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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Leading From the Heart

This is my very first post on the Cooperative Catalyst. I was up all last night thinking about it. Eyes wide open, always alert. I admit it — I was nervous. Will they like me? Will my writing speak to the valued co-op reader? These thoughts consistently traveled through my mind and never quite settled down to rest until I put pen to paper — figuratively, of course.

As the head of school of a N-8 independent school on Long Island, I am faced with leadership challenges each day. Graduate School teaches us about the many different styles of leadership: authoritative, participative and charismatic. These are but only a few styles of which we learn and practice often. It is concerning that between the many leadership classes we take in school and the numerous books we read on the subject of leadership that the most effective leadership style is rarely showcased: leading from the heart. Leading from the heart demands more courage, more participation and more outward confidence than any other leadership style. It is the most personal, the most powerful and the most introspective form as well. It demands presence in the moment. It demands self-worth. And it demands knowing oneself well enough that we are confident in ourselves. Perhaps that is why we so rarely discuss it, because it is so demanding and so, so personal. Much like traveling the rocky road of life all alone, we are more comfortable remaining within our comfort zone. Leaders have difficulty allowing others to see themselves in their entirety, because it is just so darn revealing. This is why we must lead from the heart.

Leading from the heart can be difficult. Although the heart is wise and, at times, can be tenacious, it is also shy and reluctant to be trusting. The heart is an introvert. The heart demands you know thyself. It asks you to be confident in yourself before you ask others to follow. So, how do we help the heart grow with confidence? The journey of knowing ourselves through the heart actually begins and ends with the heart itself. Ask yourself, “can you define your heart virtue?” Is it compassion, collaboration, integrity, knowledge, honesty or a combination of all of the above? Until we can aptly define our heart virtue, we will not be able to lead from the heart.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, writes, “Comparing the three domains, I found that for jobs of all kinds, emotional competencies were twice as prevalent among distinguishing competencies as were technical skills and purely cognitive abilities combined. In general the higher a position in an organization, the more EI mattered: for individuals in leadership positions, 85 percent of their competencies were in the EI domain.”

Martin Luther King Jr. so aptly knew his heart virtues were compassion and equality and therefore he could lead from the heart with confidence. Siddhartha Gautama, the widely acknowledged founder of Buddhism, knew his heart virtue was enlightenment and was able to lead an entire, faithful community towards inner faith and their own personal enlightenment. They both initiated reformations in their own ways. Most leaders today will not need to lead a reformation. Accordingly, we need to help others to see themselves as agents of change and encourage positive forward momentum. If we look at both Martin Luther King Jr. and Siddhartha and analyze their commonalities, we see that one might be that they both listened to themselves. They listened to their heart and then they responded to the voice they heard from within. This is the difference between reaction and reflection.

Have you ever found yourself in a situation when you were forced to make a decision and your emotions were running rampant? Often we will make a reactive decision based on what we perceive to be the truth. If we force ourselves to reflect, to look within, the truth can often be revealed, and we can respond and lead accordingly. Trust me, I have only learned this lesson from making mistakes. As a head of school, one of the many lessons I teach the students at Harbor Country Day School is that it is ok to make mistakes. It is acceptable to fail. It is only out of failure that we truly grow and mature. I remind our students that it takes courage and tenacity to bounce back after a pitfall. Who among us has not failed at least once? This is truly why I joined the Cooperative Catalyst: to take a risk, voice my opinion and lead from the heart. In order to help change education as we speak – I needed to dig deep, take a risk, and lead from my heart.

When I am faced with a challenging situation, I force myself to look within, to listen to my heart and sit still for a while. Then, and only then, do I respond. Then I act with confidence and know I am leading from the heart.

As this is my first entry, talk to me. Comment, share, question, discuss. The post above can be the topic of conversation, but the real learning begins below when we share. I write for myself and for my own personal development, but the writing is not born until the reader finds it of interest. Again, I am happy to be here.

About Chris Pryor

Chris is a visionary and proven executive leader, developing programs, building teams and strategizing change.


23 thoughts on “Leading From the Heart

  1. Excellent first post. I’ve been a member of the Coop for months and I’ve yet to do my first post.

    Leading from the heart and teaching from the heart have one advantage over all those other styles you learned in grad school, it is authentic. All those other leadership styles are like shirts one puts on or takes off to fit the situation.

