Joy & Resilience: Strange Bedfellows

In the face of adversity, superintendents must call upon three broad skill sets to be resilient by Jerry L. Patterson, George A. Goens and Diane E. Reed

I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and found that
life was duty. I acted, and behold, duty was joy.”
— Rabindranath tagore, a bengali poet

When you think of the myriad duties associated with being a superintendent of schools, the word “joy” doesn’t automatically leap to mind — certainly not joy in the usual sense of fun or pleasure.

In the context of superintendent leadership, though, we experience joy when we persistently, passionately accomplish noble work in service to others.

But joy doesn’t come easily to superintendents. The path is often strewn with conflict, adversity and crises. In our own experience supporting superintendents across the country, we have learned that joy in the face of adversity accrues primarily to superintendents who demonstrate the elements of resilience.

A Key Quality
Resilient superintendents possess the ability to recover, learn and grow stronger when confronted by chronic or crisis adversity.

Warren Bennis, the recognized authority on organizational leadership, said resilience is the cornerstone to successful leadership. In the January 2007 issue of American Psychologist, Bennis wrote: “I believe adaptive capacity or resilience is the single most important quality in a leader, or anyone else for that matter, who hopes to lead a healthy meaningful life.”

We identified through our work with superintendents three broad skill sets that are required: resilience thinking skills, resilience capacity skills and resilience action skills. Examples of superintendents who have developed these skill sets serve as models for others.

Thinking Skills
The path to superintendent resilience begins with resilience thinking skills. When adversity strikes, many times you don’t have a choice about the nature or intensity of the situation confronting you. But you do have a choice in how you think about the conditions.

This interpretation filter consists of two components. First, how do you make sense of what’s happening at the moment? Resilient superintendents want to know, as accurately as possible, the bad news as well as the good news. They want to hear from diverse and even dissident voices so they can act from a comprehensive picture of reality.

Measuring Your Resilience by Jerry Patterson

Readers are invited to anonymously complete a confidential survey instrument we developed to measure your own leader resilience strengths.

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In his role as superintendent in Appleton, Wis., Jerry Patterson hired an administrator from a neighboring district as the assistant superintendent of business services. “I remember telling Don,” Patterson said, “that he had a track record for speaking his mind and that he wasn’t shy about disagreeing with the superintendent on occasion. I told him I wanted to build a culture that was open to diverse perspectives, even if it meant challenging my views.”

Don quickly lived up to this reputation. “There were times,” Patterson recalls, “that I wanted to send him back to where he came from. We would be moving ahead on an issue with a united front, and then he would counter with a perspective that I had not and did not want to consider.”

More often than not, however, the diverse perspectives helped the superintendent and the district have a more comprehensive sense of what truly was happening when crisis occurred, politically or educationally.

In addition to understanding reality, how do you think about the future? Resilient superintendents demonstrate a hopeful view of what’s possible. They work hard to make a positive contribution to a negative situation, and they have high expectations that something good can come from adverse circumstances.

When a fire decimated the major employer in town, a Connecticut superintendent was faced with a looming budget deficit. The company closed and moved its operations, and the town was in financial crisis because of lost jobs and the suffering local economy. Consequently, the superintendent had to make deep cuts into the school district budget.

Facing this negative situation, the superintendent did not close shop or fall into self-pity. He pruned some low-priority programs and reorganized the staff but then engaged in an aggressive program to find new revenue through grants and other sources to fund initiatives. Moving forward in the face of fiscal crisis demonstrated an optimistic, can-do approach to the staff and community. An optimistic superintendent maintains a positive outlook about the future in the face of adversity, without denying the constraints posed by reality. We refer to this as realistic optimism.

Capacity Building
Large or small, chronic or crisis, adversity happens. How we respond is determined in part by our resilience capacity. Think of your resilience capacity as your fuel tank. The amount of fuel in your tank is what you have to draw on as you move through the storm to safe harbor. The boundaries of your resilience capacity are set somewhat by your accumulated experiences. The good news is that resilience capacity is elastic over time. As you grow stronger from adversity, you expand your fuel tank and therefore your capacity to successfully weather future storms.

Strategies To Strengthen Superintendent Resilience

In their forthcoming book Resilient Leadership for Turbulent Times, co-authors Jerry Patterson, George Goens and Diane Reed identify three broad skill sets required of the contemporary superintendent: resilience thinking skills, resilience capacity skills and resilience action skills. This summarizes what strategies are included in each skill category.

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Four fuel sources make up your resilience capacity: your personal values, sense of efficacy, personal well-being and support base.
Your personal values are hierarchical in nature. At the apex are your ethical values, the moral standards that govern your life’s work. Ethics in reality define a leader’s character, particularly in turbulent times. Ethical values transcend time and context.

Next in the hierarchy are the education values that bring you joy, meaning and fulfillment in your job. These are values about what matters most to you as the school district faces tough choices among competing values and self-interest pressure groups.

The final component in your values system relates to specific program initiatives in the district. What are your personal values about reading instruction, continuous student assessment and expectations for success by all students? Your program values will drive the actions you expect in the classroom.

Claire, who worked as a suburban superintendent in the Midwest, faced adversity in the form of district test scores that failed to meet state standards. She was justifiably worried about school board and community reaction.

Bob, her assistant superintendent, offered a way to reduce her worry. “I know how we can manipulate the left axis on our data charts so the decline doesn’t look so large. And the public will pay more attention to the charts than a bunch of written explanations.”

