Although I wear many hats at Seton Hall University, I love my role as professor, teaching leadership to aspiring principals and superintendents in the Department of Education Leadership, Management, and Policy. My favorite course is officially named “Leadership Institute,” but I prefer “The Spirituality of Leadership.” I begin class with Margaret Wheatley’s comment: “Times of turbulence serve as the wellspring for spiritual action. The profundity of the problems and the magnitude of the challenges require going deeper.”
Wheatley’s “times of turbulence” are spiralling out of control within increasingly complex and diverse public schools. At times, schools resemble Category 5 hurricanes with high winds of academic rhetoric, downpours of unfunded mandates, and floods of students with unrelenting socioeconomic and learning challenges. Charged with navigating this stormy weather responsibly are the often-beleaguered school principal and district superintendent. Although coursework provides my students with the knowledge and skills needed by effective administrators, leading in today’s Category 5 schools also requires going deeper. Educators today must go beyond what they know and who they are—what Paul Houston called the “third dimension of leadership.” School leaders must move beyond knowing and doing to being.
Joseph Campbell wrote in The Power of Myth that effective leadership entails lighting the pathways of life’s journey and helping shine the light for others. Every leader embodies both light and dark sides, the good and the bad in one. Each side has a powerful advocate—a coach—who serves as the voice inside, telling which leadership path to take. The worldly Ego Coach always says to win, to get more and more, to be better than others. The spiritual Higher Coach encourages going deeper, connecting to the source—a higher power—to be loving, giving, forgiving, and to be better, not just better than others. For the Higher Coach, it is not being best in the world, but best for the world. Silencing the Ego Coach and amplifying the voice of the Higher Coach determine the consequences of leadership.
Go Deeper Spiritually
Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone—whom we know today as St. Francis of Assisi—lived 800 years ago in a little Italian village. The oldest child of a wealthy merchant, he rejected his birthright to pursue a life of faith and poverty. In his conversations with his source, his Higher Coach, he requested strength and guidance to lean into the light, to pursue the spiritual path. St. Francis did not ask for peace for himself, but to be a channel of peace for others.
The Ego Coach loves drama and conflict and looks for personal injury. Leaders on the ego path work in crisis mode and lead others to dissatisfaction. In contrast, leaders on the spiritual path listen to their Higher Coach and dismiss the need to control people; they look for ways to bring peace into the lives of others and to find ways to serve. Eleanor Roosevelt expressed this sentiment: “It isn’t enough to talk about peace, one must believe it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it, one must work for it.”
The Ego Coach advises responding in kind to hatred, a dark destructive energy, but the Higher Coach knows to disperse the dark energy of hatred through unconditional love. As the Bible says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” The Ego Coach wants revenge, knowing that revenge digs a grave for both the injured and the injurer. Conversely, the Higher Coach proposes forgiveness, redoubling efforts to stay on the spiritual path, where love and forgiveness prevail. The author Maxim Gorky advised, “Be good, be kind, be humane, and charitable; love your fellows; console the afflicted; pardon those who have done you wrong.”
Go Deeper Philosophically
A leader on the spiritual path has an uncompromising belief in himself or herself, in teachers, and in students; those stumbling off that path rely heavily on the blame game. For instance, the Ego Coach whispers that the world is a hopeless place that conspires against the leader, resulting in the loss of meaning and purpose, dulled emotions, and a lack of energy. In contrast, the Higher Coach counsels that leaders decide both their own success and that of those they serve, making a positive difference. When I was a principal in the Newark Public School District, a sign on my superintendent’s wall proclaimed: “Falling down is moving forward faster.” That is hope!
Go Deeper into the Light
Deaf and blind, Helen Keller commented, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” The Ego Coach loves darkness, the site of negative emotions. On the flip side, the Higher Coach invites the light of internal being into all situations, including love, forgiveness, kindness, and peace. As St. Francis of Assisi said, “All the darkness in the world cannot extinguish the light of a single candle.”
Go Deeper to Lead
Leaders make choices that create a ripple effect of consequences. Sadness is inextricably connected to listening to the Ego Coach and traversing the worldly path. Joy flows from listening to the Higher Coach and staying on the spiritual path. The ego path leads to a life of fear, anger, guilt, vindictiveness, and sadness, without care for others. The spiritual path leads to a life of internal peace, forgiveness, and calmness. The choices that lead to the desired consequences for the responsibilities of leadership result less in a yoke of cloudy turbulence and more in the opportunity for clear success.