Head of School Blog Post

How Do We Effectively Build Resilience?

Since as long as I can remember, I have always loved watching the Olympics on television. The competition, the different sports, and the intensely personal stories of the athletes. How they arrived at what is most often the dream of their lifetime has always been compelling to me.

During the Olympics, the stories shared are frequently about resilience and what or how an individual athlete has overcome and preserved against their circumstances. All this talk of resilience is also something that has been a hot topic through the COVID-19 pandemic. I cannot begin to count the number of articles, webinars, and blogs that have encouraged education leaders to show “resilience” in navigating the many challenges that face our schools, students, families, and faculty. I wondered how do we define resilience and how do leaders develop it?

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines resilience as “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress” or as “an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Like in the Olympics, the focus of these definitions is centered on recovering from setbacks. I’m not sure that this definition is most helpful to education leaders in the work we do on an everyday basis. These definitions are silent on how to develop resilience, almost as though one is either resilient or not.

A recent paper by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCT) on building leadership resilience looks at the research on this concept and offers, what I believe to be, a much more practical framework for understanding and building resilience than our popular definitions.

First, CCT defines resilience as “responding adaptively to challenges” where challenges range from everyday experiences like feeling overwhelmed to major disruptions or adversities. Rather than just be assessed as a one time display, the authors of the report view resilience “as a process that involves repeated and intentional engagement with well-being processes.”

On the theoretical level, the framework, based on the extensive literature on resilience and well-being, focuses on four core areas: physical, mental, emotional and social. Each of these areas is essential to helping leaders build resilience in today’s increasingly uncertain and complex world. Resilience does not lie in any one of these core areas, but rather is at the center of the construct, each contributes to resilience.  

On the practical level, the authors suggest eight practices - sleep, physical activity, mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal, savoring, gratitude, social connection and social contact - for this integrated, whole-self framework. Each of the practice areas have a significant research basis that suggests they are effective for generating cycles of gain and growth that stop the vicious cycles that can occur in the absence of resilience. 

Through these practices, leaders are able to effectively build resilience over time. Based on empirical evidence, the authors also suggest that diversifying the specific practices is more effective than to exclusively rely on one. Taken together, the framework is meant to offer an evidence-based, simple, and concrete way to both conceptualize what resilience is and how it can be developed to help people be effective leaders and best manage burnout and associated emotions.

The Netherlands’ Sifan Hassan stumbled and sprawled on the track in the Tokyo Olympics during her heat of the women’s 1,500 meters. She then lifted herself up and raced from far behind to catch the other runners, passing them all to finish first. She finished the Olympic games with three medals. At the time of her fall in her preliminary heat, the announcers described Hassan as being resilient for getting up and finishing her race. What I later learned is that her explanation for what she accomplished was based on many practices, - physical, social and emotional - that enabled her to build that resilience. Rather than a characteristic that she had, resilience was something that she built through specific practices over time. Education leaders can do the same using the CCT framework.

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