Mindfulness and School Leadership
Summary and Keywords
Organizational mindfulness refers to an organization’s collective disposition toward learning and supports its ongoing quest for effective and reliable performance. Descended from Buddhist thought, mindfulness draws attention to a leader’s awareness of the moment and subsequent decision-making and is informed by in-the-moment observation and attentiveness. This Eastern perspective suggests that as leaders work to craft informed responses to the demands before them, mindfulness places them in a position to maximize learning in real-time and respond to challenges from a place of equanimity. Complemented by the Eastern perspective, Western perspectives concerning organizational mindfulness have focused on the development of practices designed to increase highly reliable leadership performance. In this conception, mindful leadership is focused on potential threats to organizational performance and leadership effort is oriented toward eliminating or minimizing negative impact. Furthermore, mindful leaders seek robust and complex interpretations of organizational threat, embracing a heightened sensitivity to the link between organizational processes and outcome. Finally, Western notions of mindful leadership suggest that resiliency, a tenacious commitment to learning from failure, and deference to expertise rather than formal authority are hallmarks of mindful practice. In this way, mindful leaders orient their work toward organizational and cultural change evident in a collective attention that orients the work of its members. To do so requires that a leader’s attention be oriented toward deeply developed explanations of activities within the organizational school setting, including opportunities for formative, substantive data use and on-the-ground real time orientation to communal learning. In turn, mindful practice sets the stage for school leaders to engage the school community in becoming active partners in communal knowledge creation with the intent of improving classroom practice, student learning, and well-being.
In the past several decades, interest in mindfulness as an approach to understanding individual well-being and organizational productivity has intensified (Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007a, 2007b; Good et al., 2016; Levinthal & Rerup, 2006). Crossing disciplinary and theoretical boundaries, research concerning mindfulness focuses attention on three complementary arenas: contemplative practice, cognitive performance, and organizational functioning. Individual mindfulness, as a contemplative practice, focuses introspective attention and awareness on one’s body, feelings, consciousness, and the objects of one’s mental state. Contemplative mindfulness centers concentration toward developing an ability to sustain attention and awareness without judgment or reaction (Kabat-Zinn, 2003, Weick & Putnam, 2006). Individual mindfulness, as a form of contemplation, draws receptive attention to an awareness of the moment, in the moment, and informs understandings of one’s relationship to the present. In turn, one’s response and subsequent decision-making is informed by these in-the-moment observations and attentions.
Yet individual mindfulness is not merely contemplative. Langer (1989, 2014) introduced the notion as a cognitive skill set within the larger fields of psychology and sociology. Cognitive mindfulness concerns itself with the active processing of information with attention toward the creation and refinement of categories and distinctions regarding experiences and information as they present themselves as well as an awareness of the validity of multiple perspectives on a given event or circumstance (Fiol & O’Connor, 2003). Such orientations toward mindfulness embrace the practices of cognitive flexibility and deferral of judgment as conscious orientations toward learning and reasoning (Brown et al., 2007a; Langer, 1997, 2016). The practice of individual mindfulness has been credited as a method of stress reduction and pain management (Kabat-Zinn, 2003), increased workplace creativity and deceased workplace burnout (Langer, 1989, 2014), and improvement of memory of and affiliation for learning complex material (Langer & Modoveanu, 2000).
In contrast to a focus on the individual, organizational mindfulness refers to an organization’s collective disposition toward learning and supports its ongoing quest for effective and reliable performance (Weick, 2002; Weick & Putnam, 2006; Vogus & Sutcliffe, 2012). This perspective suggests that as leaders work to craft informed responses to the demands before them, mindfulness places them in a position to maximize learning in real time and respond to challenges from a place of equanimity (Desbordes et al., 2015). Organizational perspectives concerning mindfulness have focused on the development of practices designed to increase highly reliable leadership performance (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015). In this conception, mindful leadership is focused on potential threats to organizational performance and leadership effort is oriented toward eliminating or minimizing negative impact. Furthermore, mindful leaders seek robust and complex interpretations of organizational threat, embracing a heightened sensitivity to the link between organizational processes and outcome. Finally, organizational notions of mindful leadership suggest that resiliency, a tenacious commitment to learning from failure, and deference to expertise rather than formal authority are hallmarks of mindful practice. In this way, mindful leaders orient their work toward organizational and cultural change evident as a collective attention that orients the work of its members toward shared goals and values.
Mindfulness, individual and organizational, has been broadly applied to research in medicine, nursing, business, psychology, and education (Gilbert, 2019; Good et al., 2016; Langer, 1989/2014; Langer & Moldveanu, 2000). Certainly, there has been considerable crossover among those studies. In particular, research concerning the capacity of mindful practices to reduce stress (Kabat-Zinn, 2003) has been applied quite broadly and to good success in any number of contexts. Furthermore, Weick’s notions of highly reliable organizing have been posited to be useful as conceptual tools for understanding organizational leadership and management (see Bellamy, Crawford, Marshall, & Coulter, 2005; Fiol & O’Connor, 2003; Gilbert, 2019; Rerup, 2005; Sutcliffe, Vogus, & Dane, 2016).
