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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lisa Gonzales

Becoming a More Mindful Leader

At a time of smart phones, smart watches, always-on round-the-clock atmosphere, and immediate access to just about everyone and everything, distractions are at a premium. That’s where being a mindful leader is so very powerful.

Mindfulness is just this - the act of being consciously aware, of focusing on the present moment in a nonjudgmental way. Mindfulness has had a recent surge in popularity, having started back some 2,600 years ago in Buddhist times because of the self-awareness it brings. Research shows that mindful practices improve concentration, inspire creativity, and add meaningfully to the lives of others. Whether the ability to manage stress or achieve nirvana-like relaxation and focus, the qualities of mindfulness can help increase our leadership skills and personal satisfaction.

Why is it important?

Ever walk across a school campus after school hours, deep in thought, mentally prepping your “to do list,” only to have your thoughts interrupted by a parent or staff member? It’s hard to be entirely present in the conversation they are pulling you into because your mind is stuck on the list, visualizing items falling off of it as your brain kicks into listening and speaking. The task at hand should be the other person but our brains are often a little scattered with so much work and so little time that we can’t focus on that conversation as fully as we would like.

That’s where mindfulness comes in, as it helps us reconnect with others in a more meaningful, authentic way. Principal Rosanna Whisnant at Newton-Conover Middle School shares that for her, being a mindful leader about relaxing, reflecting, and focusing solely on the other person. “Listening intently and asking clarifying questions ensures I’m on the same page with others when talking,” she explained. Sarita Amaya, an Assistant Administrator of Multilingual Programs in the Beaverton School District adds that being a mindful leader is about “being fully present for yourself and becoming skilled at understanding your feelings, needs and how to be nurturing, loving and compassionate to oneself.”

What are the benefits?

The practice of being present and attentive helps both focus and refocus our interactions and strengthens our awareness, and the physical benefits aren’t too bad either. In a handful of minutes of mindful practices each day, numerous studies report that mindfulness can:

  • Improve mental focus

  • Reduce stress and decrease anxiety

  • Strengthen our immunity

  • Assist in time management, organization and prioritizing

  • Improve mood and emotional balance

With the US Department of Health attributing some 70 percent of work-related physical and mental complaints linking back to stress, strong leaders need to be able to focus on their states of being that can be better achieved through mindful practices. After all, when we are relaxed, positive, alert and open-minded, the resulting “good brain hygiene” permeates our actions in the workplace and in our personal lives.

Nancy San Jose, an elementary principal in the Los Angeles Unified School District explained, “the irony about mindfulness is that it’s not just a mental state of well-being, but a physical one as well. I believe that mindfulness is best sought after through the healing of the physical brain via exercise, meditation, prayer, healthy eating, healthy relationships, reflection, positive self talk, and being out in nature.”

What might it look like in our daily lives as school leaders?

School leaders entertain a vast repertoire of practices in their journey toward mindfulness. Some achieve it through the arts, like Assistant Principal Eli Holm of the Cheney Public Schools who finds stress relief in music. “While there’s certain music for certain situations, this I know: music is my stress relief, my mindfulness practice, my center. Plain and simple.”

Meditation is another possibility. Antoinette Gutierrez, principal at San Bernardino High School shared, “I take gratitude walks, use focused breathing quite a bit, and meditate daily, all of which keep my body balanced so the worries of the work don’t affect my mental and physical health.” Gwendolyn Dorsey of Frederick County Public Schools agrees and adds, “I do mindful breathing at several points throughout the day in order to focus or zero in on how I am feeling at the moment.”

West Grand School District One Superintendent Darrin Peppard practices mindfulness with intentional practices at work. “I deliberately schedule time on my calendar to go visit classrooms and kids, keeping the primary focus where it belongs - on our kids.” Likewise, Indianola Community School District Superintendent Art Sathoff takes “a quiet moment to think about people who might like or need to hear from me, and then I write a personal note. It could be congratulating a student on an accomplishment, writing a staff member a birthday card, or just a note of appreciation.”

San Ramon Valley Unified Principal Joe Nguyen brings his mindful practices full circle and links his professional and personal life. “I take a moment in the morning to reflect on my daily agenda and expectations for the day. My faith definitely plays a role in my mindfulness activities as well as we practice mindfulness as a family at home.” Principal Susan Gutierrez of Northern Trails 5/6 School concurs and added, “unplugged, purposeful family time is so important and impactful.”

Not convinced?

Start small. Adding one two or three minute practice every few days or keeping a gratitude journal to focus on the positives can be a manageable beginning. Regardless of what you do, the results funnel up to improved productivity and stronger quality moments with those we serve. Being a mindful leader is one more way to cope, focus, and thrive.

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