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Optimism in the Face of the Storm

The authors’ study on resilience in leaders finds an answer on a well-worn bumper sticker by Jerry Patterson and Paul Kelleher

School leaders remember the good old days when resources were adequate, school boards were stable, superintendents stayed a while, and forces outside the school district trusted those inside the school district to do the best job possible educating students. It used to be such smooth sailing!

Whether this version of history is fact, illusion or delusion hardly matters. That was then and this is now. Today few school leaders would characterize their jobs as smooth sailing. In fact, a more apt nautical metaphor is trying to ride out the torrent of relentless storms that come and go and come again. In the face of these storms, though, many school leaders construct ways to remain optimistic and move ahead, while some of their colleagues struggle just to tread water and others eventually drown from the storm. What accounts for such differences?

In our research on resilience in school leaders, we found the answer was best summarized by a well-worn bumper sticker on an old truck: “It’s not so much what you do. It’s how you think about what you do that makes all of the difference.” Your interpretation of the reality of the storm and your interpretation of your future after the storm strongly predict your ability to come through the storm in a better place. We draw on our research involving school leaders to show how you can apply the elements of optimism to emerge from life’s storms stronger than before.

Case for Optimism

Recent research in the field of positive psychology confirms several benefits of optimism:

  • Optimistic individuals have better social relationships as well as higher levels of physical health, academic and athletic performance, recovery from illness and trauma, pain tolerance, self-efficacy and flexibility in thinking;
  • Optimists see adversity as a challenge, transform problems into opportunities, persevere in finding solutions to difficult problems, maintain confidence and rebound quickly after setbacks; and
  • Optimists are easily motivated to work harder, have higher morale, set challenging goals, see personal setbacks as temporary and tend to feel upbeat and invigorated both physically and emotionally.

Our interviews of 25 school leaders on the topic of resilience corroborate these findings. We collected rich data on how school leaders can remain optimistic against great odds. Optimism, however, is not an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not a matter of being in the optimist club or out of it. The particular brand of optimism that produces results described above is what we call “realistic optimism.” We define realistic optimism as the ability to maintain a positive outlook in the face of adversity, without denying reality and the constraints posed by reality.

Keep in mind that optimists take the long view. In the short term, even optimists have negative thoughts and feel like victims at times. As Paul Houston, AASA’s executive director (and a former superintendent), told us during our interview with him about resilience, “If you have a short-term view, it is very hard to be resilient because, in the short term, things are going to happen that aren’t good. A long-term view makes it almost impossible not to be resilient because this too shall pass. I will have a lot of other shots at this before it is over.”

The emphasis is on how you generally see the world. How you interpret the current and future reality of the storms you face and your ability to influence the future or life after the storm determines your level of optimism or pessimism. More specifically, how you respond to the following questions influences your optimism:

  • What are the causes of the current adversity, including my own contribution?
  • What are the risks posed by the adversity?
  • What is my ability to influence future events?
  • What are my expectations for future success?
  • What is the focus of my future efforts?

A Four-Point Scale

Your answers to the above questions determine your relative optimism along a four-point scale. To illustrate the differences in these categories, consider the following scenario.

In the sixth year of a superintendent’s tenure, relations with the board began to shift. The shift began when the board president decided to retire after 10 years in the leadership post. The new board president was the former vice president and demonstrated poor leadership skills. He also felt he had a responsibility to give the board more freedom because he believed the former board president managed the board too tightly.

Conditions went steadily downhill for the superintendent, but a serious turning point occurred when the board decided to hold a bond referendum in 90 days on a major capital improvement project—the construction of a new elementary school and a new middle school. What started out as an exciting project for the community turned into a real storm of an issue, separating pro-educators from tax watchdogs.

The school board was contributing to the storm, making individual public statements for or against, well in advance of the referendum vote. All of this uproar put the superintendent in a quandary, and he struggled with how to interpret this predicament and what to do about it.

Divergent Reactions

Unrealistic pessimists, realistic pessimists and unrealistic optimists interpret the storm in disparate ways.

Unrealistic pessimists have a pervasive, rather permanent negative interpretation of what’s going on and they have little confidence that anything good will come out of the adversity. Unrealistic pessimists might conclude, “The board is out of control, thanks to feeble leadership by the new president. No doubt about it. The referendum will likely be defeated. There’s little hope of success. In all likelihood, I will be fired as a result of the failed referendum and, at my age, I won’t be able to land another job.”

Realistic pessimists have a reasonably accurate interpretation of reality but they take a dim view of the future and do not think it’s worth the effort on their part. They may interpret the storm in this way: “I saw this storm brewing when board leadership changed. Based on my previous experience, I knew this mess was part of the whole package, the reality of doing my job. Looking to the future prospects of the referendum, I guess I could exert more of my energy to be out in the community, and get on more agendas of the local service clubs. But the extra effort to turn things around isn’t worth it to me. Early retirement is looking better all the time.”

