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Resilient leaders and resilient schools

A Working Out Loud conversation with Kaya Consulting

Resilience. It’s one of those terms that’s in danger of becoming a buzzword, and yet it’s widely accepted as the key to a rewarding life and career. So, in an uncertain world, what does it really mean to be a resilient? And how can we nurture resilience as teachers and principals to create resilient schools and, ultimately, resilient students? This is the topic we explored at a recent Working Out Loud (WOL) meeting of minds, where we brought together a group of experienced principals to learn from the group’s collective wisdom.

 

First, What is resilience?

We kicked off our WOL session by considering what resiliency is. Our principals discussed elasticity, the ability to bounce back, and the idea of creating a system that responds automatically to deal with changing pressures and circumstances.

These ideas were summarised most eloquently by a metaphor where resilient individuals or schools are reeds and life is the creek- the reeds bend when there’s a flood (adversity or crisis) then pop back up when the flood has passed. In contrast, the big but rigid old oak on the riverbank is more likely to topple over.

Resiliency, then, isn’t about size or perceived strength. For schools it isn’t about student numbers, money or resources. It is purely about having strong roots and the ability to adapt.

“If I drop dead tonight, is the school going to continue with the lease disruption for everybody? As a leader, that’s got to be one of your priorities. Can everything run if some of the cogs get taken out?”

Our WOL group’s insights, tips and advice

1. Think of resilience as a resource

Resilience is dynamic- it fluctuates. It can be nurtured and increased, but it can also be depleted. Some people will be naturally more resilient than others; some will be more resilient in some situations, and less so in others. And the same applies to teaching staff and schools.

In our WOL group’s opinion, you should never take resilience for granted. Be mindful that resilience can quietly evaporate when all’s going well, and be ready to recharge your resilience when that happens.

Turn ‘I’ into ‘we’ by talking, face to face

When we work together, when everyone’s invested in a strategy, when everyone feels involved and appreciated, teams are happier, more effective and more resilient.

So, keep the lines of communication open. Don’t rely on emails, which can be misread. Get together and talk about the situation you’re facing. Ask for ideas and opinions. Encourage or even challenge your team to take ownership of the strategy you’re putting together – the more involved and invested people feel, the more trust you’ll create, while mitigating the danger of blame being thrown around when plans go awry.

“You say, ‘if you’re waiting on a white knight to come over the hill and solve all our problems, we’re going to be waiting a long time. We own this place, we’re responsible for it, we’re accountable to it, so if you see something you don’t like, what are you going to do? What’s your response?’ And that changes people’s thinking.”

2. See adversity as an opportunity

Research into resilience tells us that when it comes to managing and overcoming adversity, perception is everything. If you’re able to see challenges, failures and adversity as a good thing – an opportunity to learn, grow and change things for the better – then you automatically become a more resilient individual. The same goes for teams and organisations. If, collectively, you’re able to avoid negative knee-jerk reactions to adversity and instead focus on the big-picture opportunity to move forward, everyone benefits.

Bad situations can be good for you in the long run. Without challenges, we don’t improve.

“Resiliency is when you can continue to improve educational outcomes for students, no matter what pressures there are, and wherever they’re coming from. Whatever challenges are in your way, you can still get better outcomes for kids. You don’t just stand still or go backwards.”

3. Know where you’re going, and when to say ‘no’

Every team needs a purpose or vision. Part of your job as a leader is to create unity around that purpose, which means developing a strategy that everyone understands and buys into.

Once you have that unity of purpose, you’re able to put adversity and challenges into perspective against the big-picture goals you have as a team. Moreover, you’re able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to opportunities based on which ones best support your strategy, without it being seen as a contentious or personal decision, so you can ensure your resources aren’t overstretched and you’re able to deal with whatever life throws at you.

“I actually think that (being presented with too many opportunities) is a threat in itself because if you’re going to jump onto things as soon as they are mentioned to you, you’re going to lose your direction, then you become incapable of doing anything well. You’ve got to stay focused.”

4. Build trust and collaboration by making yourself vulnerable

Trust and resilience are two sides of the same coin – without trust, a team can’t be resilient. But building trust isn’t always easy. A lot depends on the personalities you’re working with. One effective way to build trust as a leader is to make yourself vulnerable. Ask for help. Ask for support. And be seen to do so.

Effective leaders don’t always have all the answers, but they know how to get them – they know how to harness other people’s expertise and, in the process, show and build trust.

5. Don’t get down, get the best out of the people around you

There are different personalities in every team – some will strike you as naturally positive, some will have a tendency to focus on negatives, which can affect morale and, in turn, resiliency. The key is to understand that all personalities have strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, you’ll have strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

In this sense, protecting and nurturing resiliency is all about being aware of different personalities and playing to – and creatively combining – everyone’s strengths. For instance, the people in your team who seem to nitpick are likely to be really good at spotting mistakes that the more positive personality types in your team will miss, so play to their strengths – it will make everyone feel better.

“If I look back to my grandparents, I think in one way they were hugely more resilient than I am, but in other ways they really weren’t resilient, so it all depends on circumstances and expectations.

6. Don’t be afraid to feel uncomfortable

Our principals all acknowledged that they – and their schools – feel stronger and more resilient when they are actively engaged in a challenge, and that there is value in deliberately stepping outside your comfort zone, particularly when things are going smoothly. But how can you do this safely?

You could embrace competition within your school or team as a means of promoting collaboration and teamwork (competitive collaboration). You could promote peer observation and constructive feedback, both internal and external. You could find like-minded schools that are on a similar strategic journey, especially ones that are further along their path, and explore ways to share knowledge and tackle new challenges together.

In short, when you hit a plateau, don’t wait for the next rock face to find you – go and look for it.

“I implemented a strategy last year to improve the behaviour culture, where I set up each class as a team. I said, ‘You’re a team now, not a class, and you’re all earning points on how you improve against our values of excellence, respect and commitment.’ They all had a team captain, vice-captain and so on. It was about beating the other teams. And it lited the behaviour culture – they were all working together. So, competition can be very effective.”

7. Plan for known threats, expect the unexpected ones

In education, there are plenty of perennial challenges that will test our resilience, like reporting – easy enough to anticipate and manage. But there are also bigger trends that we should be aware of, even if we can’t predict precisely how they will unfold, such as the use of new technologies I teaching and the growing prominence of millennials in our workforce. And then there are the unforeseeable threats that will come out of the leftfield.

This sense of uncertainty can be unnerving, but if you plan for the known challenges, develop a strategic plan that you’re able to adapt as bigger trends unfold, and if you nurture a culture of trust and collaboration in your team and school, then you’ll have the resilience to handle those unforeseen threats. And rest assured, they may be unforeseeable, but they will crop up, just as surely as your reporting obligations.