Within this larger literature several approaches to studying mindfulness have been adopted (Good et al., 2016). One form of research has occupied itself with surveys of self-reported behaviors (Brown et al., 2007b) and/or surveys of one perceptions and experiences of the behaviors of others (Hoy, Gage, & Tarter, 2006; Ray, Baker, & Plowman, 2011). This literature is marked by the identification of traits that mindful individuals and leaders exhibit. Second to the development of a comprehensive accounting of the traits mindful individuals experience and exhibit are studies that focus on measuring the state of one’s mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). An additional and related literature has focused on workplace training in individual mindful practices (e.g., mindfulness-based stress reduction) with the intent of developing within individuals’ mindful behaviors with the potential to contribute to positive workplace culture and climate (Good et al., 2016).
This article examines both individual and organizational mindfulness seeking to explore the convergence of these notions and highlight the application of each for school leaders. As school leaders face increasing problems of practice related to issues of equity and excellence, the practice of mindful leadership can serve as an important tool for improved leadership response. Doing so requires that leadership attention be oriented toward deeply developed explanations of activities within the organizational school setting, including opportunities for formative, substantive data use and on-the-ground real-time orientation to communal learning (Gilbert, 2019; Hoy, 2003; Kruse & Johnson, 2017). Furthermore, mindful practice sets the stage for school leaders to engage the wider community in becoming active partners in communal knowledge creation with the intent of improving classroom practice, student learning, and well-being.
Individual mindfulness, as it has been developed in the research literature (Bodhi, 2011; Langer, 1989, 1997, 2014, 2016; Purser & Milillo, 2015; Weick & Putnam, 2006), draws a distinction between the Eastern traditions of contemplative mindfulness and the Western traditions of cognitive mindfulness. Within the Eastern tradition, the construct of mindfulness is credited as Buddhist in origin. Broadly, Eastern mindfulness (Sati in Pali, Smrti in Sanskrit) is marked by a focus on process, where the practitioner, usually through a meditative practice, works to develop clear comprehension (Sampajanna in Pali, Samprajnana in Sanskrit), direct insight or clear seeing (Vipassana in Pali, Vipasyana in Sanskrit), and wisdom (Panna in Pali, Prajna in Sanskrit) relative to one’s experience(s) of and in the world (Bodhi, 2011; Nilsson & Kazemi, 2016). Insight-oriented, individual contemplative mindfulness seeks to develop one’s compassion toward oneself and others. As a result, equanimity toward that which confronts us may be developed.
Within the Western tradition, mindfulness has come to embody the cognitive, defined by an attentive focus and a persistent awareness concerning a present state of being (Bishop et al., 2004; Langer, 1989, 2014). Individual cognitive mindfulness seeks, through non-judgmental attention, to actively create new categories of understanding and knowing with the intent of better understanding and shaping our decision-making behaviors. Goal-oriented, cognitive mindfulness is purposeful, and research in the field has focused on measurable performance outcomes (Sutcliffe et al., 2016).
Consequently, and because each tradition defines mindfulness differently, its use has become muddled and definitions of the term have become conflated and confused. As Bodhi (2011) notes, the term has become, “so vague and elastic that it serves almost as cipher into which one can read virtually anything we want” (p. 22). Accordingly, the next sections address individual contemplative and cognitive mindfulness, seeking to clarify definitional and conceptual differences.
Practiced largely as a form of meditative attention, contemplative mindfulness requires that one learns how to focus attention (i.e., through concentration on the breath or the body) and what attention is best focused on (i.e., the present moment) (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Brown et al., 2007b; Kabat-Zinn, 2003; Purser & Milillo, 2015). Contemplative mindfulness disciplines the mind by prolonging one’s awareness of the here and now. The practitioner learns concentration, and in turn, the mind remains calm and focused. Doing so is suggested to change one’s perceptions concerning the world around them and their relationship to that which confronts and troubles them, and because mindfulness is focused on the present, it disrupts focusing on how the future may or may not unfold (Bodhi, 2011).
