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Leadership resilience in action

4 min read


After a round of districtwide budget trimming, principal Riley received some tough news: His school’s two instructional coaches would be reassigned to classroom teaching positions. Although Riley knew all along that instructional coaching could end up on the chopping block, he truly believed its positive record of improving teaching would guarantee funding. Sitting in his office, absorbing the implications of the change, Riley was initially gripped by a series of emotional reactions. From despair over the loss of support to key teachers who were just beginning to respond to coaching, to anxiety about having to break the news to the coaches themselves, Riley knew this change would be difficult for many to accept. Knowing that people follow his emotional lead, Riley thought about how he could acknowledge the loss yet respond with an appropriate amount of what he calls, “can-do-ism.” “After all,” Riley explains, “I can’t call myself a leader if I’m not helping people see challenges as opportunities.”

If your leadership experiences allow you to relate to principal Riley, you probably also recognize in him — and in yourself — the seeds of resilience. The American Psychological Association assures us that resilience is a set of beliefs, thinking and actions that anyone can learn (2002). Since disruptive change and adversity is neither rare nor unusual in complex organizations, this is good news indeed! But what does leadership resilience look like in action? If we follow principal’s Riley story through, we see evidence of at least six phases of action that make resilience visible.

  1. Stay calm: In the face of disruptive change, resilient leaders like Riley, resist the pull of their first reactions, which are largely driven by emotions that are not always helpful. Realizing that there is nothing so bad, that running a muck won’t make even worse, Riley processed his initial emotions and then challenged himself to access a spirit of “can-do-ism.”
  2. Carry on: Although Riley was rattled by the news he would lose the coaches, he understood that the only thing more unsettling than disruptive change is realizing that while your attention and energy was diverted, the rest of the organization fell apart.
  3. Step into the new reality: Resilient leaders don’t waste time in unhelpful nostalgia. Instead, they bring their absorbed insights from the past forward, and they apprehend new realities through fresh eyes. In Riley’s case, he led the faculty in conversations about the benefits of instructional coaching — irrespective of the organizational structure in place to provide it. They began to imagine how classroom teachers could facilitate the same outcomes.
  4. Want something more: Adversity presses resilient leaders to imagine new potentials within themselves and the system and they use disruptive change to catalyze action. Riley’s faculty had learned a lot about instructional coaching. They began to wonder; what would it look like if more classroom teachers began to see themselves as peer instructional coaches?
  5. Instigate adaptive action: Resilient leaders do not wait for absolute clarity before they lead action in new realities. Instead, they encourage experimentation and innovation and they use what they learn from adaptive actions to create the path forward. Riley’s faculty came up with several models for continuing peer-to-peer instructional coaching. They decided to give a few of them a try. One grade level team used flexible instructional groups in order to form coaching pairs. Another developed and team taught model lessons. A third used their planning time to hold peer-to-peer coaching sessions. The faculty discussed the pros and cons of each model and they continually revised and honed their approach.
  6. Celebrate and reflect: Resilient leaders celebrate and broadcast successes in order to reflect on what works in the new reality, and to provide the feedback needed to refine the next steps. Riley’s faculty kept track of the results of their experimentation with instructional coaching. They looked at the frequency and quality of coaching sessions and the effect on student learning. Eventually, two teachers in each grade level team emerged as coaching leaders for their peers.

The six phases described here isolate the actions of resilience, so we can make a study of them. Ultimately, leadership resilience is a daily practice that looks a lot like good leadership.

Elle Allison-Napolitano is a writer and speaker and is founder of Wisdom Out. Her new book, Bounce Forward: The Extraordinary Resilience of Leadership (Corwin, 2014) is available now. You can connect with Elle on twitter at @elleallsion or send an email to [email protected].