She looked at him with fire in her eyes. “Bob, I’m not into manipulating data that distort the true picture. We are going to give them the whole story about the test results — straight. No double talk.”

Claire could have fudged the data, but she didn’t. She was clear about her core values and she drew upon that fuel source in deciding the ethical approach to handling the adversity.

Claire also had a strong sense of self-efficacy, another critical source of resilience capacity. She demonstrated competence and confidence that doing the right thing would successfully lead the district through the storm.

Superintendents with a grounded sense of efficacy find joy in their work when they:

Have confidence in their ability to reason, make decisions and assume responsibility for their actions when confronted with high-stakes situations;

Help others develop a sense of efficacy in doing their work and meeting obligations;

Adhere to their principles and values in making decisions, refusing to sell out by doing what’s easy or expedient; and

Develop a track record of leadership competence in serving others.

A sense of efficacy leads to positive personal well-being, a major energy source that affects a superintendent’s resilience. This energy source is a constellation of your physical well-being, emotional well-being and spiritual well-being.

Based on superintendents’ reports about their resilience capacity, they struggle most to sustain personal well-being in the midst of the storm. As accumulated turmoil takes its toll, superintendents who fail to renew and replenish these valuable resources become less resilient and less able to protect themselves when adversity strikes in the future.

As one rural superintendent in Minnesota described it, “Slowly and almost imperceptibly, I fell out of balance emotionally, physically, cognitively and spiritually.” Another superintendent, George Goens, led his district in Wisconsin through the aftermath of a violent murder of a school principal during the school day. Goens reflected on the impact of this tragedy on his personal well-being, saying, “When needs in one or more of these areas are ignored, we get into trouble. That’s what happened to me. Even if I knew it was happening at the time, I don’t think I would admit it. Leaders after all, I thought, are supposed to be strong. But what is strength?”

He added, “I never shared my feelings of fear of not being up to the task of handling the crisis. Feeling a deep sense of responsibility haunted me, even though rationally I knew an emotionally disturbed 21-year-old with bizarre schemes in his head could not be stopped under almost any circumstance. My second-guessing produced doubts in my mind that maybe more might have been done.”

Caretaking and supporting others as superintendent in adverse circumstances does not mean denying your own grief and needs. In fact, recognizing them is a sign of strength.

Another superintendent, Susan Gray in Penfield, N.Y., had this advice for new superintendents to help them strengthen their resilience capacity in the area of personal well-being:

Find solitude. Go somewhere quiet like a park or a lake and just sit, reflect and re-energize and center yourself.

Write your thoughts in a journal. Contemplate your feelings both current and past and see whether you are growing in understanding of what gives you joy and what causes you sadness or discouragement.

Exercise not only your mind but your body and do it with friends.

Get professional help after a serious crisis or talk to someone in stressful situations who will tell you what you need to hear, even if it isn’t what you want to hear.

Superintendents need to have the strength to come to terms with the reality they are responsible for their own well-being. Otherwise you cannot lead responsibly.

In most studies on individual resilience, caring and support ranked among the highest on a list of resilience strategies to regain confidence in difficult times. Superintendents identified the following common threads as essential for a strong support base: support of family, friends, colleagues and mentors.

Many superintendents cited family and friends as key to emotional support. As one superintendent in New York described it, “Family and good friends were willing to listen and help me sort through things.” Another superintendent, Mary Alice Price in the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of Pittsford, told us, “My husband is my only confidant. He helps me stay focused and balanced.”

So far, we have described two critical skill sets that will help you find meaning, fulfillment and even joy in your work as superintendent during the tough times. But these skill sets aren’t enough. We have to act before we can behold the joy.

Action Skills
This dimension of resilience is the ultimate litmus test of a superintendent’s ability to recover, learn and grow stronger in the face of adversity. As superintendent, you can hold an optimistic view of the future. You can have ample fuel in your resilience tank. But if you don’t take deliberate actions to apply your resilience thinking and capacity-building skills, then resilience doesn’t develop. Instead, your overall resilience is drained.

Superintendents demonstrate resilient actions in four areas: adaptability, perseverance, courage and personal accountability.
When disruptions to your world inevitably occur, you demonstrate adaptability by resisting the temptation to retreat to the old way of handling things and, instead, you seek flexible and creative approaches to get you through the tough times. You show perseverance when you stay the course, refusing to let adversity get the best of you. And you model courage when you take principled actions to move ahead, even when some things about the adverse circumstances are ambiguous and confusing. Finally, as a resilient superintendent, you publicly accept personal responsibility in instances where you contributed to the adversity.

Odd Combination
The cynical reader might be asking, “Don’t joy and resilience make strange bedfellows? How many superintendents would choose ‘joyous as’ a descriptor for life as superintendent?”

Yet on reflection, we realized joy is not merely about pleasure and fun. Joy is what happens when we as superintendents face the inevitable storms and demonstrate resilience in our actions. And when we carry out our duties consistent with the leadership skill sets outlined here, poet Rabindranath Tagore reminds us that, behold, our duty becomes our joy.

Jerry Patterson is a professor of educational leadership at the University of Alabama- Birmingham. E-mail: jpat@uab.edu. George Goens is a staff associate with the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. Diane Reed is associate professor of educational leadership at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. All former superintendents, they are co-authors of a forthcoming book, Resilient Leadership for Turbulent Times, co-published by AASA and Rowman & Littlefield Education.