Perhaps best recognized in the Western world as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and popularized by Kabat-Zinn (1990), Western contemplative mindfulness is best described as the development of moment-to-moment awareness fostered by paying attention in non-reactive and non-judgmental ways. Stemming from the MBSR tradition, mindfulness as a therapeutic technique has been posited to help alleviate stress, depression, and anxiety as well as lower blood pressure and heart rate (Brown & Ryan, 2003; Kabat-Zinn, 2003, Shapiro, Carlson, Astin, & Freedman, 2006). More recently, MBSR has been posited as useful in school settings to aid children and youth in coping with childhood adversity (Mendelson et al., 2010), stress (van de Weijer-Bergsma, Langenberg, Brandsma, Oort, & Bogels, 2012), and disruptive behaviors (Felver, Doerner, Jones, Kaye, & Merrell, 2013) and to promote well-being (Huppert & Johnson, 2010). Although findings vary as to the efficacy of these programs, contemplative, meditative mindfulness practices are increasingly utilized in an effort to increase student resilience and respond to student misbehavior.
Yet suggesting that mindfulness is simply a meditative practice minimizes the depth and breadth of Buddhist tradition resulting in a selective and partial understanding of the philosophy that underscores contemplative practices. Even within the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is a contested construct and subject to multiple interpretations dependent on context and school. However, it is important to note that Western appropriations of Buddhist mindfulness have abridged and simplified a rich 25-centuries-old tradition of teachings (Bodhi, 2011; Nilsson & Kazemi, 2016; Rosch, 2007). Much like trying to describe all Christian traditions (e.g., Catholic, Orthodox, Protestantism, Anglicanism, Evangelical) in brief, attempting to fully explore the richness of Buddhist thought and philosophy is not possible within this context. Yet to ignore these philosophical roots only serves to further a Western appropriation of this concept.
Mindfulness is but one strand of a complex Buddhist whole. As Rosch (2007) notes, when authors suggest that “awareness or presence [are] attributes of a mindful consciousness they are not, in the Buddhist view, talking about how the world will look in the consciousness of an ordinary troubled person paying attention to his breath or her thinking but to the way in which the phenomenal world arises in the enlightened mind” (p. 259). Within the Buddhist view, according to Bodhi (2011), mindfulness is a “constellation of mental factors” (p. 21) that purposefully informs the attainment of direct insight or wisdom. In this conception, wisdom is less about controlling one’s cognitive functions and more about developing an acceptance of the nature and condition of living in the world as it presents itself to us. As such, Buddhist mindfulness is a quality to be cultivated rather than a practice to be applied, followed, or accomplished.
Fundamentally a quality of consciousness, cognitive mindfulness arises first by bringing attention to the present circumstance. In this way, mindfulness can be defined as the practice of non-interfering awareness allowing stimuli to be observed in nonreactive ways (Bishop et al., 2004; Bodhi, 2011). Yet, as described in the literature (Langer, 1989, 1997, 2014, 2016; Langer & Modoveanu, 2000), cognitive mindfulness is less concerned with meditative practices and processes and more focused toward mindful, engaged attention as a way to enhance understanding and learning. Langer (1989, 2014) describes mindfulness in active ways, focusing on the internal (e.g., awareness of one’s thoughts) as well as the external (e.g., awareness of situational and environmental details of events), resulting in deep and novel understandings of that which confronts us. In turn, learning is enhanced. Langer’s orientation to mindfulness includes behaviors that focus on active differentiation, openness to new information, and attention to alternative explanations and multiple perspectives as vehicles to avoid old ways of thinking and to stay alert to new possibilities.
As a mindful behavior, active differentiation asks that individuals examine previously held assumptions and distinctions. Langer asserts that we “rely too rigidly on categories and distinctions created in the past” (2014, p. 13). Suggesting that our automatic and unthinking reliance on prior dichotomies (e.g., male/female, young/old, win/lose, good/bad) limits our ability to see the world in new ways, Langer argues that by failing to actively differentiate, we prematurely cognitively commit to an internal narrative about events that limits the frames and lenses with which we view what is occurring. Rather than reliance on prior categories, Langer proposes that the mindful response refrains from premature categorization in favor of active differentiation. Active differentiation can be thought of as resisting long-held categories of distinction in favor of the consideration of new categories for understanding and response to the world that confronts us. Attention is paid to that which confronts us in real time and evaluative judgment is informed by our awareness of the present rather than by older constructs and ideas. In this way, we are better able to find middle ground, accept new possibilities, and respond with greater clarity and purpose.
Openness to New Information
Similarly, Langer (1989, 1997, 2014, 2016) argues that cognitive mindfulness implies an openness to new information as situations unfold. Suggesting that our minds “have a tendency to block out small, inconsistent signals” (Langer, 2014, p. 69), Langer suggests that absent mindful awareness of our surroundings we miss important information and data that could inform our sense making. Inasmuch as all sense making is retrospective (i.e., we can only clearly understand that which has occurred by looking back on it), mindful engagement allows us to attend to signals as they change. Thus, new understandings of events as they unfold are fostered. Sense making is enhanced, as it is informed by new information and not hampered by older and, therefore limited, interpretations of current phenomena. In turn, the ability to generate responses is expanded, and interpretations and decisions are more likely to be correct and effective because they are robustly informed.
