Harvard Graduate School of Education Logo

Human-Centered Leadership in Stressful Times

School leaders can build a practice of mindfulness to support themselves and their communities

April 16, 2020
Group profiles in blue

Researchers have demonstrated that stress can reduce not only the ability to learn but the ability of a leader to function at their best. In times where the basic structures of daily life have been upended across the board, school leaders should be aware of the challenges their faculty and staff are experiencing — as well as students and families — and make informed decisions about how to best provide support, especially when resources are scarce.

According to mindfulness educator Metta McGarvey, during “periods of great disruption to our daily norms and lives, anxiety and fear increase. We need to show up for and take care of each other as a front-and-center priority.”

McGarvey offers the following suggestions to help leaders in the classroom and at the school and district level model and enact mindful, human-centered decisions as they navigate disruptions.

Practice the Intention to Show Up for Others

Leadership requires split attention and constant multi-tasking, so offering undivided attention is especially challenging. “Simone Weil said, ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’ — offering undivided attention is a gift, and it is also a practice,” McGarvey says.

  • Choose to show up with undivided attention. Take the time to practice, three times a day for 10 minutes at a time. 
    • Do it once for someone at work, once for someone at home, and once for yourself.
    • When taking this time with others, let them know this is intentional and that they will have 10 full minutes of your undivided attention.
  • Building positive qualities like patience and compassion don’t happen overnight. “Practice several times a day for a few minutes at a time, to build the habit of being present, clear, warm, and available for yourself and others,” McGarvey says.
  • As a leader, your actions will serve as a model for the community. Take the time to reflect and be honest and open about the decisions you’ve made.

…But Don’t Forget to Show Up for Yourself

  • Create the conditions you need in order to succeed. Leaders are confronting new demands and juggling unprecedented dilemmas. As a result, they will need to compartmentalize as they meet urgent needs and take on an increased volume of work. If you need a minute to center yourself and recharge, take it.  
  • Know when to step away. “While we do need to give more and do more right now, we all reach a point where our ability to give diminishes and we are at risk of becoming unskillful and unproductive,” McGarvey says.
  • Practice being fully present when working or relaxing to manage stress and function at your best. McGarvey notes that it’s not productive to have your body do one thing while your mind continues to think about other problems.
  • Meet regularly a small group of colleagues in similar leadership roles to discuss shared difficulties and support each other in how this impacts you. Set aside time to acknowledge what you can and cannot control and can and cannot mitigate.
  • Don’t forget to make time to have a little fun, look for and share small moments of beauty, humor, and connection.
Widen Layout: 
standard
Key Takeaways
  • Put people first
  • Increase support to balance these unprecedented challenges, for yourself, your colleagues, and your students
  • Self-care and self-renewal are essential for effective leadership
See More In
School Leadership Social-Emotional Wellbeing