I never fully understood the difference between “doing” and “being.” I had heard it explained by my leadership consultants: “What is most important is your being here, your ability to be present, more than anything you do.”
But when I thought of what makes a good high school principal, I had a list of all the things I should be doing in order to do a good job: “I should be writing more observations, visiting more classrooms, having more 1:1 conversations with teachers, having more conversations with kids, visiting more teacher meetings, planning more activities,” etc.
Then I took a leadership seminar this past May called Transformational Time and Project Management. I’m not even sure that “doing” and “being” were discussed at the seminar.
And yet, I had the experience the next day of being fully present with my staff– and seeing the impact that my presence made without even trying to do anything.
I saw an employee who has a tendency to check his phone while working to the point that he gets distracted. I had seen him do this many times before– and sometimes addressed it, always inwardly cringing that I “had” to do so.
However, this time, I came up to the employee, and made sure I had his full attention. I explained to him why he needed to put the phone away. I didn’t resist my job– I realize my job was to be with him in this situation. As the day went by, and I kept interacting with him, I saw him come more alive, more alert. Sometimes we were joking around, or planning how to handle a situation, or addressing a problem with his performance. What shifted for me was that I ceased to see the interactions as “negative” or “positive”: they were all positive, actually, because they gave us an opportunity to be together in that moment.
In fact, I started to realize that the actual content of most of my interactions didn’t matter that much. What mattered was giving my full attention to those I interacted with, as if they were the most important people in the world. Being with them, listening to them, was more important than anything I said or did.
It occurs to me that the word “present” is so important in school: “Present!” kids would say years ago when a teacher called roll. We mark staff and students present, or absent, everyday.
However, the word itself is profound. “Present.” I am here. In most cases, people are physically present, but not mentally present, minds ping-ponging back and forth towards the future, the past, preferences, desires, complaints. Building the muscle of being present is a skill, one that I am grateful to be gaining, and one that is bringing a level of productivity, simplicity, and satisfaction to my job that I didn’t know was possible.
Photo credit: Julie Nariman