Alternatives and Multiple Perspectives
Cognitive mindfulness suggests that openness extends not only to new information but also to the perspectives with which stimuli are considered. Langer notes that “any single gesture, remark, or act between people can have at least two interpretations” (2014, p. 71). Langer’s claim is that the world can only be understood from within our own experiences and that any two people bring to any interaction their own framing, biases, and preferences. Noting that being aware of the multiple ways in which the world can be experienced is a hallmark of mindful interactions, Langer observes that the ability to shift perspective can be useful to fully comprehend events. By entertaining new perspectives, be they generated by our own purposeful inquiry or by including others, we are better able to embrace the uncertainty of our own conclusions. In turn, our ability to generate creative solutions is enhanced, as is the depth of our understanding of that which we experience (Weick & Roberts, 1993).
In conclusion, unlike contemplative mindfulness that focuses on non-judgmental observance of that which confronts us, cognitive mindfulness requires that one’s full attention be directed to developing a rich awareness of our perceptions and experiences. As Brown et al. (2007b) suggest, “we do not simply live in the world, we live in the world as we view it, construct it, and interpret it” (p. 213). In this way, when approached from a mindful stance, the world we live in can be more richly experienced, understood, and appreciated and our responses to it better informed.
Organizational mindfulness is a concept initially introduced and developed by Weick and Roberts (1993) as a tool for leading organizations where the consequences and costs of failure are extremely high (e.g., loss of life, significant property or assets, or organizational reputation). First explored in organizations that operate in typically hazardous environments (e.g., firefighting, nuclear power plants) the construct has recently been applied broadly to include K–12 schools (Gilbert, 2019; Hoy, 2003; Kruse & Johnson, 2017), healthcare and business environments (Fiol & O’Connor, 2003; Hales & Chakravorty, 2016; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015), and higher education (Ray et al., 2011). In each case, the presence of organizational mindfulness is posited to result in the creation of a highly reliable organization (HRO). HROs are organizations that exhibit high learning capacity through the practice of sustained, focused attention, so as to avoid crisis and failure and better manage unexpected events when they do arise (Weick & Roberts, 1993). As the use of the construct has evolved, so has our depth of understanding about the ways in which organizational mindfulness can enhance productivity and performance across a wide range of contexts and concerns.
Productivity and performance is enhanced by mindful organizational dispositions, skills, and processes. As a disposition, mindfulness refers to an organization’s collective disposition toward learning in its ongoing quest for effective and reliable performance. The mindful organization is committed to performance-directed learning, and its culture is defined by its communal focus on purposeful, goal-directed learning. As a skill, mindfulness addresses the capacity of an organization to effectively engage in such learning. In this way, organizational practices and processes are directed toward building understanding about issues with potential to undermine progress and success. As a process, mindfulness includes attention toward activities that reflect and build collective capacity. In this way, an organization’s dispositions, skills, and processes can be purposefully developed toward mindful activity, and, in turn, organizational reliability is enhanced (Kruse & Johnson, 2017; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015).
However, organizational reliability cannot be assured without attention to the ways in which the organization operates. Weick and colleagues (Vogus & Sutcliffe, 2012; Weick & Roberts, 1993; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015) outline five defining features of highly reliable organizations. First, mindful organizations exhibit a healthy preoccupation with failure. Second, HROs are characterized by a reluctance to simplify interpretations of threats to performance. Mindful organizations are further distinguished by a heightened sensitivity to the link between organizational processes and outcome. Fourth, HROs are marked by a resilience that assumes the inevitability of failure yet at the same time is tenaciously committed to learning from failure. Finally, mindful organizations embrace approaches to problem solving that defer to expertise rather than formal authority
Preoccupation with Failure
A preoccupation with failure suggests that leaders who experience organizational performance failure (e.g., significant mistakes, crises, or persistent and threatening miscalculations or errors) consider these events symptoms of larger problems within the system (Weick & Putnam, 2006; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015). Organizational failures rarely occur without some prior cues. Attending to the often subtle cues of impending and potential failure is a hallmark of the reliable organization. Preoccupation with failure discourages normalization of errors (e.g., “X was a routine mistake” or “No one could have predicted that Y would happen”). Instead, leaders focus attention toward recognizing anomalies within the organization; fighting apathy concerning discrepancies in policy, procedure, or practice as they arise; identifying and addressing errors; and developing processes to prevent mistakes (Sutcliffe et al., 2016).
