Be the Change You Wish to See In the Workplace

By Wanda M. Holland Greene

As a member of the newest cohort of educators chosen to be Pahara-Aspen Fellows at The Aspen Institute, I have been deeply engaged in readings about the challenges of leadership as I prepare for our first gathering in early May. From Monnet to Machiavelli and from Shanker to Sotomayor, I have been examining models of leadership, noting provocative ideas and “talking back” to the texts as I read them. This is what all active readers and reflective practitioners should do. A sentence in an excerpt from “Leadership is An Art” by American businessman and author Max De Pree spoke powerfully and particularly to me:

“The measure of leadership is not the quality of the head but the tone of the body.”

I “hollered back” and gave Max a high-five. Here’s why.

By my own self-assessment and that of others, I am an effective and experienced leader who is motivated and inspired daily by the mission of my school and my desire to level the playing field for children who are underestimated or undervalued. I am awe-struck when I think about how much responsibility is placed into the hands and at the feet of leaders across various industries: education, health care, finance and technology to name a few. Clearly, leaders bear the weighty responsibility of carrying the vision and values of their organizations and must work diligently to ensure that everyone knows the way forward and why they are headed there. Someone once told me that if the leader gets too far ahead of the organization, he or she starts to look like the enemy. So true.

I recognize and joyfully accept my role as a leader, as do many of my esteemed colleagues, and yet I must say that the measure of our impact is inextricably linked with the body of people we lead. Everyone seems quick to judge the quality of the leader and less inclined to ask those being led a critical question: Are you the change you wish to see in the workplace? Do the behaviors and attitudes of the members of the organization help or hinder the leader’s ability to focus on the important things? Simply put, what is the tone of the body? Here is what Mahatma Gandhi actually said about being the change we wish to see in the world:

“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”

Gandhi gets a high-five too. There are many days when I wonder what more I could actually be doing with my time and talent if each individual took responsibility for the energy that he or she brings into the workplace. What great things would happen if “we could change ourselves”? My hypothesis is that my effectiveness as a leader would skyrocket, employee morale would improve, and we’d all thrive and get some more sleep. (You get a high-five too, Arianna.)

Imagine if every individual in the organization, leaders included, decided to do the following five things–just think about how much more satisfying it would be for everyone to go to work! We could all focus more intently on the important instead of being clobbered by the urgent. Whenever I review my work calendar and reflect upon the things that tend to take me out of my strategic stance, the distractions and detours are most often due to the fact that someone (myself included) failed to do one of these five things:

1) Arrive to work every day with a sense of gratitude.

One thing I know for sure is that the only thing we truly have is today; therefore, the quality of each day matters. It would be extraordinary to see how much joy we could usher into the workplace just by saying thank you and being grateful for what we have been given. We are surrounded by blessings, both great and small, and being aware of them and thankful for them goes a long way. I am grateful for my health, for my wonderful family, for the opportunity to do work that I love with people whom I admire and respect. I am grateful for small things like a ripe avocado, the laughter of a Kindergarten student, the white foam on a perfect almond milk latte, and a gripping episode of Law & Order SVU or Homeland. When I begin my work day with a sense of gratitude, my outlook on life and the future is better. Now don’t get me wrong — being grateful does not mean accepting mistreatment in the workplace and silencing one’s voice. Gratitude means approaching everyone and everything in your organization with an open heart and recognizing that happiness comes from wanting what we have, not necessarily having everything that we want.

2) Love your neighbor.

Kindness counts, and taking time to learn and connect to someone else’s story is important. See people for who they are. Better yet, ask them who they are. Learn to be culturally competent in the workplace. As a leader, I love sharing stories and I believe in the fundamental goodness of people. Most people show up each day to do their best work and to be their best self. Perhaps your colleague was in heavy traffic on the way to work this morning and he or she is grouchy because someone clipped the side of their vehicle. Or maybe the day began with an argument with a loved one or not being able to fit into their favorite pair of pants. The point is, we’re all human, and a little empathy works wonders in creating a joyful workplace. My predecessor at Hamlin told employees to always assume good will. It’s really hard to demonize people and create factions at work when you see others as fully human. Open your eyes and ears, say good morning, and then linger for an authentic response. I understand so clearly just how busy and how flawed and broken we all are. I also know for sure that when we are loved, we feel more whole and more at peace.

