Recently, the wonderful Jamie Thom contacted me to ask about my thoughts on resilience, as part of the research he was conducting for his forthcoming book. I sat down to write about my experience, how I felt my resilience had built over time, and what advice I might offer other aspiring leaders who may fear they lack the degree of resilience required to step up to the next level of leadership responsibility. Having responded to Jamie, I thought I would expand on my deliberations in a blog post.
I had seven different jobs across a thirty-year career in schools, and I enjoyed my headship, during the last ten years, most of all. However, headship required reserves of resilience beyond anything I had ever experienced. There were challenging times and difficult decisions – including staffing issues, child protection and safeguarding, and financial pressures – and I worked harder than I had ever done before. Managing the pace and finding a sustainable balance in my life were key. Ensuring I had clarity of purpose and strong values and principles which underpinned the decisions I was called upon to make, especially when we faced the most demanding situations and choices, was crucial.
Looking back, I see how my resilience built over time. I would describe myself as sensitive – I do feel things deeply, and will always maintain that this is a strength, not a weakness. Leaders need empathy and the capacity to recognise how others feel, too. But they also need the ability to move past this and to do what needs to be done without being derailed by the strongest emotions. I often think there’s a similarity with the role of a medical professional. If you don’t care about your patients, you will be a poor doctor. If you care too much about your patients, you will be a poor doctor… A degree of objectivity, and the recognition that we are rational, as well as emotional, beings, does help with respect to resilience.
I knew I was becoming more resilient as my experience grew and I gained confidence. I recognised this was happening because my capacity to feel something, but then to recover and move on, speeded up. I would walk into school and reflect that the previous day something had been very much on my mind. That morning, I felt better about it – I had recognised and experienced the emotion, processed it and moved beyond it, giving me the emotional space to meet whatever this day would bring. When I met challenges I had never faced before, I found it reassuring to remember that I had met new challenges before, and I had survived them. I had found a way through. I knew that those who worked closely with me, and who knew me best – including my senior team and my governing body – had faith in my ability to do whatever needed to be done, and to step up, rather than step aside. All of this contributed to my developing resilience over time.
I recently reread ‘Lean In’, by Sheryl Sandberg (strongly recommended, to readers of all genders, if you haven’t yet read it). I thought it was brilliant when I first read it, shortly after it was published. Rereading it several years on, I enjoyed it even more. It reinforced some key messages for me, but also encouraged me to think even more deeply about some things. In this passage, Sheryl cites Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post.
“Arianna Huffington believes that learning to withstand criticism is a necessity for women. Early in her career, Arianna realized that the cost of speaking her mind was that she would inevitably offend someone. She does not believe it is realistic or even desirable to tell women not to care when we are attacked. Her advice is that we should let ourselves react emotionally and feel whatever anger or sadness being criticized evokes for us. And then we should quickly move on.”
This definitely squares with my experience. I think resilience is very much about the capacity to recover and move forward. Sometimes I find it helps to sing ‘Let it go’ (from Frozen) in your head…
As some of you will know, having enjoyed writing ‘Making the Leap – Moving from Deputy to Head’ in 2016, I decided I would love to try writing fiction. This has required some courage and resilience on my part – not the actual writing itself (which I really enjoyed), but sharing what I had produced and asking for feedback – opening myself to (inevitably) some criticism. But if I don’t share, ask, listen and learn, how can I hope to improve? I have written about my attempts at fiction writing here, and here.
I meet aspiring leaders from time to time who doubt that they have the resilience the role will require. I want to say to them: resilience isn’t fixed. It can grow and strengthen, with experience and building confidence. To a certain extent we all learn how to do a job from doing the job – we ‘build the bridge as we walk on it’, to use Robert Quinn’s words.
Don’t underestimate what you may be capable of.
Photo credit: Toffe Hof