“This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

Some momentary awareness comes

As an unexpected visitor.”

(Rumi, “The Guest House”)

As I get older, I have become much more aware of the essential internal struggle that goes on inside our heads as we try to negotiate the many challenges of living. As a headteacher, I knew that I rarely gave myself the compassionate understanding and time that I was more than happy to devote to others and avoided the opportunity just to be still, put the emails or pressing paperwork to one side for even just a few moments.  When I did finally give myself this time, especially as I explored the nature of mindfulness, I became aware of what Rumi was describing in his wonderful poem. In my case, I was and am still by nature a ruminator on the negative thought, mostly about my own presumed deficiencies and how I should have risen above my inner struggles to become the relentless, driven and highly effective leader every headteacher recruitment advertisement describes in detail. What I have come to learn is that the thoughts that run through our heads and the emotions that can paralyse us are, as Susan David says in her inspirational book “Emotional Agility”, just “data”. They do not define us as people unless we give them reign to do so and we can allow ourselves time to reflect, laugh at ourselves or just accept this is what it is to be human.

What we see in some of our leaders today is that a lack of awareness leads to instantaneous kneejerk public communication of the private rantings from inside an individual fevered brain onto a social media platform followed shortly afterwards by equally vociferous, unchecked rants in response. Self -awareness, I would argue, is an essential quality for leaders or organisations. It is recognised as one of the four aspects of what Bruce Avolio and Fred Walumba call “Authentic Leadership” which I summarise below.

About three years ago, I designed a personal development day for school leaders entitled “The Human School Leader”. The day drew upon various aspects of my own experience as a school leader but also particular aspects of applied positive psychological research evidence as well as some great input from an associate who is an expert in yoga and wellness. The days which ran afterwards enabled some hard-pressed people who had demonstrated the courage to step up to senior leadership to give themselves space for a confidential and honest reflection on what contributed to their ability to flourish in life, not just during the cut and thrust of the day job. Examples of the key outcomes for the attendees were that they had the opportunity to regain a sense of their own being, that to flourish they had to get in touch with their own needs, build their self awareness and find the emotional and psychological nourishment that serves to replenish our energy and desire to give ourselves to others. For me, the learning was that leaders need to go back to base at regular intervals to check the health of their inner world so they can function in an effective and sustainable way in the very demanding external world of educational leadership.

This brings me to share a little of the recent research on what constitutes a concept of leadership which has been shown to inspire the admiration and loyalty of others and define the sort of qualities we should expect in leaders that are worthy of our respect and trust. You might find it useful to reflect on this notion of “Authentic Leadership” – if you are a leader it might be useful to think about how you demonstrate these qualities and how they can enrich your organisation. If you are recruiting a leader or a member of staff involved in selecting a new leader, then the following aspects might help you organise your thoughts on the qualities of the candidates who aspire to be your leader:

  • Authentic leaders are characterised by self-awareness, and show understanding of both their strengths and limitations, have insights into their true self through their interactions with others and recognise clearly their impact on others.
  • Authentic leaders have internalised a clear moral perspective which means that they can regulate their thinking, behaviour and actions based on a strong internal moral compass which leads to ethical, considerate and informed decisions
  • Authentic leaders take time to objectively evaluate information from a variety of sources before making decisions. This includes encouraging differing views, proper questioning and challenge so that balanced, informed leadership is the norm.
  • Authentic leaders are true to their own values, express what is important to them and invite others to be open and transparent about their own thoughts and feelings.

(after Walumba et al., 2008).