Reluctance to Simplify
When explanations of and reactions to unexpected events are simplified, important information concerning causes, contributions, and confounding factors can be overlooked. Reluctance to simplify suggests that when faced with a problem, and prior to solution finding,
employing a thoughtful, inquiry-driven process that focuses on the uniqueness of the problem situation allows the complexity of the issue to surface (Weick & Putnam, 2006; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015). Through the process of developing a complete and detailed understanding of the situation, assessments can be revised, taking into account current contexts and organizational environment, perspectives, and circumstances. In turn, organizations are less likely to adopt one-size-fits-all solutions or adopt popular “best-practice” bandwagons in without due consideration (Fiol & O’Connor, 2003).
Sensitivity to Operations
A sensitivity to operations suggests that as one aspect of the organization is altered, members look to how other operations are affected. By focusing on that which is actually occurring rather than on what was intended to occur, attention is centered on the present moment and awareness is focused on real-time events. In this way, concerns surface when they are small and are not allowed to build into more troubling and perplexing issues. Sensitivity to operations suggests that organizational mindfulness is enhanced as “thinking while doing and thinking by doing” (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015, p. 90) and is employed to inform problem-framing and decision-making processes.
Commitment to Resilience
Resilience is the ability to respond to and recover from setbacks. Mindful organizations demonstrate resilience by responding quickly to disturbances within the system, collecting real-time data, and acting to mitigate disruption before situations become dire. A commitment to resilience focuses attention on the development of new systems knowledge, which, in turn, moderates and diminishes surprises while concurrently working to address the issues at hand. An organizational commitment to resilience manifests itself in regular and ongoing feedback concerning performance and progress toward valued goals. Being resilient means being persistent about the ways the organization works well and where it does not, with the intent of addressing shortcomings in real and immediate time and in adaptive and flexible ways (Vogus & Sutcliffe, 2012; Weick & Putnam, 2006; Weick & Sutcliffe, 2015).
Deference to Expertise
Hierarchical organizational models suggest that expertise is clustered at the very top of the organizational structure. Yet often front-line personnel have a better grasp of and experience with organizational processes as they are practiced in the workplace. Furthermore, front-line personnel are frequently closer to events as and when they occur. Deference to expertise suggests that seeking problem solutions at the relevant level of the organization can reduce response time and counter developing threats before they result in a crisis (Sutcliffe et al., 2016; Vogus & Sutcliffe, 2012). The creation of flexible decision structures, mindful attention to the limitations of one’s own knowledge base, and increased active listening (e.g., seeking input and feedback concerning how processes and policies impact day-to-day work) throughout the organizational structure all foster deference to expertise.
In sum, HROs are posited to be mindful organizations because of vigilant attention to and awareness of the local organizational environment. Organizational wisdom is generated through intentional and purposeful activity focused on contextual, environmental signals as they are generated at multiple levels of the organization. In turn, organizational mindfulness fosters the development of a deep repertoire of actions with the potential to successfully respond to threats, hazards, and danger.
Mindfulness and Mindlessness in Context
Organizational mindfulness is predicated on sustaining a high level of attention to organizational operations and being able to effectively and flexibly respond when problems arise. Conversely, mindless organizations appears to be invested in the conservation of routines, uniformity, and standardization (Langer, 1997, 2016; Weick, 2015). It is posited that rigidity in both problem formation and solution finding mark the mindless organization, as does the presence of inelastic categories for analysis and a fixation on single perspectives of consideration and examination of problem situations (Hoy, 2003; Hoy et al., 2006). An organizationally mindful stance suggests that knowledge is ever-evolving, rather than fixed, and that learning should be developed in response to cues and feedback from multiple levels of the organization. Conversely, mindless organizations are marked by a reliance on current information and an unwillingness to confront new explanations for discrepant data or seek alternative explanations for differences and are characterized by demands for control, compliance, and consensus.
For example, mindlessness can occur when school leaders fail to review and change older policies and practices in light of new decisions. School governance models that exclude parents from active decision-making roles have the potential to undermine new policies designed to encourage increased parental participation in and support for the school. Similarly, rigid, zero-tolerance discipline policies that require mandatory expulsion and suspension may weaken attempts to increase student retention and graduation efforts. It is not so much that older policies are themselves mindless; rather, mindlessness results when school leaders fail to consider the ways in which new decisions impact older, more established policies and practices.
As Langer (1997, 2016) notes, being mindless is “like being on automatic pilot” (p. 4). Evidenced when routinized behavior is enacted without attention to context or immediate conditions, mindlessness undermines an organization’s ability to respond in times of stress and crisis. As automatic and unthinking behaviors impede organizational members’ ability to see events from new and multiple perspectives, environmental signals with the potential to alert members to threats go unacknowledged. The result are the emergence of organizational disasters and emergencies that members observed as they evolved yet failed to respond to.
