May mindfulness: Dean David Springer on service leadership, compassion and grace in life and policy | LBJ School of Public Affairs | The University of Texas at Austin

As we observe Mental Health Awareness Month throughout May, the LBJ School is examining the ideas of self-care, mindfulness, community and mitigating the effects of stress in these extraordinary times. LBJ Interim Dean David Springer, director of the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service, and award-winning professor with a background in clinical social work, looks at mental health both on a personal level and as it relates to public policy.

Q: Tell us how your experiences as a clinical social worker have informed your views on mindfulness and the practice of tending to mental health.

A: I began my professional career as a clinical social worker in Florida working with adolescents and their families across inpatient, outpatient, nonprofit and school-based settings. After earning my doctorate, I came to UT Austin in the fall of 1997 to teach clinical social work and research. In a serendipitous turn of events, Michele Deitch and I did some work together on juvenile justice reform in Texas in 2007, and that is when my career shifted toward system reform, nonprofit leadership and community engagement. I'm still very invested in better understanding how we can promote mental health through evidence-based policies and practices, and the role of nonprofits and philanthropy in these efforts.

Let me begin by offering my working understanding of mindfulness. For me, it means leaning into the present moment, being aware while suspending judgment, and operating as much as I am able to from a stance of compassion in each moment. The framing question is whether I'm living with intention and cultivating a happy and meaningful life.

I believe that mindfulness helps us to more fully realize our capacity to impact those within our sphere of influence, whether we're talking to a friend or shaping national policy.

"I started to curate this playlist for my Signature Course / Freshman Seminar, 'Designing a Happy and Meaningful Life.' A lot of the songs are about living and happiness, but not all of them. Some of them simply make me happy when I listen to them."
—LBJ School Interim Dean David Springer



Q: This past year has been a source of enormous change and stress for everyone. What are the biggest challenges you have seen people facing?

A: Depression and anxiety have been on the rise during the pandemic. I know that most of us are burned out on Zoom, if not other aspects of work. Languishing — existing in that space between depression and flourishing — seems to be a pretty common experience. Almost everyone that I know does not have their normal momentum in life. We've lost some of our mojo. I am hopeful that it will gradually return, but I anticipate that there will be an adjustment period after we return to campus. We'll need to practice continued grace and compassion, for ourselves and for others.

Q: What role do you see mindfulness playing in the public sphere — in politics, academics, public discourse, person-to-person interaction?

A:What a great question. There are many ways to think about mindfulness in the public sphere. The LBJ School community is uniquely positioned to help cultivate a more civil society, which serves as an anchoring point for President Johnson's legacy. Our faculty, students and alumni tackle and answer many of the most significant questions of our day — the big rocks. To fully harness this knowledge in order to impact policy and our communities, we must protect the conditions for inclusive and honest interactions to promote a more equitable and just society. President Johnson called this "conversations with the bark off," which require that we are grounded in virtues and ethics.

Going back a little farther in time, Aristotle proposed four cardinal virtues – prudence, temperance, courage and justice. Yet, we each craft our own set of virtues over the course of our lives given our diverse, lived experiences. So if civil society is simultaneously a goal to aim for and a way to share our stories with each other to achieve it, then the policies and practices that guide us must be grounded in mindful interactions and an active understanding of those narratives.

In short, virtuous and mindful conversations with the bark off is at the core of what we do and who we are at the LBJ School.

Q: Your research and teaching specialties focus on effective leadership and community building. Talk about the importance of leadership in terms of engaging with mindful practices and self-care.

I truly believe that we lead from where we are, given our unique strengths, values, culture, background and passion. I encourage my students to develop their own personal philosophy of leadership. This includes imagining the best version of ourselves. To show up for others, we must first take care of ourselves. Community building and leadership is about navigating ambiguity. Living with intention is a form of mindfulness. When I live with intention and engage in self-care, I find that I'm more effective at community building.

I also like to weave in a thread of philosophy when I think about effective leadership. Existentialism, for example, is the act of self-discovery grounded in the presupposition of the Cartesian "I am." This provokes a series of beautiful questions. What have I done? Who have I been? What have I wanted to be? Is there still time? It's difficult to offer thoughtful and robust responses to these questions without considering how we treat others and take care of ourselves.

"The LBJ School community is uniquely positioned to help cultivate a more civil society, which serves as an anchoring point for President Johnson's legacy." —LBJ School Interim Dean David Springer

Q: How do you define "service leadership"?

A: The term servant leadership was coined by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s. It's one of the leadership theories that the students in my leadership classes are naturally pulled toward. Fundamentally, servant leadership is about serving and thinking of others — individually and collectively — first. It's a mindset, a way of existing, a set of guiding values and principles, and morality. It encourages certain questions and reflections: Are we growing together? How do we most effectively serve the disenfranchised and oppressed and promote social justice? How do we bring the good, the true, and the beautiful into the policies and practices for which we are responsible? How can I support you today?

I believe that we educate and prepare servant leaders at the LBJ School. With their talents and expertise, our students and alumni give me considerable hope for a more civil society for my son's generation.

Q: What do you do to take care of yourself and reset?

A: Like everyone, I have seasons where I do a better job of taking care of myself than others. I'll share the range of ways that I like to reset, but I'm not always firing on all of these cylinders. My partner, Holly, and son, Aidan, come first. They are my priority. Memories with my family and friends will be what I reflect upon the most near the end of my life.

I grew up surfing in Cocoa Beach, Florida and have surfed some cool spots around the globe. I'm drawn to the ocean, so anything on, in, near or under the water calms me. These days, that means paddle boarding on Lady Bird Lake. Aidan and I are looking forward to our next dive trip. And I love trail running on the Barton Creek Greenbelt.

Ultimately, it comes down to savoring the small pleasures — watching a turtle sun on a log, playing guitar, writing and reading, dancing and laughing.