An effective leader is like an ocean navigator sailing the Pacific through stormy and calm waters, sensing the underlying currents and respecting ocean life, while keeping an eye on the clouds and looking for birds in flight (which indicate that land is near), steering the craft with an expert inner compass, maintaining or changing direction as the situation demands, ever mindful of the safety and well-being of passengers, as she guides them collaboratively to their shared destination.
Above is the personal definition of leadership I wrote while participating in a SUNY SAIL Institute leadership training program in 2019. As a person of Polynesian descent, I felt that this was a particularly apt description of what it’s like to lead a school of arts and humanities during times of constant institutional change while navigating turbulent disruption in the landscape of higher education. My university had recently experienced several presidential shifts in a short period of time, and we were about to experience more in the years to come. We were on the cusp of COVID-19, which hit New York early and hard, bringing a national lockdown which pushed us all into a rapid transition to virtual environments. Several faculty under my supervision were among the first to be affected by the virus. These challenges required new skills to assist stressed out students, faculty, and staff, to lead with compassion, and to maintain clarity of mind in ever-shifting circumstances. In January 2021, I enrolled in a three-course certificate on Mindful Leadership, also offered by the SUNY SAIL Institute. There I learned to apply my prior mindfulness training to effective academic leadership. Aligning principles and practices of mindful leadership with Polynesian Aloha values offered a rich palette of resources to draw from while leading through transformative change with compassion and care.
What is mindfulness?
Harvard’s leading mindfulness researcher, Ellen J. Langer, provides foundational definitions of mindfulness vs. mindlessness. Langer’s research, spanning over 200 scientific articles and seven books, focuses on mindfulness, the benefits of mindful approaches, mindful learning, and the connection between mindfulness and creativity. According to Langer, “a mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.” She notes further, that “mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective. Being mindless, colloquially speaking, is like being on automatic pilot.” Mindful practices are key to maintaining an alert state of awareness, breaking away from habituation, disrupting mindlessness, and moving away from the lull of autopilot mode.[ii]
Ling and Chin (2012) provide an excellent synopsis of mindfulness research in relation to leadership, and “offer the following operational definition of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a state in which an individual deliberately focuses attention, on present (internal and external) experiences, in an open, non-judgmental way; while regulating personal assumptions and preconceptions.”[iii] Janice Marturano of the Mindful Leadership Institute is another leading thinker in this field. Her work clarifies misconceptions about what constitutes mindfulness and mindfulness training, with emphasis on mindfulness as a transformational practice for leaders. According to Marturano (2015), “A Mindful Leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity and compassion in the service of others.”
Mindful Behaviors and Attitudes
Among the leading thinkers on the topic, we see a range of overlapping as well as distinctive definitions. Marturano identifies seven “mindful behaviors” of leaders: openness, suspending judgment, acceptance, letting go, gentleness, non-striving, generosity, and empathy. These are almost identical to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s nine mindful “attitudes”; beginner’s mind, non-judging, acceptance, letting go, trust, patience, non-striving, gratitude, and generosity (2013). Note that he had originally introduced seven attitudes, but later revised them to add gratitude and generosity.[iv] Kabat-Zinn, perhaps the most well-known mindfulness expert, is the founder of The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, home of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program. Reading his analysis, Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that this is to trust in oneself, one’s body and one’s mind and not “naïve trust in others.”[v] I find an “attitude of gratitude” to be an important component of a mindful disposition, which is one of the nineteen Aloha Values, namely Mahalo (gratitude, being thankful) discussed below. Additionally, Jeffrey Buller (2013) has addressed the importance of trust and gratitude to effective academic leadership in his work on Positive Academic Leadership.