    Leading from the heart is also the most vulnerable leadership style and not everyone is willing to takes the risks involved. I congratulate you for doing so and for an excellent debut.

    Posted by Deven Black | January 27, 2011, 12:18 pm
    • Deven, thank you for the quick response to my entry. And thank you for your kind words. While as leaders we sometimes have to change our shirts ( I love the metaphor ), we must always consider wearing our tried and true shirt of leading from the heart. And, yes, I agree, it does make us vulnerable wearing our heart on our sleeve ( am I taking it too far?), we must be mindful that in order to help others grow, we must show them our true selves.

      I’m looking forward to learning with you. Jump in with both feet, the water is quite warm…

      Posted by Chris Pryor | January 27, 2011, 1:03 pm
  2. Chris, I am extremely pleased that you decided to write. 🙂

    You have reinforced, for me, a number of things. One, if you as a leader in the school ‘lead from the heart’, you will model for teachers to ‘teach and learn from the heart’ and students to ‘learn and teach from the heart’.

    You have also reminded me of the incredible importance of ‘taking a pause’ to reflect before reacting. This ‘mindfulness’ allows the heart and mind to get in sync, I think.

    thanks again

    Posted by peter skillen | January 27, 2011, 12:24 pm
    • Peter, thank you so much for including that part — modeling is critical to leadership. Show, don’t tell. And I love how you wove student learning into it — after all that is why we are in the business we are in. Student learning, above all else, is what needs to be impacted in positive ways. I hope I am helping.

      I am glad to be working alongside of you here at the co-op.


      Posted by Chris Pryor | January 27, 2011, 1:06 pm
  3. Over a year ago, I took a course in mentoring and coaching. I was quite happy with the content and the ideas discussed and though the course was trying to offer “tools” and “resources” for better coaching I never saw them as more than examples of what caching may look like. Few weeks later, as a perk from the course, I had a session with a professional coach to discuss my role as a manager of a team and how can I help them be more efficient and deal with problems at work. The coach told me she had over 15 years of experience doing coaching and I expected to be blown out by introspective and inventive questions. Instead, I got the same questions from the “toolkit” I took home from the courses.

    I share this story as I agree with Deven that leading from the heart is authentic. As we find ourselves in the roles of principals, teachers, managers, parents, or even just peers and friends, authenticity is what people look for when we try to lead, guide, mentor or simply try to help them. And the only way to be authentic is to never stop checking if it is truly you, your inner self with all the beliefs and values, that just gave that piece of advice, or rewarded a behavior, or tried to convince someone to do something they were hesitant to do. By doing so, you’ll be open to listen to others and let them change you or help you learn yourself. You let the value driven inner selfs talk as opposed to running a pre-scripted chat like two AI bots using learned responses suitable for the context. I like the Leading by Heart metaphor as it visualizes the inner self!

    Welcome to the Coop and I am looking forward to many more posts from you! 😉

    Posted by kima | January 27, 2011, 1:13 pm
  4. Very well written, Kima. You and I will be good friends.

    Often professional coaching is not authentic and appears “canned” in a way that truly defeats the purpose. There are some coaches out there who teach authentic leading from the heart and I listen to them because they are real. This only supports your theory that this is what people look for in leadership. In fact, I think they crave it. The bottom line is that to create a movement we need people to believe in us for who we really are.
    Have you seen this great Derek Sivers video yet?

    Thanks for reading and helping me learn.


    Posted by Chris Pryor | January 27, 2011, 1:51 pm
    • I am sure we will be friends! … but mind you, being authentic means being truthful … and I have a love & hate relationship with education thanks to personal experiences with my older daughter as well as thoughts planted in my head by Gatto, Kohn and others, including people on this group … so I hope me speaking from the heart as an enraged parent won’t put that friendship at risk 😉 … which I am sure won’t happen, given our agreement that people crave for authenticity!

      I’ve seen Derek Sivers’ video … I admit, I am a TED junkie so you’ll need to work hard to find a video I haven’t watched 😉 … but I am not sure what to make of your implied reference from the video “The first follower is what transforms a lone nut into a leader” … I guess you may say we all started as lone nuts before joining the Coop 😉

      Have fun learning!