Unrealistic optimists jump to quick conclusions about current reality without taking time to assess what’s really going on. They underestimate the risks posed by the adversity, and they assume, without a doubt, they can make the best-case outcomes happen in the future. Unrealistic optimists might draw the following interpretation of events: “I learned as a high school principal that if I personally don’t play politics, if I stick to the game plan, political folks can’t harm my agenda. I am totally optimistic that this referendum will pass. Full speed ahead. The successful referendum will strengthen my relationship with the board and community. I’m here for the long haul.”

These brief scenarios provide a glimpse of three points on the pessimism-optimism scale. Data from our research also allow us to develop a profile of realistic optimists.

Realistic Attitudes

Realistic optimists interpret past and current reality differently than their colleagues who are at other points on the pessimism-optimism scale. In the previous scenario, realistic optimists offer this analysis: “The lack of effective board leadership is the major source of the problem. But I have not done all that I could to help my new president be more effective. I may not be able to turn the situation around, but I need to try if we are to have any hope of passing the bond referendum.”

Below we enlarge the snapshot just offered by showing how realistic optimists answer six key questions linked to optimism.

* What are the causes of the current predicament, and how did I contribute to the referendum.”

Lynne Shain, an assistant superintendent in Westport, Conn., says her basic strategy when facing a personal challenge is to “talk to people, asking questions to help me figure out where I am going to go. So if there is a crisis, and I need to act, I first make sure that I have [the reality] clearly in my mind, and that I have tested the recommendations with a number of people. Then I can calmly go on with what I am going to do.”

Realistic optimists also want to know how they contributed to the problem. Several school leaders we interviewed courageously pointed to situations where they did take action and, upon reflection and soul-searching, they were wrong. Ben Canada, a veteran superintendent now working for the Texas Association of School Boards, told of an occasion when he made a costly mistake that contributed to tension with the school board.

“As superintendent in Portland, I gave a state-of-the-school-district address,” Canada said. “I had analyzed the state of the school district in terms of what needed to be done. I then devised a plan, but I didn’t share it with the school board before I went public with the media in full attendance. And while the school board liked the idea that I was taking charge, they did not like, and rightfully so, the fact that I was sharing information in a public forum before they had an opportunity to think about and devise a response. And when I was almost at the end of my address, I looked over at my school board, and I could see in their faces that I had made a mistake.”

Immediately after the address, reporters hammered the board with questions, such as, “How can we afford to do this?” “Do you agree with the superintendent?” The board struggled to articulate a coherent response on short notice and without preparation.

Although Canada recovered from his mistake, his actions were costly in the short run, and he had to work hard to regain the support of the board.

Realistic optimists know that mistakes can be costly. In assessing risks, however, they also know the price paid for inaction during times of adversity. Herman Gaither, superintendent in Beaufort County, S.C., summed up the sentiments of many we talked with. “If you are going to wait until you get it right, you will never do anything,” he said. And Gene Carter, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and a former superintendent, offered this perspective: “In many institutional contexts, leaders manifest a sort of behavior that if a person makes a mistake, there are penalties to pay. I have sort of reversed that. We grow from the mistakes we make. One quote that I constantly try to keep in my mind is the quote attributed to Albert Einstein: ‘I haven’t failed. I found 10,000 ways that don’t work.’ That is part of how I have tried to provide some sense of leadership—living out my beliefs and values.”

Peter Block, a consultant and author of The Answer to How is Yes, told us that as he works with groups across the world he challenges them to see how they have fed the adverse situation. “When I ask people how they contribute to the problem and they say they can’t think of anything, I tell them, ‘That is precisely how you contribute to the problem. You want to take the innocent role, the moral high road.’”

Then Block, in his typical style, challenges them further, “Grow up, you are human, you’re guilty (of contributing to the problem).” He then counsels leaders this way: “Accept your humanity. Don’t try to be more than you are.”

* What are the risks posed by the adversity?

Realistic optimists work hard to accurately assess the risks posed by the adversity because they are committed to making informed judgments about what to do. They don’t deny or dismiss the level of threat. Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, recalled a major storm he faced during his tenure as education commissioner in Connecticut. His adversity centered on efforts to desegregate the public schools.

“I was charged by the governor to come up with a plan. It was a very complex issue, and we found ourselves as state officials working at odds with the attorney general who was going bound by duty to defend the state in the Sheff v. O’Neill case. I was opposed on the issue and quite frankly told them, ‘We’ve made some efforts here to equalize education, but it hasn’t made a difference.’ This wasn’t what the attorney general wanted to hear, but that was the way it was,” Ferrandino said.