However, all routine or automatic behavior does not result in poor organizational performance. Organizational routines are often developed as the result of careful data-driven inquiry and are adopted so that time and attention can be directed elsewhere. Clearly, a preoccupation with failure can only be fostered when organizational operations are routinely monitored and the resulting data analyzed. Furthermore, as Levinthal and Rerup (2006), suggest, in the mindful organization “routines are constantly modified and adjusted to accommodate unexpected contingencies” (p. 508). As such, the presence of routine is not so much a hallmark of the mindless organization as are the ways in which routines are enacted and employed.
Similarly, rigid adherence to policy, practice, and procedure may be necessary for organizational performance to be achieved and control and compliance required for organizational productivity. When efficiency is required and fidelity to coherent operations necessary for precise organizational outcomes to be reached, compliance to set standards is appropriate. In this way, the mindful enactment of routine work is purposeful, intentional, and essential. During times of crisis it is important that school leaders, teachers, students, and parents follow established protocols. The middle of a school emergency, like a chemical spill in a lab, is not the time to freelance.
However, when organizational members enact routine absent the thoughtful consideration of context, simply following past practice can become mindless. For example, when decisions are made because “it’s the way we’ve always done it,” mindlessness may be present. In this way, clear categorical distinctions between mindful and mindless behaviors cannot be easily drawn. It is not so much what action or behavior is undertaken but the intention behind the activity that marks it as mindful or mindless. Furthermore, organizational goals matter as well. Inasmuch as mindful organizations are posited to be adaptive to novel circumstances and changing conditions, constant adaptation can undermine organizational continuity and, in turn, impair continuity of practice. From an organizational leadership perspective, what matters is understanding when each—adaptation and continuity—is required for organizational progress and success.
Mindfulness and School Leadership
Fundamentally, mindfulness is about learning. Whether the learning is about one’s self, as in the case of contemplative mindfulness, or about the organizations in which we live and work, the ultimate goal of acting mindfully is to better understand the events that confront us so as to transform our responses to them. Research concerning organizational mindfulness suggests benefits including prolonged focus toward organizational vision and goals (Hales & Chakravorty, 2016), improved decision-making (Vogus & Rerup, 2017), and increased awareness concerning events with the potential to lead to organizational failure or crisis may be accrued to the mindful organization (Weick & Sutcliff, 2015). As Ray and colleagues (2011) argue, when leaders purposefully create cultures that encourage rich thinking and a capacity for action, organizational mindfulness is evident.
Research in K–12 school settings (Hoy, 2003; Hoy et al., 2006) emphasizes that an orientation toward mindfulness enhances trust in school leadership and increases the capacity for school leaders to create a climate of success. Gilbert (2019, p. 151) argues that organizational mindfulness in teachers fosters a “resistance to jump to simplistic, shallow solutions and press[es] individuals to unpack the underlying causes of student failure and to collaboratively discuss and reflect on needed changes to practice.” Furthermore, Kruse and Johnson (2017) suggest that when schools embrace an organizational mindfulness lens, leadership attention is directed toward deeply developed explanations of activities within the school setting focused on increasing organizational learning about and within the school.
In turn, organizational learning, as a result of organizational mindfulness, leads to increased collective school effectiveness and productivity (Schechter & Atarchi, 2013) and prepares school leaders to better respond to ambiguous and changing conditions (Kruse & Johnson, 2017). Common across all studies of organizational mindfulness, and particularly in those of school leaders, are beneficial outcomes including improved accountability for professional practice, increased quality and quantity of information sharing, enhanced empowerment and personal dignity, and a more developed sense of community.
Accountability for Professional Practice
As schools develop an orientation toward mindful practices, studies suggest that principals, teachers, staff, and other organizational members become increasingly focused on accountability, at all levels of the school, for improved performance (Hoy, 2003; Hoy et al., 2006; Kruse & Johnson, 2017). Whether the orientation is focused on improved classroom pedagogies, regular student assessment of progress and growth, or professional development, enhanced accountability regarding both the efforts that are adopted and how they are to be accomplished is central to school HRO initiatives. Yet a heightened sense of accountability for the attainment of school goals is not simply manifested as increased obligations and responsibilities. Rather, it is evidenced as the broad expectation that all faculty and staff must assume personal responsibility for ensuring that work is performed with aligned and consistent attention to the identification of student learning concerns. In turn, when accountability for the professional performance of school personnel is advanced, organizational learning is also enhanced because the learning processes, strategies, and structures designed to increase the school’s capacity to function, even in uncertain and dynamic environments, are strengthened (Bellamy et al., 2005).
Quality and Quantity of Information Sharing
In addition to increased accountability for professional practice, information sharing is enhanced in schools with an organizational mindfulness orientation. In schools focused on student learning measures, achieving high reliability evidences itself as a preoccupation with failure and/or a sensitivity to operations (most often in response to classroom and testing data). In schools where ongoing collaborative analysis of classroom level data is rich, information sharing regarding student performance has been shown to result in increased student learning and success (Gilbert, 2019; Schechter & Atarchi, 2013). In the best of these cases, early detection of struggling learners allows for well-planned and executed intervention.