      Posted by kima | January 28, 2011, 4:24 am
  5. Thank you for this post, Chris – it makes a timely appearance in my school year.

    Our three-year old school has tried from the start to use Glasser’s Choice Theory as a behavior management tool for our students. We took up Choice Theory, in part, because a neighboring high school uses it to great effect with its kids. Our schools are both in the same division and we’re 2 out of the 4 charter schools open in Virginia; we now share a principal; we’re within walking distance of one another; so here we are.

    I’m not sure we’ve ever found Choice Theory to be as effective with our population as it seems to be at the high school with its population. However, Choice Theory and a lot of mentoring in servant leadership have combined in some way to make me a better teacher that I was four years ago. I’ve become a teacher who tries to listen to his heart more than his head or habits, and I’ve been trying to share that notion with my colleagues.

    From Choice Theory, I draw the belief that I control only myself. Through servant leadership I frame my practice as an attempt to create a safe, joyful, and relevant classroom for all of my students. I seldom achieve what I want, but in keeping those two tenets in mind, I am able to fail forward and err more on the side of students than the side of either the system or the status quo. I don’t ignore my mind or my habits, but I use my mind more productively now to help students learn and I question my teaching habits more honestly to determine which I need to break.

    So my question to both of us is how does our leadership seem to our students?

    I’ll ask around next week after EduCon –

    Best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 27, 2011, 3:50 pm
    • Chad, what a great response!

      It appears you are already leading from the heart. I am not as familiar with Choice Theory as I could be, but what I think I understand is that it is reinforcing the theory that as individuals we can only control our own environment and attitude. A dear friend of mine said to me yesterday that we may be powerless to change our circumstances, but we can always change our attitude. I believe she is right and perhaps Choice Theory supports her belief. Asking young children to understand this concept may be too much to ask of them and is why you are not finding as much success as the high school. Never-the-less, by introducing young children to be mindful of their own actions and supporting others to do the same is a worthy cause. Schools who believe in this will always be relevant, I think.

      How does our leadership seem to our students? I am hopeful they are watching us carefully as we mentor, lead, and make decisions. I am hopeful they are watching as we treat others respectfully and when we often bite our tongue rather than reacting without thought or purpose. I hope they are watching, Chad, because there is a lot to learn in the small moments of life when we think nobody is watching.

      Please come back after EduCon with some answers for us. We will all want to hear.

      This is going to be a fun ride learning together,


      Posted by Chris Pryor | January 27, 2011, 8:39 pm
  6. This post really resonated for me Chris as someone focused on listening more and improving my own leadership skills. I recently came across The Five Components of Emotional Intelligence at Work and I’m trying to put them into daily practice. Sharing…
    1. Self-awareness: the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions and drives as well as their effect on others
    2. Self-regulation: the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods, to suspend judgment to think before acting
    3. Motivation: a passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status, a propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence
    4. Empathy: the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people
    5. Social Skill: proficiency in managing relationships and building networks, an ability to find common ground and build rapport.

    I’m finding that thinking about these five components has better informed my inner voice.

    Looking forward to more posts from you Chris.

    Mary Beth

    Posted by Mary Beth Gonzalez | January 27, 2011, 8:18 pm
    • Dear Mary Beth,

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts here on the Co-op. As I said above, I write for myself but the writing is not born until the reader finds it of interest. You helped my first post come alive. Thank you and I am glad it resonated with you.

      If you have not read any Daniel Goleman, please pick up his book on emotional intelligence. I think you will love it! In many lines of work the EQ is far more critical than the IQ. It sounds as though you are finding your way with EQ and have learned much already.

      Our inner voice usually offers sage advice. The trouble I so often see, however, is that many of us never listen. We need to quiet our minds, rest our souls and listen to the voice within. Then, and only then, will we hear what our heart has to say. Pretty deep, huh? I believe it is true. I am not a guru, and I don’t always practice what I preach, but I think the inner voice is one to listen to when you are seeking answers.

      Thank you for writing in, Mary Beth. I so appreciated your thoughts.


      Posted by Chris Pryor | January 27, 2011, 8:51 pm
  7. Hi Chris, I am interested in your research of the heart, especially as applies in US educational systems as its been my experience that they don’t want kids to stand for what’s in the heart). Teachers would rather see kids conform… Too much work, otherwise. R u familiar with Heartmath?

