Book Review - ET Fall 2013

​Resilient School Leaders: Strategies for Turning Adversity into Achievement

Review by Melanie Tait

This book is intended for all leaders, formal and informal, who have faced difficult circumstances in the past, who are currently struggling with a difficult situation or who think they will face adversity in the future. The authors, Jerry Patterson and Paul Kelleher, find the metaphor of storms apt, as they say in the introduction: "Just as storms in nature always end and the sun comes out again, adversity in our lives always ebbs and we can emerge stronger from it."

Initially, Patterson and Kelleher review the history of resilience as a psychological concept and its connections to ideas like coping, risk factors and deficits. They then propose a looking at resilience as a four-phase cycle. Imagine that things are going along as usual when adversity strikes. First, there is a period of "deterioration," sometimes to the point of dysfunction. Once remedial actions begin, a transitional phase of "adaptation" starts. This is a place of survival, and it is important to move onward towards a more positive trajectory. The third phase is "recovery" - a return to the normal state. The fourth phase, or "strengthened resilience," is where one learns from adversity and grows from the experience. This cycle is illustrated through numerous real-life examples.

The authors then discuss characteristics of four different types of leaders and compare the assumptions and expectations of each, the strengths of their relationships, their varying senses of self-efficacy, their belief systems, energy levels and spiritual, physical and emotional resources. The interplay of these personal characteristics defines the type of leader: the realistic pessimist, the unrealistic pessimist, the realistic optimist and the unrealistic optimist.

Each leadership type is described through a case study involving plausible events and circumstances. The most effective leadership type is clearly the realistic optimist, for several reasons. Realistic optimists accept and speak openly about the realities of organizational life, even if the image is not pretty. They aren't easily surprised. They seek accurate data to understand more clearly, and they want to know how their own actions may have contributed to the problem. They want to make informed decisions about how to proceed. They also comprehend that sometimes giving up is the best alternative.

The book also includes a good discussion about values. Program values are the broad base of a pyramid, with educational values above those and core values on top. It is here that we find ethics, which the authors define as "a set of universal principles that transcend the mission, vision and values of any particular organization." The education leader Michael Fullan refers to this same idea as "moral purpose." Core values help define a person's character and are the soul of a leader. Educational values include such broad but important concepts as improving student learning. Program values include specific teaching strategies promoted as a way to support educational values. Leaders must sometimes reconcile discrepancies between competing values at the different layers. This may lead to a situation where leaders must rely on the courage of their convictions. The authors advise leaders to articulate and clarify their values and then take actions that are consistent with their values. They illustrate this with a diagram of what they call the "Personal Strengths Triangle," where reliability, character and authenticity connect saying, doing and valuing. This alignment contributes to long-term "strength resilience."

A third idea presented by the authors is the notion of "optimistic self-efficacy," which enables a person to influence events that otherwise might seem beyond their control. Optimistic self-efficacy helps a person affect complex organizational structures, to withstand criticism and to persevere despite poor odds. Philosophers and psychologists relate high levels of optimistic self-efficacy to higher levels of happiness. Physiologically, optimistic self-efficacy contributes to physical health and stress management.

The last segment of Resilient School Leaders focuses on ways that leaders can sustain and strengthen their resilience, realistic optimism and optimistic self-efficacy. Suggestions include setting short-term goals and noting those accomplishments, adopting effective self-management techniques and staying connected to others, including team members, mentors, those in one's work environment and people in personal relationships.

To sum up their discussion, Patterson and Kelleher list what they call the Six Strengths of Resilient Leaders:

  1. Resilient leaders accurately assess past and present reality.
  2. Resilient leaders are positive about future possibilities.
  3. Resilient leaders remain true to their personal values.
  4. Resilient leaders maintain a strong sense of personal efficacy.
  5. Resilient leaders invest personal energy wisely.
  6. Resilient leaders act on the courage of personal convictions.

An appendix introduces and highlights the leaders who were interviewed by the authors. This unique feature lends great credibility to the book and its premises.

This book is recommended for leaders who are looking for support in dealing with challenges or in helping others cope with adversity. Its style is appropriate for readers who appreciate a case study format with true-to-life examples, often featuring real people.

Resilient School Leaders: Strategies for Turning Adversity into Achievement
Jerry L. Patterson and Paul Kelleher
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, Virginia, 2005
175 pages, US$25.95(paper)