It has been awhile since my last post. While I have not been writing much, I have been learning about interesting and relevant things that inform my understanding about school. Recently, I went with an administrative colleague to hear Michael Murphy and Carol Ann Tomlinson at an ASCD pre-conference workshop speak about leading a school into differentiated instruction. While they shared strategies for achieving this outcome, they were clear that successful implementation requires bold and courageous moves on the part of school leaders. Is the bold and courageous part of leadership something that can be taught or does it come from innately who we are as people? I don’t profess to know the answer to the question, but I came closer to some insight as a result of listening to an On Being interview between Krista Tippett, the host, and David Whyte, philosopher and poet, entitled the Conversational Nature of Reality.
I want to share some of David Whyte’s insights from the interview and relate them as best as possible to education and leadership in schools. Unpacking his thoughts as they apply to leadership is an ongoing process.
Whyte opens the interview with a reflection:
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.
What does it mean to be in the confinement of your aloneness? I think he wants us to move beyond “loneliness” and think about aloneness as “being alone with your thoughts.”
Whyte reflects on his time as a naturalist in the Galapagos Islands when he spent hours watching animals, birds, and landscapes.
Science, rightly, is always trying to remove the “I.” But I was really interested in the way that the “I” deepened the more you paid attention.
He speaks about paying attention to things that were “other than myself.” From his perspective, deepening one’s attention to things other than self allows the person to have a stronger appreciation for the present, a deeper mindfulness about the moment in which we find ourselves. He speaks about the chasm we all face, bridging the gap between “what you think is you and what you think is not you.” I think he wants us to consider a life, both personal and professional, that carves out time to focus attention, work on our inner life, and align our real and ideal self.
This chasm is not unlike the gap that Richard Boyatzis (click here) discusses in his model for resonant leadership. See the diagram below for the five stages of discovery for effective leadership. A leader who explores his or her aloneness creates the space to explore the gap between the ideal self versus the real self. In doing so, the person gets closer and closer to expressing his or her leadership in authentic ways. Living in the present moment, learning from our experiences, reflecting on our failures, and developing relationships that support us as we try to become more aligned to our ideal self is one path leading to “discovery.”
Tippett quotes a piece from one of Whyte’s books, Consolations, that speaks to the importance of being reflective.
one of the elemental dynamics of self-compassion is to understand our deep reluctance to be left to ourselves.
This part of the interview has me wondering why schools fail to carve out meaningful and substantive time for students and faculty to reflect on what they learn and how they teach? As leaders, we spend most of our time negotiating how we will fill every void that exists in the schedule or we complain about how busy we are and that we have no time to reflect. Heaven forbid if we let students or faculty have alone time to think about their learning or teaching, or to think about themselves in relationship to the learning culture in which they find themselves. I understand some people might not avail themselves of the time, but if we don’t make time, trying to build a culture of reflection we won’t learn how to use it to achieve greater clarity of purpose. What are we afraid of? I think Whyte answers that when he says:
And so one of the things we’re most afraid of in silence is this death of the periphery, the outside concerns, the place where you’ve been building your personality, and where you think you’ve been building who you are starts to atomize and fall apart.
Could this be why students, and maybe adults, have a hard time being alone? Could this be why students, and maybe adults, fill their alone time with music, tv, and screen-time? The saying goes, we assign time to things we value. By not scheduling time for reflection, are we telling our students that we don’t value “alone” time or we don’t value time to sit with oneself, reflecting on the day’s experiences? Without this time, a day is reduced to doing tasks, meeting expectations, and wondering whether everything is finished.
Tippett asks Whyte to read the poem Everything is Waiting for You. What a beautiful piece! “Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.” Then comes one of the most powerful lines in the poem:
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into the conversation.
I believe he refers to the conversation we can have with the world around us if we put aside the fear of aloneness, of being lonely, and embrace the conversations we can have with the world if we pay attention to things around us, leading a more mindful existence.
Whyte conjectures that we don’t want to have the conversation because we are fearful of “loss and disappearance.” We are afraid to feel vulnerable in our aloneness. What are we teaching our students if we don’t help them experience their aloneness in ways that builds their resilience, their understanding of self, and their capacity to establish deeper connections to things in the world? We can facilitate a culture of reflection by intentionally creating mindfulness experiences for students. Of course, adults in a school would have to value and model the work to make it happen. So why don’t we? Might we be afraid of being vulnerable?
If we desire a more transparent and open community where it’s OK to be vulnerable, exposing ourselves to powerful moments of learning, then our schools have to be led by adults who again model the work. Whyte speaks to this when he says:
First of all, one of the powerful dynamics of leadership is being visible. One of the vulnerabilities of being visible is that when you’re visible, you can be seen. And when you can be seen, you can be touched. And when you can be touched, you can be hurt.
He gives us the insight we need to understand why we fear being visible, we don’t want to be hurt. Learning how to be vulnerable and handling the hurt that might come our way is the key to becoming a strong leader. It is the gateway to bridging the gap between the ideal and real self as illustrated in Boyatzis’ diagram. In the interview, Whyte reads from his book Consolations about vulnerability.
Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without; vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, ever present, and abiding under-current of our natural state.
How do you handle and express your vulnerabilities? Whyte encourages us to inhabit our vulnerabilities and as a result we become “more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance.” As Whyte incorporates his own experiences with the natural world, he points out that human beings are the only species that can actually refuse to be ourselves. He expresses these ideas this way:
And one of the healing things about the natural world to human beings is that it’s just itself. But we, as humans, are really quite extraordinary in that we can actually refuse to be ourselves. We can get afraid I of the way we are. And we can temporarily put a mask over our face and pretend to be somebody else or something else.
Of course the possibility is that we can actually accept this version of ourselves, the masked individual marauding about the world creating “havoc.” For Whyte the antidote to this existence is:
And I think one of the great necessities of self knowledge is understanding and even tasting the single-malt essence of your own reluctance to be here.
He brings it back to the title of the interview, “all the ways you don’t want to have the conversation…all the ways you don’t want to be visible in a leadership position.” In terms of leadership, Whyte makes that case that effective integration of self with the world will not happen unless we are willing to have a conversation with ourselves about how to align our ideal and real selves. In his poem, Working Together, he writes:
So may we in this life
to those elements
we have yet to see
and find the true
shape or our own self,
The work ahead for me is to try and carve out more time to be in the “sweet confinement of my aloneness.” In this time, I want to work on building tighter alignment between the reality of who I am as a leader and my desire to become a more effective leader. I invite you to think about these ideas, listen to the Tippett-Whyte interview, and join me on this journey. Please use the comment section to explore these ideas with me.