    Posted by Greg Montana | January 28, 2011, 8:57 am
    • Hi Greg,

      Thanks for posting. See my comments below to Elisa about how I avoided the entire educational system in US. That was the solution for me, but I am all too aware that it is not the solution for most. Only 3% of the country’s students attend an independent school — so we have much hard work ahead of us to help reform the system so that the heart is considered as much as the brain. My heart research is truly limited to my work on emotional intelligence and my belief in empathy. I am eager to read the more recent post to the Co-op on Empathy’s Role in Education and watch the Sam Richard’s Ted Talk. There may be some answers there.

      I can tell you this and it is most likely that I am preaching to the choir. Until we begin to focus more on formative assessments rather than be limited to its counterpart summative assessment, we are in for a long road ahead. Let’s break free from the multiple choice tests and begin to ask our children to think, to analyze, to synthesize, and write more often. Consequently, we will begin to understand our students on a different level and push them in ways that will help them prepare for the future. Project based learning is a fabulous tool to employ for classrooms at all levels in all subjects . Have you seen this website? While it does not have all the answers, it is a good place to start.

      Leading from the heart is really about knowing yourself and your heart virtue. I am not convinced there is a hard and fast rule or procedure to follow.

      I am not familiar with Heartmath. I will check out their website and learn what I can. Feel free to help me here in this forum.

      Again, Greg, thank you and I wish you much luck and success in leading from the heart.


      Posted by Chris Pryor | January 29, 2011, 11:16 am
  8. Hi Chris,
    I love what you say here. I wish more administrators led from the heart. There’s a lot of fear and too much attention given to menial administrative tasks that dumb down the work that school leaders should be doing. I too tell my students that one of the best ways to learn is through reflection of situations we are involved and through our mistakes. You are right in saying there is a difference between reflection and reaction. It is through reflection that we learn to become introspective, to turn in on ourselves, so that we may see things more globally and serenely. Only then will our actions have meaning.

    I wish I could be a fly on a wall at one of your staff meetings! I look forward to future posts!

    Posted by Elisa Waingort | January 28, 2011, 8:21 pm
    • Thank you, Eliza. Your comments are spot on.

      20 years ago I made a conscience decision to lead in independent schools where I would have the freedom to innovate, create, cultivate and believe in what I know is in my heart — not the book of rules and regulations. Perhaps it was how I was raised to be a creative thinker and an independent learner. I always attended independent schools so the mindset of being a small part of a mission driven institution is in my blood. That is another way of saying I don’t do well when someone tells me what to do! ;>) Leading from the heart is much easier when we do not feel pressured to conform or achieve. Achievement comes naturally when we are inspired to innovate and success breeds success. I hire good people and try to get out of their way so they can teach well. Our faculty develop curricula together and we map together so we know how one course can affect another — we believe in an integrated curriculum and differentiated instruction to a high level. It takes effort, sweat and collaboration, but one cannot accomplish that alone.

      I am so glad you agree with this post. Tell me, how does your school and your admin team encourage creativity, collaboration and innovation? Are faculty feeling inspired by the work of their colleagues? Are they aware what their colleagues are doing in the classroom and do they encourage one another? I am eager to learn more from you.

      Again, thank you for the post.


      Posted by Chris Pryor | January 29, 2011, 11:00 am
  9. Hi Chris, Thanks for this lovely post. I have been away at EDUCON, convening with Paula White, Becky Fisher, Mary Beth Hertz, and Chad Sansing, among other COOP-sters. If you don’t already know them, may I recommend two books to add to your thoughts here: Parker Palmer’s Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 978-0787971007 and
    Palmer, Parker J. (2000-09-10). Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. ISBN 978-0787947354. I personally found my two-year training at the Center for Courage and Renewal, with Parker Palmer deeply helpful and centering in my own leadership challenges.

    Additionally, on leadership and the trials and alonenesses of leadership, I am quite taken with Leading from Within and The Wounded Leader

    It’s great to have you here. Leadership challenges us to be authentic, and sometimes, in the moment, we don’t quite know who we are. How can we be authentic when we don’t quite know who we are?

    There it is.



    Posted by Kirsten | January 31, 2011, 8:38 pm
  10. Dear Kirsten,

    Thank you for the suggested reading; I’m on it. I am excited to read more, but perhaps more excited to learn about your days at the Center for Courage and Renewal. Sounds invigorating. I will explore.