3) Follow the rules. 
It’s really simple. When you break the rules, you create problems and slow down the system. Think for a moment. Who are the angriest and most animated people at an athletics game? It’s the fans who are apoplectic about the officials who are not seeing blatant fouls, making bad calls and not reinforcing the rules of the game. When rules are ignored, it’s infuriating and a colossal waste of time and energy. When you don’t follow the rules, the game cannot be played fluidly. Time-outs are called. People get restless and agitated as they wait for order to be restored. If you arrive late at 9:07 a.m. every day, and everyone else comes in on time at 9:00 a.m., you’re creating a headache for the leader who now has to stop and remind you about the rules. If your deliverables are always late, progress comes to a halt, and the leader needs to remind you about the importance of deadlines. Everyone in the organization wants to see systems work fairly and smoothly — when rules are followed carefully, people are more likely to accept decisions and outcomes, even the difficult ones. (Note: Creativity and fairness are essential elements of a happy workplace. Please don’t use my “follow the rules” advice as an excuse not to innovate or change direction when necessary. And we should certainly not adhere to rules that are unfair and discriminatory.)

4) Regulate your emotions
There is no doubt that things happen at work which trigger us in negative ways. Someone sends you a terse email; a leader or supervisor makes a decision that you don’t understand or agree with; you want a larger raise; your colleague gossips about your private life; you get passed over for a promotion you feel you deserve; you are asked to wait for something that you feel is critical. The workplace is often a swirl of poorly regulated emotions. As a leader, I want people to feel their emotions fully and deeply. For example, I don’t believe in squashing one’s anger and pretending that you are not upset. However, the workplace would be so much healthier if employees would get curious before they get furious. Might an individual take a few mindful breaths before unleashing his or her venom in a meeting or in an email? Better yet, might a person write the angry email but not send it? To be candid, I have received emails that would have been much better as personal journal entries, not professional correspondence. My point here is that a leader’s energy is often spent unraveling two issues instead of one: 1) the inappropriate emotional reaction and 2) the original issue. A little self-control in the short-term could save everyone a lot of time in the long-term.

5) Replace anxiety with trust. 
This final piece of advice gets back to the idea of assuming good will. In healthy organizations, the leaders are not a cohort of evildoers who conspire to manipulate others and make their lives miserable. Making uninformed claims about what “management” or “the administration” is doing hurts the leader as a person and the organization as a whole, and fearing that there are always ulterior motives is frustrating and unhelpful. We lead because we care. We lead because we believe that we can make a positive contribution and a meaningful difference. I certainly understand that trust is earned over time and that relationship-building and transparency in decision-making deepen trust, and I am committed to those processes. My questions are two-fold: Can leaders be given some political currency up front instead of feeling as if we are always working our way out of a trust deficit? Furthermore, can we build our organizations on a strong foundation of trust rather than on the quicksand of anxiety? I hope that the answer can be yes to both questions.

Max de Pree spends a lot of time discussing what leaders owe their institutions. I know for sure that I owe Hamlin nothing less than my very best effort each day, and I will continue to lead with deep gratitude, clear purpose, and unspeakable joy. What I and all leaders want more than anything is to leave a legacy of health and strength, and I am here to declare boldly and humbly that we cannot do this alone. We need the deft combination of excellence in leadership and the commitment of trusting and trusted employees. Together we will create the change we wish to see in the workplace and in the world.


Wanda M. Holland Greene is Head of School at The Hamlin School in San Francisco, a mission-driven institution dedicated to best practices and innovation in the education of girls and young women. Prior to her tenure Hamlin, which began in 2008, Wanda served for eleven years as a senior administrator and ex-officio trustee at The Park School in Brookline, MA. She began her career in education at Columbia Greenhouse Nursery School in New York City and continued thereafter at The Chapin School, where she was a teacher and the school’s first Director of Student Life. Currently, she is a trustee at Columbia University and Head-Royce School, an advisor to Common Sense Media, and a Pahara-Aspen Education Fellow at The Aspen Institute. She is a former trustee of the National Association of Independent Schools, Concord Academy, The Chapin School, Hamilton Families, and Lick-Wilmerding High School.

An experienced leader in education with a powerful voice and presence, Wanda focuses careful attention on academic and ethical excellence, gender equity, performance evaluation, diversity and inclusion, health and wellness, and global citizenship. As a faculty member of the National Association of Independent School’s Aspiring Heads Fellowship, Wanda is a passionate advocate and sponsor for women and people of color who seek leadership positions in education.

A proud native of Brooklyn, New York, Wanda graduated from The Chapin School and earned a bachelors degree from Columbia University, majoring in English Literature with a concentration in psychology. She holds a masters degree in curriculum design and instruction from Columbia University’s Teachers College, a permanent teaching license in New York State, and has completed extensive coursework in private school leadership at The Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Center at Columbia.