Reflection: The Importance of Well-Being

Summer 2022

By Dave Mullen
Retired Head of School

In 2021, after 42 years in education—29 of which I served as head of school at The Nora School (MD)—I retired and moved into consulting. In this transition, I’ve thought a lot about the dilemma of head of school well-being—I use the word purposefully because while “problems” have solutions, “dilemmas,” by nature, are lived with—and what was key to my sense of well-being and longevity.
Most important to my career longevity was having an amazing spouse, as well as supportive boards and several terrific assistant heads. A sense of humor about my own foibles and the absurdities of human nature were also critical. Beyond this, putting a light on mental health—my own and my community’s—helped sustain me in this role.
Midcareer, I joined a group of school heads studying Bowen family systems theory as it applies to organizational leadership. Having this framework for understanding how anxiety flows through emotional systems in families—and thus in organizations—helped me and the faculties with whom I worked to depersonalize many challenges. It helped us better differentiate what we could and couldn’t control, and gave us a common vocabulary and shared understanding, which helped us lower the temperature on many issues.
When I brought a mindfulness program to The Nora School in the mid-2000s, little did I realize that I’d be the biggest beneficiary. Not willing to teach or preach what I didn’t practice, I began arriving at school 30 minutes early each day for meditation. Starting the day in a calmer state of mind allowed me to see underlying systemic anxiety and to respond more skillfully. Teaching these practices to faculty, students, and parents gave us, again, a common vocabulary with which to address issues in more productive ways.
I had the good fortune to work with boards who were as curious and eager as I to recreate the school throughout the years. In addition to family systems and mindfulness practices, I learned about general contractors, structural engineering, stormwater runoff, traffic studies, three different fire codes, sound dampening, and a variety of elevator systems. Staying curious and continuing to learn was enormously helpful in keeping me enthusiastic, even amid the troubles and turmoil of the past half-decade.
Without a doubt, the past few years have been the leadership challenge of our time. I had just taken on the interim headship at Wye River Upper School (MD) when COVID-19 hit, and while I’m glad to have had the experience of leading amid the pandemic, I recognize even more now just how critical our personal health is to the ongoing health of our institutions. Heads should take great pride in leading their institutions through these difficulties and give themselves permission to do the things that bring them energy and joy.