Yet, as annual testing data across the nation suggests, evolving and nascent learning problems often go unnoticed and school failure has become almost inescapable. Clearly, poor-performing schools are not data poor. However, effective use of data within these schools remains elusive. Limited faculty and staff knowledge and skillsets, school schedules and structures, and a preoccupation with summative rather than formative learning data all limit the effective use of data in schools (Bellamy et al., 2005).
Furthermore, because data use efforts are often more symbolic than substantive, organizational mindfulness and learning are undermined instead of supported. Organizational mindfulness fosters the substantive use of data (Kruse & Johnson, 2017). Substantive data use is contextually embedded and interpreted, ongoing, internally oriented, and formative. In contrast, symbolic data use is periodic, externally directed, abstracted, and summative and often interpreted apart from classroom contexts and discussions of instruction or curricular choices.
Mindful, substantive data use is directed toward decision-making focused on the improvement of student well-being and classroom teaching and learning. It informs instructional, curricular, and assessment choices within the school and district and is employed in tandem with strategic goal setting. In schools where data are used in mindful ways, attention is paid to increasing substantive uses of data throughout the system and supportive practices, policies, and procedures are enacted. In turn, organizational learning and understanding is enhanced through the process of data use, as is the school’s orientation toward personal efficacy and responsibility for student learning (Schechter & Atarchi, 2013).
Empowerment and Personal Dignity
Organizational mindfulness suggests that deference to expertise allows the reliable organization to respond to threats at the relevant level of the organization. In schools, this means the classroom. Yet teacher empowerment is a fraught construct. To empower someone suggests that they are given the authority to make immediate and meaningful decisions. However, being empowered is not the same as being powerful. Within schools, teachers and other support staff often lack the authority, resources, and freedom to provide every student the education they deserve. For example, teachers are often powerless to change scheduled class times even when they know that extended learning time might benefit their students. A more pointed example is that of accountability testing, in which classroom teachers across the United States and in many countries in the United Kingdom and Europe are required to teach to rigid nationally determined standards and participate in testing regimens they know are inappropriate for their student populations. In this way, school schedules and structures can impede a teacher’s ability to act in ways that reliably inhibit student failure. In turn, empowerment, absent support and resources, is not an adequate tool to mitigate student failure.
Nonetheless, in studies of organizational mindfulness in schools (Gilbert, 2019; Hoy et al., 2006), the development of teacher empowerment has been a consistent finding. Manifested largely as the development of teacher confidence regarding their ability to voice disagreement or to offer a dissenting course of action, teacher empowerment is posited to encourage a greater sense of ownership of and responsibility for quality in student learning (Kruse & Johnson, 2017). In this way, empowerment, as a consequential outcome of organizational mindfulness, enhances individual and organizational learning because it reinforces teachers’ perceptions of their own value as social agents. Additionally, as teachers gain and exercise their empowered voices, they ensure that interpretations of complex learning events are not oversimplified, reinforcing an important HRO principle.
Sense of Community
Finally, organizational mindfulness increases the sense of community within schools and among teachers (Gilbert, 2019). As shared responsibility grows and is reinforced in the mindful school, an on-the-ground real-time orientation to communal learning is developed. As teachers focus on collective responsibility for shared goals (e.g., student performance, school effectiveness), the architecture of the school organization is altered in ways that allow for adaptive and novel responses, a central tenet of mindfulness (Kruse & Johnson, 2017). In turn, as leadership is more authentically shared, deference to expertise is enhanced and the sensitivity to operations more purposely exercised.
As questions regarding student learning are posed and answers are collectively probed for local meaning and use, collective attention fosters a commitment to resilience (i.e., a willingness to address student learning difficulties in an ongoing and coordinated fashion). Admittedly, although organizational mindfulness posits that collective attention is generally focused toward positive change and productive innovation, it can just as easily be oriented toward busy work and bureaucracy. Clearly, organizational members need more than a communal orientation to direct their work in productive and effective ways.
As Hoy et al. (2006) suggest, trust in leadership and each other and respect for colleagues’ knowledge and skill is required for teachers’ communal activity to result in productive classroom practice. Because individual teachers work relatively independently, a willingness to collaborate regarding ongoing improvement efforts requires that teachers consider the identification of student learning problems as a communal concern and not simply as an acknowledgment of individual failure. In this way, a sense of community is needed so that trust can be fostered and communal creativity stimulated toward the mitigation of student learning problems and concerns. Research suggests that the process is iterative and that mindfulness results in individual and organizational learning when openness to new information (Langer, 1997, 2016) is a central feature of the organization’s culture.
