It took two trips to the hospital emergency room for Jim Henningsen to realize it was time to change his behavior.
The first time, he had a headache so bad he couldn’t even stand. The second time, his blood pressure spiked. He was only in his early 40s. The doctors told him he was suffering from too much stress.
“A fire alarm was going off inside my body, warning me that I had to adjust what I was doing,” says Henningsen, who was vice president of student affairs at Seminole State College of Florida at the time and is now president of the College of Central Florida.
He adds: “The house didn’t burn down, thankfully. I didn’t die.” But the incidents served as a wake-up call for Henningsen to pay more attention to his own well-being.
Community college leaders have very demanding jobs. They’re pulled in many directions, both professionally and personally — and they’re responsible for the welfare of hundreds or even thousands of students, faculty and staff.
But, as the safety instructions on an airplane imply, those in positions of authority have to take care of themselves before they can effectively tend to the needs of others.
College administrators who have embraced a healthier, more balanced approach to life and work have found that it not only makes them happier individuals — it makes them better leaders.
Mind, body, spirit
Leading a community college can be stressful. Stress triggers the body’s natural “fight or flight” response, which releases adrenaline and cortisol into the body to aid in survival.
But these chemicals aren’t meant to be in our bodies all the time — and too much of them can disrupt the body’s natural processes, leading to sleep and digestive problems, anxiety, weight gain, hypertension, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Not only is this bad for one’s health, but it can hinder effective decision-making.
“When you’re in that fight-or-flight response, your mind goes into a reptilian state, where you can’t process basic information well,” Henningsen explains. “You’re all about survival at that moment.” This is the same phenomenon that leads to test anxiety among students.
Using relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation can reduce stress dramatically, and these techniques can also help sharpen focus and improve other job-related functions.
After his second trip to the ER in as many years, Henningsen began using these strategies as part of a three-pronged approach to better health that targets the mind, body and spirit.
Tending to the mind might involve quiet meditation, reflection, or simply being present in the moment. Nourishing the spirit includes finding joy in life or believing in a higher power. Keeping the body healthy means eating right, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly.
“This doesn’t mean you have to become a gym rat,” Henningsen observes, “but some sort of exercise is important.”
Learning how to be more mindful has helped Kay Eggleston, president of Richland College in Texas, forge stronger relationships within her own campus community.
Two of Richland’s core values are wholeness and mindfulness. Wholeness refers to nurturing the mind, body, and spirit, while mindfulness is about being aware of the present and actively noticing things.
Eggleston takes daily breaks from the hustle and bustle of her job to stroll around the lake in the middle of Richland’s campus and take in the beauty of nature. These moments of quiet, deliberate reflection have helped her become more fully present and a better listener when communicating with others.
“Ellen Langer’s research on mindfulness has been instructive to us,” she observes. “Langer says that everyone working within the same context and fully present can lead to more attentiveness and better performance.”