Effective leaders nurture the soul

Dennis SparksGrowing our souls could be defined as the steady accretion of empathy, clarity, and passion for the good. —Mary Pipher

Schools possess “souls,” an awareness that struck me when I heard someone describe a school she obviously admired as “a place with soul.”

Schools full of soul:

• are places that members of the school community experience as authentic, profound, personally meaningful, and emotionally stirring, 

• have a uniqueness and integrity based on the principles and moral imperatives that guide their efforts, and

• possess aspirations, commitments, and a “passion for the good” that are both informed by and expressed in their symbols, rituals, ceremonies, and spirit.

Soulful schools exist because leaders welcome, honor, and nourish the souls of all members of the school community.

In A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life, Parker Palmer describes such leaders as individuals who make “a commitment to act in every situation in ways that honor the soul.”

Consequently, leaders cultivate soul when they:

First and foremost nourish their own souls through practices such as journal writing and solitude. They then engage with the community to hone and test their commitments. Such leaders are more likely to display the generosity of spirit, empathy, and profound respect for others that calls forth the soul of the organization.

Promote teamwork focused on clear and compelling purposes and principles that enable individuals to link their own heartfelt intentions to the common good. Leaders keep these purposes and principles foremost in community members’ minds so that they inform every decision and action.

Cultivate and value the whole person, not just his or her intellect or technical skills. To that end leaders use faculty and team meetings and other venues to provide opportunities for individuals to reveal the events that have shaped their lives, underscoring that community members are not replaceable parts of an “education machine.”

Value the unique perspective and wisdom that that each person brings to the school community and encourage the expression of those qualities. Leaders do so when they promote relationships that are honest, trusting, compassionate, and cooperative. Such relationships provide the emotional safety in which individuals can express the most soulful aspects of themselves, qualities that are the most precious and closely guarded against judgment and criticism.

Use stillness and silence when appropriate to create opportunities for individuals to listen to their “inner teachers” and discern their own truths.

Leaders  who nurture their own souls and the collective soul of the school community have a profound affect on the community and all those whose lives are touched and shaped by it.

2 Responses to “Effective leaders nurture the soul”


  1. 1 Kent Peterson January 20, 2014 at 11:32 am

    Sparks provides a profound and important set of ideas that should be read and thought about by all leaders. While it is important to be able to manage effectively—school, district, or unit—as he points out it is equally important to nourish the “soul” of both the organize and oneself. The ideas and suggestions Sparks lays out could easily guide considerable self-reflection as well as be the foundation for important professional learning by a staff or team during a retreat or day together. It is important to delve deeply into these issues of values and purpose, even while implementing the myriad of instructional reforms.

    Excellent blog!


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