective community. Suspicion of formal leadership arises in this case not because stakeholders disagree with the decision of the leader but because of their inability to trust that the leader is acting from a deep conviction to a moral purpose: namely to build capacity for continuous learning within a caring and inclusive community. In a situation like this, I would acknowledge this “inability” by centering dialogue on the “why” and the “what” purpose behind our/my actions and explicitly recognizing the disquiet and uncertainty that staff are feeling. Although I am once again expounding upon my philosophy to staff, I am still in a space that puts others before myself.

      If the issue is one that is procedural, in other words, “Is there a Machiavellian intent behind what the leader is doing?” then the approach is one that must focus on process: has it been open, collaborative, transparent? The “complexity” here resides in the management sphere and is one that is more easily corrected.

      The most difficult of situations to be remedied is, of course, complex cultures that are adversely affected by the politics of personality. These situations are the most difficult and call for the leader to have the ability to be self-reflective. In other words, I recall what my former Counseling Department Head used to say to me when, upon finishing my complaint about how I had been treated by a colleague, she would look at me and ask: “What is it about you that is eliciting this response from your colleague?” Again, at the heart of this approach is compassion and understanding rather than anger and reproach. As well is the recognition that a leader doesn’t need to be liked or admired by all (something that is rare) but he/she does need to be respected and, hopefully, trusted.

      Three situations, three different reasons why relationships can break and suspicions arise (but each of them definitely fixable).

  2. Gino, thanks for responding so completely to my question. The advice you provide is so true, in my experience. If I were to pick the most important thing to be it wold be “Trust”. I think Trust can be created from the other aspects of purpose/why, transparency, etc. I’ve found also that people need to know you’re there for them, you have their backs, not just your own. I’m made lots of mistakes over the years while working out my leadership “degree” (school of hard knocks). There are so many things I’d do differently knowing what I know now. The challenge is to regain or rebuild trust with those that you have broken it with. That is a steep uphill climb in some cases… Never a dull moment in leadership!

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