The Inner Life of Educational Leaders
by Courage & Renewal Facilitators David Henderson and Chris Love
Over the past year, David Henderson, Courage & Renewal facilitator and co-founder of Montana Courage To Teach, completed his dissertation at The University of Montana by conducting a qualitative case study of the perspectives of fifteen Seattle area educational leaders who experienced a Courage To Lead (CTL) retreat series together in 2002-2004.
The intent of the study was not to evaluate the CTL program per se, but rather, to ascertain what impact the inner life of these school leaders had on their leadership practice. In-depth individual interviews and a focus group discussion explored the intersection of characteristics such as identity, integrity, authenticity, heart and courage within participants. The rich collection of data and stories that emerged were empirically analyzed and interpreted, revealing that the inner domain has a critical influence on the outer domain of these educational leaders.
The study focused on the effect of the whole inner life of leaders on their leadership practice, and only one question at the end of the individual interviews and the focus group was specific to participants’ experience with the CTL program. However, the leaders’ responses consistently showed that CTL had a profound impact, not only as a value-added experience, but for most participants, as a clearly transformational experience on their day-to-day leadership over the past three years.
Participants’ stories had a profoundly powerful and meaningful impact on the researcher, also providing a humbling glimpse into the importance, relevance and realness of Courage work in their lives. It is one thing to facilitate a Courage circle with the intentional role of supporter and believer in the work. It was a completely different experience to bring the researcher’s detached and unbiased eye as an observer to this work and see firsthand the depth of impact Courage work has on leaders of such genuine character.
One participant related the Courage experience to her definition of identity: “It’s more the core of me as an individual being different than any other individual. I think Courage work has helped me to think about that, who am I and the way I live.”
Yet the impact of the Courage experience went far beyond the depths of who participants perceive they are. One noted that the Courage experience affected her ability as a leader to hold simultaneously what may first seem as conflicting opposites:
I don’t know if you’ve looked at all at Johnson’s work on polarity management. Well, it’s really fascinating stuff, and the premise is that there are many kinds of problems, or what we see as problems in life that are not really problems-- they're polarities to be managed. That they have two equal sides that have to be kept in balance in order to move forward. I think as a leader that is so true and one of my favorite polarities in working with staff or leaders, … teachers and teachers working with kids is the polarity in balancing challenge and support.
If you only challenge somebody in their job -- push, push, push with no support, they are going to burn out, spiral out, disconnect completely. If you only support them, then you just enable them, and … they're not going to grow or to improve or to achieve. So you have to keep those two things in balance, the challenge and the support, and I think that that’s what the Courage work/No Child Left Behind thing is like - radical examples of part of that polarity.
A second leader made a direct connection between her own professional and personal suffering and how CTL enabled her to deal with that suffering in a different way
I think that sense of suffering, had I not experienced it, real or perceived, I wouldn’t have that heart for the hard work. Some people who really like tough schools and tough this and tough that, I don’t like tough schools. I like hard work, which is what [CTL] is about.
Focus group participants also said that CTL resonates with the hard work and demanding trials of leadership. They described themselves as more ”salty” in their willingness to take on tough issues. One related his CTL experience to his integrity: “I have no choice – I must take this stand.”
Another leader passionately tied the CTL experience specifically to a deeper sense of courage in her own life:
For me to participate in that year-long piece around Courage To Lead … was about courage to face. When I got on that ferry to Bainbridge Island and I said goodbye to Seattle, … I stripped myself of everything when I got on that boat to Bainbridge Island. Because I wanted to go and be cleansed. It’s like being baptized, for lack of a better phrase. It was like being baptized every few months. … I was in a hurry, to get to the work. I think that took courage on my part.
I allowed myself to be open and to be fed from a new pot. So that when we began to read poets about self and we began to walk to our private little spots just able to weep for the little one of you, and the little one of you at the same time was being held so gently and you knew that you could do that work and you could be that tiny one and you wouldn’t be criticized, you wouldn’t be harmed, you would just be cradled ….
Having the courage to do that allowed me to go places that I needed to go and hadn’t gone before. I had just lost my… it was just one loss after the other -- and they were all very surface losses -- but the loss I wanted to find was me. That to me was the most courageous act that I've ever performed. … I've done a lot of things for people, but the most courageous thing I've done was I fell in love with me. And not in a selfish way, but in a very loving way, in a way that allowed me to not allow others to harm my spirit.
This passionate appreciation for the CTL experience was not uncommon. One participant poignantly summed up her experience:
How can I sum it up? The whole CTL experience was an exploration of all those things [ identity, integrity, authenticity, etc.], and it gave us space and time and provoked us to get into the whole idea of leading with your head and your heart. [It showed] how in being professional there was not only room, but there was a big place for being spiritual. I used to separate those more, and now not so much.
Maybe because of the experience with these wonderful people who were being themselves, these wonderfully flawed human beings, I'm not as hesitant to show my wonderfully flawed person. I'm a better listener because of the whole experience, and I don’t as much try to fix people. But really it just gave us a consistent place to come back to and it gave us each other to come back to and explore and delve into and refine all these ideas and internalize the identity, integrity, transparency, the soul - all those things. We had a place to do it safely and in community and professionally.
Oh yeah, we’re human beings, why wouldn’t we bring our humanity into our work? Somehow we had gotten away from it.
One leader simply compared the CTL experience to all her other professional development experiences, saying, “It felt like cream instead of skim milk.” Another articulated why CTL work has such a powerful impact with uncommon longevity: “I think it’s because this work is about internals, you know, not the typical outside stuff, so it lasts longer.”
The following three key themes surfaced from the analysis of the interviews and focus group: Inner work was critical to these leaders’ current leadership practice. This inner work yields a dynamic relationship between identity, integrity, and authenticity, which show up in specific leadership attributes such as heart, courage, connection to followers, and improved deep listening skills. Finally, the CTL experience provides a unique environment to engage leaders deeply into their inner domain and to connect that inner domain to their outer domain of leadership practice.