Living and Leading With Restraint

My family and I visited the Coastal Miwok village, Kule Loklo, while passing through the Point Reyes National Seashore yesterday.  The village is an outdoor exhibit of indigenous life – a few triangular living and storage structures covered in redwood bark, two subterranean sweat lodges, one rock with two concave depressions used as mortars.  Dotted about the grounds are small wooden signs with written descriptions of the different aspects of the village – one posted near the entrance quoted Kathleen Smith, a living Bodega Miwok:

“My people have lived on the coast for at least 8,000 years.  To live in spiritual and physical balance in the same small area for thousands of years without feeling the need to go somewhere else requires restraint, respect, knowledge and assurance of one’s place in the world.”

Restraint, Respect, Knowledge, and Assurance of One’s Place in the World.  This simple phrase would make a fantastic vision statement for any type of organization.  Given my particular lens, I think it is utterly apropos for our work in education – particularly in the realm of leadership.

“Restraint” does not often appear in any school or district’s mission/vision statements, nor is it a domain identified in standards for teachers and leaders.   Considering its “low profile” status as a trait worth having, a heavy question hung in the air around me, standing there under the eucalyptus while reading that sign: What is the role of restraint in life, and, more specifically, in school leadership?

“Restraint” may rank among the highest of complements currently used in art critique (“She executed this piece with such restraint”), yet the uneasy feeling often associated with this word becomes easier to understand when we consider what it asks of us: to hold back, to keep something in reserve, to do less, say less, not act on your first instinct…All in all, it just isn’t a very American virtue.  The story we tell about ourselves as Americans – a self-imposed mandate, really – describes a people committed to self-expression, personal liberty, having choices, speaking our minds, standing up to what’s wrong.  In essence, being free of restraints, choosing not to abide by them.  I think this might explain our current fascination with “Downton Abbey” (yes, another reference in three posts…) – a strictly divided society (upstairs, downstairs) with starkly clear definitions of one’s position, and always an emphasis on being proper (restrained).  People feel things and want to express them, but – due to the rules of engagement, or simple lack of knowing how – are unable to do so.  Watching this feels very alien to us in our present context (not that we are without our divisions and roles…) – almost a bit of science fiction!  But I think restraint has its place in our leadership tool belt – it isn’t just an anachronism from a bygone era.

“Restraint” seemingly asks us to do and be less than we are.  But that is contrary to the feeling struck by Mrs. Smith in her description of the behaviors and attitudes required for sustaining a community of people over thousands of years.  Looked at through the lens of a school leader, restraint is as crucial a mindset as any in helping to build a community worth living and working in (here are some other terrific thoughts from Principal Darryl Propp on what it takes to build and sustain an enjoyable working environment and culture).  As leaders, it is easy to feel impatient at the slow moving machine of Education; it is easy to draw up ideas in our own minds about solutions to organizational dysfunction.  As leaders, it is exceedingly difficult to practice restraint – after all, it feels like doing nothing sometimes!  Yet, as leaders, all eyes and ears are on us – not only analyzing what we say and do, but how.  Restraint doesn’t have to be a sign of non-action; if anything, it is a signal of confidence that all voices must be heard before the leader ultimately makes his or her decision.  “This is important to get right; we need to spend adequate time doing it.”

So – what does Restraint look like in our day-to-day work?

Some of my proudest moments, and some of my most effective decisions, have come from exercising restraint (even if, in that moment, it just felt frustrating and unproductive).  At times I get an angry email from a colleague or parent; I am proud of the emails I haven’t sent in reply – followed up by the face-to-face conversation that allowed for genuine, human interaction instead of digital rage.  I am proud of the times I have listened to a concern without answering it.  Or paid a visit to a colleague I know disagrees with something I did or said.  Restraint is not in conflict with honesty, transparency, credibility, and trustworthiness; practicing it does not mean we numb ourselves to the world (when a thick skin turns into an impenetrable shell), or that we can’t be true to our values and beliefs.  It simply means that we know our feelings aren’t more important than someone else’s.  The righteous path we envision for our organization needs to include the voices, perspectives, and collective commitment of our colleagues to be sustainable – to have a shot at 8,000 years of success!

I don’t think the wooden sign bearing Mrs. Smith’s quote was intended to speak to educators specifically.  That said, we would be wise to consider a mindset of restraint as necessary in creating the conditions for healthy, caring, reciprocal professional relationships, and, by extension, vibrant school climates.  School leaders have the authority to make decisions – they often do so righteously, with an “assurance of their place in the world.”  Equally important are the decisions not made in haste – or made at all – thanks to a carefully cultivated mindset of patience.  Or, better put, restraint.

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