Although many studies suggest that organizational mindfulness can be employed in school settings, the literature on HRO and school leadership is not without its critique. Bellamy et al. (2005) suggest that there are meaningful differences between schools and HROs and that rather than using the HRO as a model for school leadership, it would be better employed as a metaphor. Suggesting that loosely coupled school organizational structures differ significantly from that of centrally controlled and tightly coupled organizations, Bellamy et al. (2005) suggest that, for example, increasing individual autonomy to act, as is encouraged in HRO responses to threat, would have little impact in schools where teachers already enjoy considerable autonomy as part of normal operations. Instead, they suggest that “alternatives to normal procedures are needed when problems arise, but they will have to be different than those used by HROs” (Bellamy et al., 2005, p. 389). Furthermore, they suggest that, rather than the HRO/mindfulness model, schools would be better served by an orientation that embraces a “fail-safe” model where attention is paid to improving normal operations, detecting potential problems, and recovering from problems as they arise. They suggest that while this kind of improvement cycle is not unfamiliar to schools, neither is it commonplace.
Implications and Conclusions
This review of the state of research and theorizing concerning organizational mindfulness raises several issues for further exploration and debate. Among them are (a) the potential benefits for school leaders in adopting an organizational mindfulness lens, (b) the ways in which organizational mindfulness challenges our assumptions about school leadership, and (c) potential foci for future research in this important field.
Benefits for School Leaders
When school leaders approach their work from an organizationally mindful stance, the potential exists for several positive outcomes. First, because the construct suggests that our experiences are worth thoughtful consideration, learning is enhanced. Organizationally, mindfulness prompts school leaders to consider that even as they approach situations that look very much like others they have encountered, they are not the same because the context of the event has shifted and, as such, our responses should be re-evaluated, if only to confirm that they are still applicable. Second, as school leaders consider the ways in which situations are alike and how they are different, learning, in real time, is deepened and damaging results possibly avoided. Moreover, meaning making is enhanced as new explanations of experiences can be generated and new stories of what works can be created and tested. In turn, as new contextual understandings are crafted, they can then be examined for their consistency with organizational beliefs and goals further grounding the school’s work within its core values, vision, and mission. In this way, while organizational threat can never be fully eliminated, ongoing and productive tension can be embraced, resulting in increased and deepened learning. Therefore, viewed from a mindful growth lens, challenge is not immobilizing, nor does it lessen one’s ability to lead and lead well.
Challenges to Our Assumptions
Yet, as this article has suggested, adopting individual and organizationally mindful lenses shifts the ways in which situations within the school are viewed and the ways in which school leaders approach their work. In this way, the approach may be in tension with foundational school leadership assumptions and expectations. First, mindfulness places importance on being, that is developing a present-oriented focus toward that which is happening. Such an orientation might be viewed as antithetical to doing the work of school leadership. In current Western practice, leadership is about planning, producing results, and immediate response to that which confronts us. As a tension, the being/doing paradox suggests that working mindfully suggests that school leaders find ways to “be” concurrent to “doing” their work. Therefore, organizational mindfulness requires that leaders learn to be present while planning for the future.
Second, current leadership theory suggests that our attention is limited and our rationalities bounded. Within schools this is clearly the case; leaders’ days are filled with ongoing interruption, and often the time to fully attend, let alone unpack, events as they unfold is limited. Multitasking is the norm for many school leaders and distraction omnipresent. Furthermore, school cultures rely heavily on “how we do things here,” where “here” is often the past. Such orientations challenge mindful, measured, contextual attention and require that leaders expand their effective attentional capacity as well as broaden the arenas from which solutions are generated.
Finally, as has already been noted, crisis often evolves slowly and, in retrospect, can be traced to causes that should have been uncovered far before they became troubling. Organizational mindfulness suggests that as early signals of system error present, they must be taken seriously and examined for their potential to result in performance disruption or failure. Change to instruction and curriculum, policy, and practice must be undertaken sincerely and fidelity to new practices expected. Such action diverges greatly from current practice that relies on explaining away or blaming system performance error on external factors and causes.
The study of individual and organizational mindfulness offers school leaders much to consider as they approach their work. Yet the field is only recently developed, and there is much to still understand. Research, particularly in school settings, can inform our understanding of mindful leadership by answering questions such as the following. How might school leaders identity change should organizational mindfulness be pursued? What are the organizational consequences of these changes? Does individual and organizational mindfulness enhance the practice of transformational leadership? If so, to what outcome? What leadership knowledge, skills, and dispositions are required for school leaders to become mindful practitioners? How does individual and/or organizational mindfulness affect student learning and well-being? The list could be endless. Clearly, additional research and theorizing is needed if the application of mindfulness is to result in more resistant and responsive school leadership. However, the integration of mindfulness—individual and organizational—into the work of school leaders holds great promise. It is up to us to further and deepen the possibilities of this work.
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