    You pose a good question on authenticity. I agree, we always need to be confident in knowing who we are. Difficult and confusing at times, but essential for authentic leadership.

    Thank you, Kirsten. I am excited to be here with you all!

    Posted by Chris Pryor | January 31, 2011, 10:08 pm
  11. Hi Chris

    I applaud your leadership style. If my son’s school had a leader who lead from the heart 12 years ago, we might never have left the school system behind and discovered everything we have about natural learning. I wish there were educational leaders like you within the system. While independent schools are a great place for innovative learning experiences, far too many of the children who need these innovations are unable to afford these alternatives.
    I would enjoy hearing more about how leadership from the heart affects learning with examples from the child’s perspective. I have applauded many leadership styles and school styles in the past, only to discover that in practice they change little from the students perspective. The children involved do not retain their natural curiosity and love of learning. Education should focus on the children not on the leaders. Therefore, I can not judge any style without learning more about the impact on the child.

    Posted by Jo Tracey | December 9, 2011, 8:09 am
  12. Chris,
    I am a newbie to this site but am finding it delicious and inspiring. Your posting this morning hit the spot. I am a “retired” teacher and became so 5 years ago only because I was so disgusted with the administrators in my district, especially the principal in my school. His doctoral degree came from a prestigious university but he was completely ineffective, insecure and had no leadership style that one could recognize. He certainly did not lead from the heart. I have always gone off on my own as far as my professional development. My enthusiasm around my own growth was always obvious but often annoyed my teaching colleagues, except two principals we had in succession. They encouraged me and gave me opportunities to grow. When this new fellow arrived he seemed threatened by the many ways I was bringing the “understanding” model into my work and the diverse ways students were experiencing content in my room. As I read your posting I reflected on my own teaching practice and how very heart centered it was. Heart centered does not mean you don’t also bring rigor and intellectual challenges, novel perspectives and opportunities to use the mind into the classroom. I would say the heart loves the mind and vice versa, they need each other and when both are present and in balance there is a wholeness. I feel sad at times when I realize I might have worked in a school such as yours. I applaud, loudly, your heart centered approach.

    Posted by Jane Nordli Jessep | December 9, 2011, 10:31 am
  13. Today school leadership means compliance and crunching data….loss of full use of intelligence that acknowledges humanity. Good post. The ed reformer narrative is hyper-focused on accountability and data collection, backs are turned on the nature of the human condition and brain development. How do we change this. Unified and persistent reminders about how much we know about these things and reminders that expensive, controversial, untested, and experimental initiatives are not what is required.

    Posted by Sandra | December 9, 2011, 8:14 pm
  14. Dear Chris,

    Your post resonates deeply with me as a parent of twin daughters in an independent middle school in the Pacific Northwest, and a former corporate employee who is on a quest to create work that would feed both her soul and her family.

    Through my professional experiences as a lawyer, I have learned that so many of us live and work in our head, and seperated from our heart. Even before stepping up to lead others, I believe it is critical for us to connect our head with our heart, and allow our heart and head to work together. It is not always easy to allow our heart to lead and our head to serve our heart’s desires, but I have discovered that it is a path that leads to more joyful and meaningful living.

    After 20 years of legal practice in law firms and corporate environments where leading from heart is sorely needed, yet almost non-existent, I stepped out of that world to live my heart’s values of: creativity, humanity, integirty, and authenticity. Most of all, I wanted to model authentic living for my daughters.

    Interestingly enough, we’ve just recently realized that the educational culture that our daughters have been experiencing in their school for the past seven years parallels the workplace culture that I experienced while in corporate employment, and that even though we chose their school based on its philosophy, “Children First, Gifted Second,” the school seems to focus mainly on intellectual and academic progress, while falling behind in supporting children to develop as whole people. Below is a link to a particular blog post (entitled “Children’s Wisdom”) which is just one of many posts we wrote as we refelcted on the school issues that our family has been dealing with because, to our chagrin and disappointment, leading from heart is not modeled and taught in our daughters’ school:

    I, too, agree that “the writing is not born until the reader finds it of interest” as you have put it eloquently. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I did indeed find them of interest!


    Posted by Jung | April 14, 2012, 2:25 pm


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