Connecting mindful leadership with Aloha Values shaping my personal definition of leadership
My ancestors – from the Tahitian, British and French branches of the family – were ocean navigators. Ancient Polynesian seafarers are arguably considered to be the most skilled in human history, given their facility in navigating the vast and treacherous expanses of the Pacific Ocean on relatively small vessels, primarily double outrigger canoes, using the stars, currents, clouds, winds, ocean conditions and bird behaviors to guide them.[vi] My Tahitian grandfather Julien Allain was born on the island of Raiatea and raised on the tiny Tuamotu atoll of Katiu, where even today the inhabitants (my relatives) live a subsistence lifestyle with fishing, copra harvesting, and pearl farming. Eager to serve, Julien joined the Free French Air Force in 1940, under General De Gaulle during WWII. When their ship was torpedoed off the coast of North Africa, the young Polynesian used his Oceanic navigation skills to expertly guide his shipwrecked comrades to safety. He was killed in action 80 years ago this October, over the village of Aagtekerke, in the Netherlands, and has memorials honoring his bravery there, in Tahiti, and on Raiatea. The Air Force Base 190 in Tahiti was previously named after him.
I was raised in Tahiti, French Polynesia, next door to Julien’s mother, my formidable great-grandmother, Lovina Marae Mateata Winchester Allain, a culture bearer, midwife, and former head of the birthing clinic on the island. Every day after school I visited with Grandmère for stories and snacks, and she instilled in me the Polynesian values that would become the compass guiding how I would live, and lead. This included the practice of sharing goodwill, hospitality, kindness, happiness, and peace with others, which are embedded in Polynesian culture, and have been attributed to the concept of Aloha spirit (Aroha in Tahitian, which has many similarities with Hawaiian language).
Rosa Say (2016) has written about applying Aloha values to leadership and management. She defines Aloha as a value, one of unconditional love, the outpouring and receiving of spirit, and has identified nineteen values of this leadership style, with emphasis on applying the language of intention in leadership. The Aloha style of leadership is very much aligned with mindful leadership, especially in the qualities of nonjudgmental acceptance, openness, transparency, compassion, and embodied presence.
Below I provide a table of Say’s meanings, with commentary on their connection to or divergence from the Tahitian meaning to provide further context on how these may be interpreted. Of particular importance to my leadership style, for example, is to use the language of inclusion – “we”– to emphasize that together we work purposefully, collaboratively, collegially, with kindness and respect while honoring each other’s contributions and serving as stewards of our school.
I have found that combining Say’s approach with Marturano’s mindful leadership behaviors of openness, suspending judgment, acceptance, letting go, gentleness, non-striving, generosity, and empathy are effective in fostering goodwill among my colleagues and assisting students in addressing problems. These strategies lead me effectively through challenging situations and difficult conversations across all levels of the university and our constituents. The table offers an overview which I hope can offer a foundation to inspire you to consider which elements align with your leadership values and style.
|Value||Meaning (as per Say, see reference below)||Nicola’s Notes
Hawaiian L = Tahitian R
Hawaiian K = Tahitian T
|ALOHA||Unconditional love, sharing of spirit/goodwill.||AROHA in Tahitian.|
|HO‘OHANA||To work with intent and purpose||FA’AAURA’A in Tahitian – meaning, purpose.|
|‘IMI OLA||To “seek best life.”||ORA means life, health, good living in Tahitian. ‘Ia ora na, the Tahitian greeting/hello, means “May you Live!”
Say connects this to Mission and Vision.
|HO‘OMAU||Perseverance – to persist.||TĀMAU in Tahitian. Persevere, continue. Also means learn. And – can mean permanent and professional as well.|
|KŪLIA I KA NU‘U||Achievement. Pursue Personal Excellence||FA’ATĪTĪĀHEMO in Tahitian – strive for excellence, outdo others, in work and competition, etc.
FA’ATĪTĪĀU’A – Strive to do better than others. Compete.
|HO‘OKIPA||Hospitality (with complete giving).||FA’ARI’IRA’A in Tahitian.
