Leading from the inside

All of us make a habit of doing our best to lead from the outside. What do I mean by this? Basically, we are constantly working to put all our focus on others and striving to be the servant leaders that we all know we need to be.

But leading from the outside, while a priority, is only a part of the picture. When we are at our best, we aren’t just putting the focus on others, we are also leading from the inside and keeping at least a small bit of the focus on ourselves.

You know how when you are on an airplane about to taxi down the runway, and an airline employee runs through the spiel that you should put the oxygen mask on your face before assisting others? Well, leading from the inside supports this exact idea. We can never be as helpful and supportive to others if we refuse to help and support ourselves.

And of course, it isn’t easy to lead this way. We can feel guilty for putting a focus on ourselves, and with a finite amount of time, it is possible for us to feel we are letting others down in favor of self-care. Despite this, here are three ways that we can balance our desire and need to lead from the outside with the simple fact that we can only do this well if we also lead for ourselves.

Schedule self-time. I know it seems silly. Why would we need to schedule specific time on our calendars for ourselves? It’s a good question, and the fact remains that free time in our calendar will invariably get filled by any number of other important opportunities. So, knowing this, we can simply schedule a short bit of time for ourselves during the course of the day or during the evening. The fact is, if we don’t have time just for ourselves, we’re more likely to forget about our own needs. And if we disregard ourselves, then we run the risk of getting burned out, becoming ill, or forgetting that our own care is a necessity if we are to care for others.

Accept awareness. “Being mindful” isn’t education jargon. When we take the time to recognize where we are and put in the effort to actually be present, there is much we notice that would have gone absent if we continued to jump from one worthy task to another. Being mindful and taking a moment to truly observe the world around us -- and why this is important -- is as much about caring for a situation as it is about caring for ourselves. When we allow ourselves the opportunity to be present, we are also allowing ourselves an opportunity to dig deeper into a given scenario than we normally would have. A world without fires in education is a world where mindfulness and awareness rule. And it’s also a world where proactivity and planning take the place of reactivity and “If only...” We can accept awareness easily by forcing ourselves to slow down. Rather than see each task as a check to be marked, we can prompt ourselves to see where a given role and responsibility fits into the greater scheme of our work, our cultures and our communities.

Give in. A little. Take a moment to reflect: When was the last time you took a vacation day? Do you have more vacation time than you know what to do with? For many of us, the answer to the first question is “I don’t remember” and the answer to the second question is “Yes.” The funny thing is there is no award given for stocking up vacation days or working during dedicated time off. We might like the feel of completing a work task when we are technically on break, or we might worry about feeling anxious if we turn off the email notifications for a while. But at what expense? We have to be willing to give in to ourselves from time-to-time and let the balance tilt toward life a bit more than work. Sure, we can’t do this all the time, but if we do it none of the time than we haven’t really found a way to separate our professional and personal lives. And that benefits no one.

All of us want the best for those we serve. And all of us work hard to make that a reality. In the process, though, we also have to work hard to get the best for ourselves. It turns out that ignoring ourselves only detracts from our ability to give our all to others. So, why not lead a bit from the inside as a stepping stone to becoming better at leading from the outside?

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the assistant director of Curriculum and Instructional Services for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Fred blogs at www.fredende.blogspot.com, Edutopia, ASCD EDge and SmartBrief Education. His book, Professional Development That Sticks is available from ASCD. Visit his website: www.fredende.com.

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