An Open Master’s is a self-designed, self-directed, and self-declared Master’s degree in the subversive educational tradition of Danish folk schools, Chautauqua Circles, and Ben Franklin’s Junto. Below, I describe my own Open Master’s: the reasons I wanted to undertake this project, the prerequisites and skill development practices, the curriculum, and my reading list. For me, this project is not an end in itself: it is part of a process of learning and growth that I expect to continue throughout my career.
While I have been lucky to be well-served by the conventional education system in the US (partly as a result of significant privilege that has shaped many aspects of my path), I also see tremendous value in taking the road less traveled. I felt the need to organize my learning process around mindful leadership into a slightly more formalized program. I wanted to:
- be more intentional about rounding out my study,
- apply mindfulness more intentionally to my leadership at work,
- model a path others could follow, and
- hold myself accountable for taking the next steps.
What follows here is my attempt to map that road, mostly for use on my own journey, but also to serve as a useful introduction for those who may want to use this approach in their own career and/or personal development.
I have a long history of interest in both mindfulness and leadership: I’ve been studying and practicing mindfulness for about 20 years, and leadership for nearly as long. For most of my life, they were two distinct pursuits that rarely interacted, and I thought of them independently.
The times when I found mindfulness and leadership intersecting have been important and valuable. In college, I led a fire performance troupe which gave me the opportunity to lead a team of 75, while also practicing being, and teaching others to be, fully present. In fire performance, unsurprisingly, there’s not really any other way to be: when a person is literally surrounded by fire, that is the only thing that matters in the moment. That was one of the first times I felt like I was bringing my whole self to a formalized role in a group.
In business school, I took a class on principles of objectivity that brought aspects of mindfulness into a business context for the first time. More surprising than finding this class at a business school was discovering that there were other students interested in taking it. That class was the first time I realized that it might be valuable to bring my whole self into my professional life.
In recent years, I’ve made a concerted effort to bring mindfulness into my leadership practice in work environments. Sometimes it was an effort to bring stability and equanimity to a challenging situation, sometimes as a way to sharpen my practice of self-reflection, and sometimes simply to bring my attention to the people around me instead of the tasks at hand. But in all these cases, I’ve never been particularly public about it.
Now, I want to deepen the application of mindfulness to my professional life as a leader. In that spirit, I share some of my past, my goals, and my approach, in the hopes that it may be useful to others.
I have learned from many sources and practiced in different ways over the years, and the Open Master’s is part of that learning process, not separate from it. My family and my liberal arts education both instilled in me a desire for lifelong learning. My education in mindfulness and leadership has been full of courses, books, practice, and the occasional podcast, many of which I list in the appendix below. Please consider this an invitation to explore these concepts as they serve your journey.
MBA or equivalent management education (MPP, MPA, MSM, or free coursework)
While this curriculum covers a lot of leadership, I did not include much on the management of businesses (operations, strategy, technology, marketing), because I had already studied that in my MBA program, and wanted to deepen rather than rehash. For those who can’t make the substantial investment required for a tradition MBA, there are lots of resources for getting an MBA-equivalent education for free, and that can be an excellent approach.
Meditation training, ~50 hours
Similarly, I started this course with a depth of experience in meditation and practicing mindfulness. This course of study focuses less on mindfulness itself and more on the practice of integrating it with my professional life. If you are new to mindfulness, you might consider building a practice before heading down this road. For example, one option is to work through each of these Recommended Talks & Daylong Meditation Retreats.
Traditional master’s degrees have a particular timespan, and while I don’t think there needs to be a hard deadline for completing this work, I have assigned this phase of my journey a timeline as well. The process described here will take me about 6 years to complete (2014-2020). That timeline could be shorter or longer for others, depending on the approach.
Requirements are a useful lever to prevent the instinct to “complete” this Open Master’s too quickly. I think both of the requirements below are crucial to developing not just an understanding of mindful leadership, but a practice.
One year of daily mindfulness practice
Even if you have a regular practice, I highly recommend committing to a daily practice for a period of at least a year. There is a marked difference between a periodic practice and a practice that takes place every day without fail, as I have learned firsthand.
