Do you have a recurring back-to-school dream (i.e., nightmare!) that signals the beginning of another school year? I used to have teacher nightmares before school started—in which I would show up late and unburdened by clothing to my Spanish class in a large urban high school…after having gotten lost and locked in a few stairwells. When I moved into my first central office position, I started dreaming I was on a beach in a swimsuit, soaking up the sun a half block away from colorful cabanas. Said cabanas would suddenly spring to life and I would find myself dragged through them, car wash style. I’d quickly emerge wearing a skirt suit, carrying a briefcase, and walking down a tiled school hallway between two suit-clad men. Yikes!
As you start putting the finishing touches on your annual back-to-school celebrations and rituals, let’s unearth those nightmares and kick those back-to-school blues to the curb.
I’d like to invite you to begin your new school year by reflecting on who you are, what you do best, and how leaning into your strengths can lead you into more powerful and positive leadership behaviors.
One of my favorite executive coaching exercises is called the Peak Experience. This exercise emerged from the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) movement and is designed to help clients focus on past successes to identify strengths, positive core beliefs and generate positive feelings—leading to more powerful action in their current settings. Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a collaborative and strengths-based change management model pioneered by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastava in the 1980’s at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.
Here’s how I typically invite clients into this practice during in coaching session:
• Please tell me about a peak experience you’ve had in your professional or personal life. It may be a time when you felt most alive, most involved, or most excited about what you were involved in. What made it an exciting experienced? Who was involved? What images come to mind as you recall this experience? What made it so wonderful, so powerful?
• What feelings bubble up for you as you recall this experience? List them. What feelings did you have? What impressions do you recall as you think back to this positive experience? What feelings did you experience?
• What strengths were present for you as you recall this experience? What strengths were demonstrated in this initiative, this success, this memory?
• What other strengths, talents or character traits come show up for you as you remember this peak experience?
Once you have developed a clear picture of your peak experience, accompanying feelings, strengths, and character traits, and you are noticing how you feel when you recall this experience—this forms the nucleus of a powerful place you can return to when you want to shift your thinking into a more positive frame of mind. By repeating this practice a few times a day, you can learn to call up your peak experience, review your strengths and generate the accompanying positive emotions in as little as three to five minutes.
Learning to center ourselves and draw from our inner power in practical ways is a ninja-level leadership move that can serve to quiet our minds and help prepare for difficult meetings, projects, or events. Imagine the more peaceful frame of mind you could l be in to give that back-to-school welcome on opening day—or the more centered frame of mind you could be in to discuss complex issues during a late-night board meeting.
And with a little practice, you might just be able to turn your back-to-school nightmare into a dream.