“Things began to heat up real quickly,” Ferrandino continued. “ I received communication from a chapter of the Klan and other groups opposed to the desegregation plan. The threatening nature of these communications resulted in police surveillance of my home. And on a couple of occasions, the police provided an escort from the town meeting.”

Ferrandino, in the face of crisis conditions, didn’t flinch. “I had a strong belief in what I was doing … in providing equal education. It was at the core of my belief system.”

Blazing Forward

Realistic optimists try hard to gather accurate information to fully understand past and present reality. They don’t duck the fact that they too have contributed to the reality. But a realistic interpretation of what’s happening isn’t enough. School leaders also need to have an accurate interpretation of future possibilities growing out of the adversity they encounter. Realistic optimists gain clarity of interpretation by responding to the following questions about the future.

*What is my ability to influence future events?

Realistic optimists answer this question succinctly: “I can make a difference within the constraints posed by reality. The goals likely can be achieved, despite the adversity I face, and I will seek the path to make it happen.”

At the same time, realistic optimists give due credit to the negative aspects of the adversity. They choose to frame the adversity in the language of challenges and seek to discover the controllable aspects of the adversity. Loucrecia Collins, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and a former school principal, recalled growing up as an African American in segregated West Point, Miss.

“You were born into certain classes,” Collins says. “And the idea was that whatever class you were born in you were supposed to stay that way. I didn’t buy into that, though. My boundaries were so much more expansive than what I saw. I remember seeing people on TV go to big offices and my daddy didn’t go to an office. He had a lunch pail and he went to the lumber mill.”

Collins said these images of possibilities “spurred me on to believe that I could have whatever I wanted to have in life. There were no boundaries.”

Her comments are reflective of the sentiments shared by many of the realistic optimists we interviewed. They have a strong sense of self-efficacy and a key ingredient is the belief that they can make a positive difference in turning future possibilities into future reality.

*What are my expectations for future success?

Realistic optimists respond this way, “Good things may happen, but I will have to work at it. So I will do whatever is within my influence to make the expectations reality. And the likelihood of success is worth the effort.” As Collins indicated, sometimes realistic optimists set slightly optimistic illusions about what is possible.

Gaither, who was named 2005 state superintendent of the year in South Carolina, describes a conscious strategy to aim a little high. “I’m the push-forward guy. I’ve got to have the back fillers. So when I go out and say, ‘We’re going to do this, this and this,’ I know we’re going to push it out to the edge. If I want to get to 10, then I’ve got to say, ‘Let’s shoot for 20.’ And then realistically we end up at 10. And everybody makes progress. But if you don’t push the edges of the envelope, you stay inside of the same confines.”

The prevailing research data show that optimistic illusions can produce greater resilience as long as these illusions don’t distort the reality of the situation. In other words, realistic optimists don’t create false hope about what to expect. They may at times establish high expectations that border on being unrealistic, but, like Gaither, they also accept a lower threshold measure of acceptability for successful accomplishment.

Investing Energy

* What is the focus of my future efforts?

When a storm hits, individuals must accept responsibility that they alone must choose the focus of their efforts. This choice has significant implications whether they invest positive energy or consume negative energy in response to the storm.

Realistic optimists seek as much data as possible so they can interpret the seriousness of the storm. They want to understand the problems as well as the opportunities. They are more aggressive than pessimists in searching for meaning in the negative aspects of adversity.

By understanding and anticipating the possibilities of negative outcomes, realistic optimists approach the positive outcomes with a more realistic perspective. They place their emphasis on the positive, concentrating on how to act on the challenges in ways that move toward best-case outcomes, without falling into the trap of unrealistic optimists who will only settle for perfection. Gaither, a superintendent for nine years, reflected the view of many school leaders we interviewed on the topic of staying focused on what matters most:

“I took the superintendency because I really wanted an opportunity to find out if, given the reality of the circumstances and given an extended period of time, we could produce a significantly different result for our school district. The leadership has to be focused on something that’s out there that’s going to improve the kind of education we are offering our kids.”

Like other realistic optimists, Gaither holds high expectations for the future and, at the same time, understands that achieving something less is not total failure. “My beliefs are not intended to say that a program is going to solve all of our problems. But the goals we have are goals that live inside the hearts, souls and minds of the people who make up the institution.”

Jerry Patterson, a former superintendent, is a professor of leadership studies, University of Alabama at Birmingham, 901 13 th St. S. , Birmingham, AL 35294. E-mail: jpat@uab.edu. Paul Kelleher, a former superintendent, is Distinguished Professor of Education and chair of the education department at Trinity University. This article is drawn from their forthcoming book on resilience and school leaders. Copyright by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.