Hospitality with loving spirit and welcoming is a fundamental Tahitian value.
|‘OHANA||Family (biological or “adopted”). As a value, ‘Ohana is a human circle of complete Aloha||FĒTI’I in Tahitian. [Extended] Family is foremost in Tahitian values.|
|LŌKAHI||Teamwork: Collaboration and cooperation. Harmony and unity.||TŌPĀ’ĀTO’A in Tahitian – gather, work together. Also, ‘ĀRURU, collectively. at the same time. And ‘ĀMUI, work together on a project. [The Tahitian word ROTAHI has a different meaning: simplicity or straightness].|
|KĀKOU||Communication, for “All of us.” We are in this together. The language of “we.”||TĀTOU in Tahitian, meaning “we” or “us.”|
|KULEANA||Personal sense of responsibility.||TUREANA in Tahitian – Civil responsibility.|
|‘IKE LOA||Learning. To know well. To seek knowledge and wisdom||In Tahitian HA’API’I means both to learn and to teach.|
|Humility. Be humble, be modest, and open your thought.||Also HA’AHA’A in Tahitian. The opposite of humility is to be fa’a’oru (proud, puffed up) which is seen as a negative, and is socially discouraged.|
|HO‘OHANOHANO||Honor the dignity of others. Conduct yourself with distinction and cultivate respectfulness.||HIRAHIRA is to be respectful in Tahitian.|
|ALAKA‘I||Leadership. Lead with initiative, and with your good example. Lead after gaining trust and respect.||ARATA’I in Tahitian – to guide, morally and materially.|
|MĀLAMA||Stewardship. To take care of.
To serve and to honor, to protect and care for.
|MARAMA in Tahitian is the moon (in both Tahitian and Hawaiian mythology inhabited by the goddess Hina)|
|MAHALO||“Thank you”, as a way of living.
Living in Gratitude.
|MĀURUURU is the Tahitian equivalent of MAHALO. ‘Ā’AU MĒHARA means gratitude.|
|NĀNĀ I KE KUMU||Look to your Sense of Place and sources of spirit, and you find your truth.||NĀNĀ I TE TUMU in Tahitian TUMU means root, origin, foundation, cause, source.|
|PONO||Integrity, rightness and balance. The feeling of contentment when all is good and all is right.||Also PONO in Tahitian. Rightness, direction. Go straight towards a goal.|
|KA LĀ HIKI OLA||“The dawning of a new day.” Optimism. The value of hope and promise.||‘UA HITI TE MAHANA in Tahitian. ORA means life, living, health, healing in Tahitian.|
The values and concepts described above derive from the specific context of my Polynesian culture. However, I firmly believe these ideas are able to be adapted by other fellow leader-navigators sailing the rough seas of our current higher education environment.
Buller J. L. (2013). Positive academic leadership: how to stop putting out fires and begin making a difference. Jossey-Bass/Wiley.
Conte, E. (2023) Sur le chemin des étoiles – Navigation traditionnelle et peuplement des îles du Pacifique. Papeete, Tahiti : Éditions Au Vent des Îles.
Fare Vana’a – Académie Tahitienne Tahitian-French Dictionary. http://farevanaa.pf/dictionnaire.php
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. United Kingdom: Random House Publishing Group.
Langer, E. (1998). The Power of Mindful Learning. Reading: Da Capo Books
Ling, N. E., and Chin, G. H. (2012). Mindfulness and Leadership. Center for Leadership Development. Civil Service College, Singapore. https://file.go.gov.sg/pswlf-resources-report-mindfulness.pdf
Marturano, J. (2015). Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership. Bloomsbury Press.
Ricard M., Lutz A., Davidson RJ. “Mind of the meditator.” Scientific American. 2014 Nov;311(5):38-45.
PMID: 25464661 DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican1114-38
Say, R., & Thompson, N. (2016). Managing with Aloha: Bringing Hawai’i’s Universal Values to the Art of Business. Waikoloa: Ho’ohana Publishing.
[ii] Brain-based research and imagery demonstrates that we can scientifically observe changes to the brain during mindful meditation. See Ricard M, Lutz A, Davidson RJ. Mind of the meditator. Sci Am. 2014 Nov;311(5):38-45. doi: 10.1038/scientificamerican1114-38. PMID: 25464661
[iii] Ling and Chin’s full research report is available at the following link: https://file.go.gov.sg/pswlf-resources-report-mindfulness.pdf
[vi] Conte, E. (2023) Sur le chemin des étoiles – Navigation traditionnelle et peuplement des îles du Pacifique. Éditions Au Vent des Îles. There’s a wonderful old National Geographic Article related to this topic in National Geographic Vol. 146, No. 6 (December 1974).