A little over a year ago I moved into a desert home several miles from the noise, lights, and busy-ness of town. It’s peaceful out here, and when nightfall comes, the sky is the deepest shade of dark, and the stars stand out like illuminated crystals, giving off a pureness of light that is unparalleled. I can easily identify the constellations from any area of my property, and as I do, my eyes follow to Polaris, the North Star, and an easy, simple feeling comes over me. The star is famous for holding nearly still in our sky while the entire northern sky moves around it; something I can count on. As I look at it, I am connected to my younger self who loved the outdoors and learned to believe that as long as I could locate the North Star, I could find my way out of any situation, and back to safety.
The North Star is a Fixed Destination
Metaphorically speaking, my North Star is my personal vision and mission. It’s a fixed destination that I can depend on in my life as the world changes around me. While many leaders set quarterly milestones, charting progress against ambitious plans and goals, the wisest leaders take a different approach. They root themselves in a noble purpose, align it with a compelling vision, and then take action. Not just for that quarter or even that year. But for the rest of their lives. For me, that noble purpose is equity. It is my North Star. It is what grounds me. It is what gives my life and work meaning.
Last night, as I was gazing at Polaris, I was reminded of a quote about compassion by Buddhist scholar Thich Nhat Hanh that resonates with me; one that I’ve held tight to throughout most of my adult life. “If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star. And I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction”. Thich Nhat Hanh is a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist whose key teachings center on living happily in the present moment through mindfulness.
Mindfulness and attention to my North Star are both integral to my own well-being as a leader. When I practice mindfulness and remember my North Star, I feel calmer and more resolved. As the school year progresses, I know I need to take more time to focus on my North Star, or I risk moving through steps and decisions without truly connecting with others and embracing the type of leadership I want to demonstrate. So as I approach ‘Spring Break’, I have plans to re-center myself, and do something each day, no matter how big or small, in the direction of my North Star. Taking time away from work during Spring Break is not something I can ever remember doing for more than a day or so, but this year, I plan on taking several days to rest, recharge, and focus on wellness.
Taking time away to rediscover my North Star is key, as I need to always remember where I am headed and where I am leading others.
Because my North Star happens to be driven by a desire to promote equitable opportunities for youth, aiming toward it brings happiness and benefit to myself and others. But the truth is, the work is often isolating and exhausting. Sometimes I get tired because the decisions I am faced with at work come at a warp speed, and it’s easy to get caught up in the rapid-fire pace of the routines and obligations that gradually take over. Other times, I am wary because the cognitive and emotional capacity required to shift mindsets, dispositions, and narratives require more than my heart, mind, and soul have to offer on any one given day, and I have to tap into reserves in order to continue moving forward. Sometimes I am blown away by the sheer volume of issues and situations headed my direction, and at the end of the day I wonder if I accomplished anything worthwhile.
It may look goal-directed and purpose oriented – get up, check messages, go to work, attend meetings, solve problems, clean up, check messages, go to bed, repeat the next day—but I know sometimes I can go through the daily motions with no deep purpose; no essential aim that provides clarity, significance, and fullness to each day. On any given week, I may be spending 70+ hours engaged in work related activities. But if these activities are not rooted in meaning and relevancy, my energy may not be well spent.
My desire is to be purpose driven, and leave a positive impact on others that is noble and lasting. I know that in order to truly create the conditions for all students to experience success, both in one’s self and in the world, I have to take the time to live happily in the present moment to have the cognitive and emotional capacity for the decisions that make a difference. I can only do this if I am able to disconnect from work; if even only for a short time each day. Taking the time to disconnect and recharge is fundamental.
What is Your North Star?
So as you take time to disconnect and head into your own reflection time; whether that be during ‘Spring Break’ or if you just take a moment to breathe outside as the leaves and flowers begin to bud and bask in the vernal sunlight, I ask you to consider, “What’s the North Star guiding you out of your own entangled darkness? Both the darkness that exists in nature, in work, and in the world; and the darkness inside your own mind?
Find some time this spring to be still. Perhaps, like me, sitting quietly at home under the night sky. Look deeply, with mindfulness and concentration, to see your true nature and help your mind settle. Then simply ponder, “What’s my North Star?” or “What’s the most important thing and how am I doing at staying true to it?”
Our Purpose as Leaders is to Create Other Leaders
While some individuals have several North Stars, typically lined up in the same direction in order to align principles and avoid conflict, others have only one. Leaders who are truly inspirational usually have a single North Star; one aim, one principle. This purpose is what draws together all the fibers of her or his life and leads others to want to follow. This purpose is what influences others; building them up, empowering them, and developing them as leaders in their own rite.
In my position, I want to be that purpose-driven leader; engaging, inspiring, and developing other leaders that understand and embrace the challenges of creating equitable opportunities so all students stand a fighting chance in life. In order to do this, I need to re-connect to my North Star over Spring Break. I do so with the best intentions. I do so with hopes of righting the course and ensuring that I live up to the promises made to myself and others; so I can be the best leader I am capable of being. Wise leadership comes from identifying our own North Star, then using the light to enable others to find their own.
In order to identify and then follow your own North Star, ask powerful questions of yourself.
You may want to start with the following:
When’s the last time you star gazed? Putting yourself into the environment and connecting with the North Star visually and viscerally can stimulate emotional insight into your purpose and give you better clarity.
With whom have you shared your North Star? Social support is helpful in keeping the light strong. Reach out to friends and family, find an accountability partner, or share thoughts with a colleague or life coach.
How are you actively sharpening your saw? Learning new things has been shown to keep your mind and memory sharp, as well as your creativity flowing – essential when cultivating your life purpose.
How often are you scheduling play or mindfulness breaks? It might seem counterintuitive, but scheduling periodic play breaks in the day actually boosts productivity, work performance, focus, problem-solving abilities, and creativity – all helpful in living out your life purpose.