The Beginner’s Mind: Practicing the Nine Virtues in Troubling Times

by Ross Peters | Vice President of School Strategy

During the first three weeks in October Dr. Karl Haden, President of AAL, and I will teach a course on Exceptional Leadership and the Nine Virtues. I am hugely excited about it.

I have always been similarly excited about the chance to teach something I care deeply about and about which my own knowledge is incomplete.

Yesterday I was in a conversation in which someone said “I don’t know how teachers do it–teach the same thing year after year–imagine teaching Hamlet twenty times.” I bit my tongue because I am indeed the person who taught Hamlet twenty times and…looked forward to it every time. Her point, however, was a good one–excellent teachers are able to bring freshness to their work even as content remains roughly the same as the faces studying it change annually.

Hamlet is a good example of arriving to even those things about which we have full familiarity, possibly even impressive expertise, with what is called the “beginner’s mind” (Sho-Shin). A great teacher, the play’s original live audience, and a Senior English student have something critical in common as each waits nervously for the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in Act One–they know the ending already. Bulletin: Hamlet dies violently in the end. We know because the title tells us so–The Tragedy of Hamlet, The Prince of Denmark. Yet good audience members, actors, students, and scholars know that the play always changes…it is a living thing. It depends on us and what we bring to it. In an ideal setting, a teacher arrives at even the most familiar content with a “beginner’s mind.” 

As the first example of partnership between EXPLO Elevate and AAL, Karl led a webinar last Friday on the virtue of humility, while I played host and rode shotgun (you can find it here). He is my favorite kind of scholar as everything he studies grows from a humble, rigorous, and passionate desire to know, to understand, and finally, to cross the bridge they create toward wisdom. He listens long, reads deeply, and expresses himself with an awareness of the value of words. I have learned a lot from him.

Karl’s books based on the Nine Virtues (Humility, Honesty, Courage, Perseverance, Hope, Charity, Balance, Wisdom, and Justice) and their relationship with exceptional leadership provide an apt launching pad for a vital discussion of the relationship between an ancient understanding of virtue and successful navigation of the unprecedented leadership challenges of our time, including COVID-19, the national reckoning with systemic racism, and our painful cultural and economic divides. 

In these rough and extraordinary days, we have been spending too much energy polishing our crystal balls to try and get a read of the future when we should spend more time looking through a magnifying glass at the small print of the past. Additionally, leaders must spend as much time identifying WHO they should be in this time as they do WHAT they are going to do.  We are not the first generation to face crippling complexity, red-faced/fact-absent shouting matches, and persistent fear of a world permanently and dangerously changing. We are just the latest of many generations of leaders who are called to lean into the practices demanded of the Nine Virtues in order to lead, instead of simply making decisions in reaction to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. 

As everyone is facing challenges as great as any other point in our lifetimes, the ongoing leadership temptation is to be drawn into tactics alone.

This is completely understandable as tactics right now are more than enough to fill up the day (and sometimes the night). Taking care of tactics also fulfills the demands of to-do lists. No matter how complex the issues are, tactical problem-solving can be comforting as it implies forward movement. Centering all of a leader’s work in tactics though creates the illusion that the leader is leading simply by getting a lot done by checking boxes. At some point tactical thinking alone, however, can become an escape from the most important work of a leader. Without a focus on the virtues and practicing virtuous behaviors, the risk of leadership drift from the better self increases dramatically.