One year leading people
Leading is rarely a skill that can be developed without practice. It doesn’t have to be in a formal capacity, but you should give yourself as much hands-on practice as possible. If you’re not leading a team at work (or only doing so part-time), you might want to allocate more than a year to this skill to get the same amount of substantive practice.
3-5 courses in each of the following 4 areas (12-20 total courses)
I’ve taken most of these via Coursera, which allows you to either register (for a small fee) or audit (for free). There are many other places that offer college-quality classes for little to no money. I’ve included the classes I took (or plan to take) in each section as an example, not a hard requirement. Although several could apply to multiple areas, each has been counted only once, to represent a fully developed curriculum.
Leadership: Leading people and organizations
- Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence – Case Western Reserve University
- Leadership Storytelling – Northwestern University
- Communication – Wharton Business School
- International Leadership and Organizational Behavior – Bocconi University
- Visionary Leadership – Macquarie University
- Leadership in 21st Century Organizations – Copenhagen Business School
- Improving Leadership & Governance in Nonprofit Organizations (Specialization) – State University of New York
Ways of Being: Mindfulness, Ethics, Philosophy, Religion
- Buddhism and Modern Psychology – Princeton University
- Ethical Leadership through Giving Voice to Values – University of Virginia
- Intellectual Humility: Practice – University of Edinburgh
- Effective Altruism – Princeton University
- Love as a Force for Social Justice – Stanford University
Science of the Mind: Psychology & Neuroscience
- The Science of Well-Being – Yale University
- Influence – Wharton Business School
- Success – Wharton Business School
- Psychological First Aid – Johns Hopkins University
- Consumer Neuroscience & Neuromarketing – Copenhagen Business School
Paths of Exploration: Electives exploring connections to other areas
- Business Strategies for Social Impact – Wharton Business School
- New Models of Business in Society – University of Virginia
- New Venture Finance – University of Maryland
- The Global Business of Sports – Wharton Business School
- International Organizations Management – University of Geneva
- Managing Social and Human Capital – Wharton Business School
Many master’s programs include either a thesis/dissertation or a capstone project. The purpose of such a project is to integrate all the new skills you’ve gained and demonstrate your mastery. For a capstone in Mindful Leadership to truly use all these skills, it should be something outside my comfort zone that pushes my ability to be mindful as a leader. But that’s not the sort of thing that should be shared publicly. Brené Brown explains that:
…I don’t tell stories or share vulnerabilities with the public until I’ve worked through them with the people I love…I only share stories or experiences that I’ve worked through and feel that I can share from solid ground. (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 161-162)
I plan to carry out a capstone for my own sense of completion, but I won’t be sharing it publicly. You can decide for yourself if you want to share yours, but I encourage you to think deeply about where you could apply these learnings in your life. Don’t limit your scope to projects you would feel comfortable talking about outside your inner circle.
Finally, this Open Master’s includes a lot of additional reading (and listening). Below, I list the books, podcasts, and other works that have been a part of my curriculum. Links are included for those who may be interested in learning more.
- Managing The Nonprofit Organization – Peter Drucker
- The Hard Thing About Hard Things – Ben Horowitz
- Radical Candor & the Radical Candor Podcast (23 Episodes) – Kim Scott
- The Art Of Gathering – Priya Parker
Leading While Being
- Dare to Lead – Brené Brown
- Daring Greatly – Brené Brown
- Man’s Search For Meaning – Viktor Frankl
- The Tao At Work – Stanley M. Herman
- Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up – Jerry Colonna
- The Reboot Podcast (~50/100+ Episodes) – Jerry Colonna
- Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
- How To Love – Thich Nhat Hahn
- The Art Of Communicating – Thich Nhat Hahn
- The Disappearance Of The Universe – Gary R. Renard
- Rising Strong – Brené Brown
- Letters To A Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke
- The Power Of Now – Eckhart Tolle
- The Art Of Presence – Eckhart Tolle
- A New Earth – Eckhart Tolle
- The Art and Practice of Loving – Frank Andrews
- Digital Minimalism – Cal Newport
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Daniel H. Pink
- Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
- Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – Malcolm Gladwell
- Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts – Annie Duke
- Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die – Chip & Dan Heath
- Linked: How Everything is Connected to Everything Else – Laszlo Barabasi
- Tribe: On Homecoming And Belonging – Sebastian Junger
Looking for a shorter core curriculum to customize for yourself?