From Teaching Mindfulness to Leading Mindfully – An Exploration

By Maggie Farrar

I recently facilitated a MiSP programme on ‘Exploring Mindful Leadership’ for those trained, through MiSP, to teach mindfulness to children and who were interested in exploring how their mindfulness practice could enhance their leadership whatever their role. We also explored how we might use our experience, as teachers of mindfulness, to influence the development of a culture of mindfulness across a school and the impact this can have on all members of a school community.

This exploration draws on the voices of some of those who took part in the programme. The themes are taken from the four stanzas of a lovely poem written by Hamish as he reflected on the core themes that resonated for him in the programme.

Leading with presence

What if we could lead with presence,
And clear intent,
Pause, listen deeply,
Especially, even to unsaid words,
And tangled emotions hidden in plain sight,
Simply witness,
Unblinkered and unshuttered,
Assuming positive intent in others?

As a leader or teacher the greatest gift we can give to any one is our presence. To be here, fully aware, attentive and focused when conversing, when teaching, when reading, when listening. We can only embody presence, when we are fully in this moment. After all, this very moment is the only moment we have in which to live, and in which to lead. So why not be here for it?

Schools are busy places and as a result we can easily fall into a state of “continuous partial attention”, mentally living in the past or the future, rarely still and never fully present for ourselves or for those we teach and lead. The cultivation of leadership presence, attentiveness and deep listening, was a core part of the programme.

We noted with interest how we teach the practices of grounding, responding wisely, noticing intrusive thought, but in our day-to-day work, get caught up in busy-ness and lead or teach with ‘constant partial attention.’ As Liz shared ‘I have explored how can I be a more mindful leader with less stress and more compassion, aware of some of the habits I have fallen into especially during the pandemic. I have had a chance to reflect and have decided to change how I approach my leadership’.

We shared that one of the core roles of leaders and teachers is to be ‘chief noticers’, and this requires us to be here, in this moment – noticing when we are pulled into the past or the future, or simply distracted and on autopilot. Seren noted how she now has more present moment awareness, arriving in school each morning doing a short breathing practice and settling clear intentions for the day, balancing her ‘to do’ and ‘to be’ list.

Leaning into that which is difficult

What if we could lean into that which is difficult,
Invite the tiger to tea,
And how things ‘ought to be’,
Getting close,
With kindness, curiosity and compassion,
Remembering ‘what we resist persists’,
Awakening our inner coach to
What else might be true here?

School leadership is complex and demanding. Challenging conversations, high stakes accountability and leading our schools in complex and uncertain times can take its toll.

We explored cultivating a wise relationship with our thoughts and feelings. We noticed how often we ‘borrow trouble from tomorrow’, falling into ‘anticipatory worry’, ruminating on an all too realistic worst-case scenario. This sort of anticipatory worry or fear can make us feel powerless. We can feel unbalanced as if we are losing our grip. Self-doubt can creep in.  Mindfulness helps us notice when we are leaning into a future replete with uncertainty and worry and, by drawing on some simple practices in the programme, we learned to come back with a greater degree of inner confidence and mental clarity to the present moment.

Helen noted this when she reminded us that teaching and leadership can be a lonely business, especially when facing difficulty. The work we did on the inner critic and imposter syndrome really resonated with her, helping her to work with the little voice in her head, that we all have, saying – ‘am I good enough?’.

Sam practices leaning into the difficult by stopping, breathing and looking at the situations in his day-to-day work in a different light.

Seren explored how the programme and the mindfulness practices have supported her in handling challenging conversations. She is now clearer on her own intention in the conversation, of how she speaks, of the power of silence and of how she is able to ‘eavesdrop’ on herself and name what’s happening in a conversation as its happening -staying grounded and open throughout.

Leading with equanimity

What if we could lead with equanimity,
Skipping lightly from dance floor to balcony and back,
With a ‘radical acceptance’ of what’s here,
In awareness of inner bias and
Letting go of what we think we already know,
A willingness to rethink and reframe,
and decide, then invite dissent,
as you would the tiger?

We explored the practice of effective leaders who cultivate balance in their day-to-day work. They spend time ‘on the dance floor’ – in the thick of it – and also ‘on the balcony’– watching, sensing, with open perception. We reflected on how our work is often characterised by a ‘driven, doing, striving’ mode of being, and we practiced balancing this with a ‘sensing, experiencing and being’ mode. The driven, doing ‘dance floor’ is alluring, it feeds our need to be ‘valued’, and for a number of the participants weaning ourselves off the pull of the dance floor was an important aspect of the programme.

In other words we practiced equanimity and being ‘in balance’, in the middle of the demands of the day. We noticed how these practices brought greater clarity to our work, allowing us to be more responsive and less reactive in day-to-day encounters. They enabled us to be calm and so ‘model calm’ to others. For Vanessa the practice of being in balance, modelling this and ‘lending the children our calm’, for example at the start of assembly, really resonated.

Leadership renewal and sustainability

What if we could renew and sustain ourselves,
Ask for help and see it as a strength,
Be aware, offer hope,
And lead with compassion,
Seeing attentiveness, a subtle act of love,
Inattentiveness, a subtle act of neglect,
Pivoting towards purpose and asking,
What really matters to me in this moment?

We explored the art and practice of daily renewal as a teacher and a leader, drawing on the practices of compassion and gratitude, and cultivating micro moments of pause in our daily lives. For Liz, the programme gave her the ‘permission slip I never knew I needed’ to have the confidence to practice renewal and support others to similarly attend to and renew themselves. This meant modelling stillness in mind and body, turning towards that which nourishes and lifts our spirits at work, and intentionally practicing gratitude and appreciation.

For a number of participants this meant reconnecting with their core purpose once again and living it moment by moment by pausing and asking: ‘what really matters to me in this moment, so how am I going to be in this moment?’ – then acting in accordance with their purpose.

Shifting culture

At the heart of all our conversations was how we can more intentionally model mindfulness in school and over time support a shift in organisational culture to one that is more mindful, compassionate and kind. We realised that this doesn’t necessarily mean we have to ‘put on’ mindfulness programmes for staff although this is undoubtedly useful. Our sphere of influence is often bigger than we think and we kept reminding ourselves that the opportunity to teach mindfulness and change culture often comes in disguise.

For some participants this opportunity came in how they conducted conversations, in how they started and ended meetings, how they gave time to regular staff ‘check ins’, how they now approach difficult decision making, or in how they embodied compassion and kindness in everyday actions.

Sarah reflected ‘I now see how I can take my mindfulness practice into my leadership – I now see the link, I now practice being more mindful as a leader with less stress and more compassion.’ For Liz the realisation that she had slipped into some habits during the pandemic, meant the course gave her a chance to reflect and change how she approaches her leadership. Vanessa had a similar reflection on the programme saying ‘we had conversations that were relevant, intelligent, inspirational and thought provoking – it helped us to notice, attend to and move on’.

Changing culture takes time and starts with our own internal change. This is the power of mindfulness. As Tolstoy said ‘everyone thinks of changing the world but no – one thinks of changing themselves’. Mindfulness allows us to attend to this inner and outer change simultaneously.

Helen describes this shift when she says ‘MiSP courses teach me about myself and how to truly reflect on my inner world. If I can become a more balanced person as a result this will impact on my work life for the better too.’

With thanks to:
Liz Banner
Sarah Gear
Vanessa Hartson Walker
Hamish Keddie
Helen Offen
Sam Payen
Seren Ruane

To join Maggie on the next Exploring Mindful Leadership course please apply here.

Maggie will be one of our expert speakers at our 2022 Conference. Find out more here.