I sit in a lot of meetings. Some I design and facilitate; others I experience as a passive recipient. Navigating the swirl of each day at work, I readily admit that I am not always able (willing?) to give my wholehearted and undivided attention to what is happening in each and every meeting I attend, or to each and every interaction in the office, hallway, quad, or nighttime event.
How can I get distracted? Let me count the ways. An easy pick is my personal technology – why not be productive and answer a few emails while sitting here? It’s a surefire way to feel like I’ve gotten something done – sadly, this task-oriented mindset flies in the face of what’s most needed out of me in this moment: my physical, mental, and emotional presence.
Life as a school leader means that people are watching. They are listening. When you are mad, frustrated, distracted, distant, or lost in a swarm of tasks, people notice. I have worked at schools with leaders that, over the years of managerial blizzards (and avalanches), had developed an enduring thousand-yard stare. I think they were all bright people who got into education for the right reasons – but their years in leadership had taken a toll. It wasn’t that they were overtly negative or mean or flippant – my overriding impression was that they were simply going through the motions of leadership – playing it safe, not looking to disturb the surface calm of the institution. Hiding in plain sight.
Staff only need a few instances of unreturned email queries, or find their proactive attempts at generating idea exchanges around important issues met with polite indifference, to look elsewhere for solutions – or give up.
I feel some empathy for professionals that reach this place – they are simply not with us in body or mind. However, this politely indifferent, quietly disengaged leadership erodes confidence, squashes ideas, discourages risk-taking, and encourages a culture where teachers retreat to their four-walled sanctuaries.
To not extract some unique piece of wisdom each day – some unrepeatable touch of brilliance offered by a student’s insight, a connection made with a colleague, a private revelation about our own practice – is not grabbing hold of the gifts our work offers.
Presence of body and mind is our gift to offer. This is one way we show to others that they matter to us – that we care about something in common. As school leaders we do plenty of things – but we can’t do it all, nor can we know it all! That is why our primary role is to act as the connective tissue for all the various parts of our organization – to construct and articulate a cohesive sense of purpose from the many voices, opinions, experiences, and perspectives.
I have also realized that my mental presence is a fundamental question of respect for others. For someone, this meeting is important. They gave up something to be here. They took time off work. They’ll get home later to their young children because they chose to be here. If I am disengaged, I am silently communicating a passive, but powerful message: I don’t care about you.
Lyn Hilt’s terrific blog talks about the caring mindset as a fundamental component to good leadership and organizational health. Is it a radical idea to state that caring is the most important ingredient in any relationship? That any space where caring is not the primary guiding principle is unsafe, unproductive…
Let’s paint a quick scenario that likely happens daily to school leaders: A colleague walks into your office, or stops you in the hallway, and greets you with either “I know you’re busy…”, or, “Sorry to interrupt you, I know you’ve got better things to do…” Those two statements may very well be true – we might be headed to an important meeting we have spent hours (days) designing. The set up is crucial; everything needs to be in order. All good reasons to hurry off to attend to our task.
That said, we are face to face in this moment with someone that has something on their mind – a concern, an idea, a question. While we might not have the time to have the full conversation, we do have the opportunity to show them we care, that they matter to us.
Even the briefest encounter with a fully present, listening, caring leader can empower someone with the confidence that they indeed are a part of something bigger.