'Dancing in the Rain'

Author discusses his new book about how administrators can lead colleges with "mindfulness and self-compassion" -- and the right emotions.

October 12, 2016

Attend a few faculty gatherings, and it's hard not to hear bashing of administrators. They only care about money or rankings. They have forgotten what it's like to teach or do research -- if they ever knew. And so forth.

A new book seeks to inspire college and university administrators to think about their jobs in ways that might stun faculty skeptics. Dancing in the Rain: Leading With Compassion, Vitality and Mindfulness in Education was published this month by Harvard Education Press. The book mixes Eastern philosophy and Western psychology and encourages administrators to go through various thought exercises to have compassion not just for those with whom they interact, but for themselves. The author, Jerome T. Murphy, has been both a faculty member and an administrator. He is the Harold Howe II Professor of Education Emeritus and former dean at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

While Murphy talks with pride about what he accomplished in his 17 years as a dean, he doesn't flatter his fellow administrators. He describes the "dance of deans" in monthly meetings with the Harvard president where "we all sometimes acted like peacocks displaying our feathers, competing for power and attention."

And he notes that deans must constantly balance major educational goals with the practical needs of constituents. He recalls a "lofty conversation" he had with a faculty member about the direction of Harvard's education school. In the middle of what Murphy thought was an important discussion, the faculty member asked, "What are you going to do about the odor strips?" Murphy was confused. The professor explained, "I'm allergic to the new odor strips in the fourth-floor bathroom, and something needs to be done." To that faculty member, this was something for the dean to tackle, forthwith. And Murphy acknowledges that deans are regularly judged on how they perform such tasks.

Murphy spends much time talking about feelings -- reminding readers that administrators have them (really). But he also warns administrators against the "fixation on fixing." Leaders, he notes, are expected to be strong and have answers for everything. But in higher education administration, Murphy writes, that's not always the case -- and administrators should admit as much.

He describes, for instance, three "debilitating habits" that afflict administrators. He calls them the three Rs:

  • "Resisting the discomfort of leadership and trying to get rid of it."
  • "Ruminating excessively about flaws and failures and future foul-ups."
  • "Rebuking ourselves for not measuring up."

Besides advising realism and patience, Murphy writes that administrators (at the higher education or K-12 level) need to take time for personal reflection and steps -- breathing exercises, poetry, silent time -- to focus on their needs. And administrators sometimes need to mix it up.

He describes dressing up as Santa Claus when he was dean, every December, and going door to door in the education school, jingling sleigh bells and passing out candy canes. He said that he initially thought of this as a generous gesture on his part to show goodwill to everyone at the school. But over time, he said, he concluded that this gesture was also for himself.

"I realize that I was playing Santa Claus to help myself," he writes. "At that time of year, I was regularly exhausted, wrung out by the pace at Harvard and feeling a bit overwhelmed. Somehow, I intuitively needed to have some fun. I needed to engage in self-care."

Via email, Murphy responded to some questions about the book.

Q: Can you explain the metaphor of your book's title?

A: "Dancing in the Rain" is meant to capture my passion: helping education leaders live lives of purpose, consequence and joy in these stressful times.

Q: These days many faculty members regularly criticize administrators as lacking the very qualities your subtitle (and much of the book) promote. Do administrators get criticized unfairly?

A: Some are criticized unfairly, others not -- and, of course, all administrators should be held accountable for their actions. But it’s worth remembering that being criticized (both fairly and unfairly) goes with the daunting job of being a college administrator today. My book aims to help the best administrators take this stress more in stride and open their hearts to their colleagues, while keeping their values front and center.

Q: I imagine some will read some of your exercises (seated beside the couple with the crying baby and trying to stay calm while getting ready to fly back to campus, where a scandal awaits) and just say, "There's no way I could do that." What do you tell the skeptics?

A: When I started thinking about this book, I was a card-carrying policy wonk; I too was skeptical about all this mindfulness jazz. After a lot of practice, I’m now handling difficult situations where I was originally sure there’s no way I could do that. I was wrong; might you be, too?

Q: Many campus conflicts seem to be cases of administrators failing to communicate effectively with either faculty members, students or both. What would be your top bits of advice on how to "express feelings wisely"?

A: Talk less, listen more. Show your genuine empathy for various stakeholders. Recognize that complaining (by faculty and students) is often a sign of their deep caring about the institution. Let your hair down a bit, and show them that you, too, are a caring -- and fallible -- human being working your heart out to do your best.

Q: How much more difficult is it to follow your advice in tight budget times? Any advice for the administrator forced to watch every penny?

A: Tight budgets make hard jobs a lot harder. Acknowledge to yourself just how difficult it really is -- and give yourself a break. Treat yourself with the kindness that you’d show a treasured friend who is struggling. You deserve it.


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