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Resilient School Leaders: Strategies for Turning Adversity Into Achievement

reviewed by Michael Parr - September 15, 2006

coverTitle: Resilient School Leaders: Strategies for Turning Adversity Into Achievement
Author(s): Jerry Patterson & Paul Kelleher
Publisher: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Alexandria, VA
ISBN: 1416603670, Pages: 175, Year: 2005
Search for book at Amazon.com

Acknowledging that adversity is often unavoidable and a significant part of every educational leader’s life, Jerry Patterson and Paul Kelleher interviewed 25 educational leaders with more than 700 years of collective experience in order to get a clear sense of how effective leaders can move ahead in the face of adversity. What they found was that an individual’s perspective breeds resilience, and that resilience was the ingredient that led to the continued effectiveness and love of one’s work.

The authors rely on the use of storms in nature as a metaphor for what all school leaders experience as the realities of professional life: that is, in our schools, as in nature, we know that storms inevitably will occur but we don’t know when they will hit or with what intensity, despite the best of forecasts. What we do know, as the authors point out, is that storms of nature and storms of school life share a predictable unpredictability. Given this dilemma, the challenge before all educational leaders, according to Patterson and Kelleher, is to weather the storms when they do hit and apply one’s skills to strengthen resilience after the storm has subsided.

This book offers school leaders ideas on how to do just that: to strengthen their leadership skills in the area of resilience so that they might be better able to weather the inevitable storms and emerge from encounters with adversity, coming out further ahead and even stronger than before. The book itself is intended to be a journey toward resilience in the face of life’s storms, both professional and personal. It is founded on three principles: optimism (a belief in your ability to maintain a positive outlook about the future, despite adversities that will inevitably occur); hope (your passion to fight through the storms for what is right, just, and reasonable, irrespective of the outcomes); and efficacy (your confidence in your own capabilities and in your capacity to accomplish challenging goals). In sum, the authors’ hope for the book is that the reader gains keen insights, proven strategies, and a heightened sense of efficacy to help the reader navigate the storm and emerge from them stronger than before. Leaders do this because of their heightened resiliency.

Patterson and Kelleher view resilience as a powerful set of tools to help school leaders grow stronger from adversity by using energy productively as they encounter adversity. Exploring the concept of resilience itself, the authors propose their three-dimensional, comprehensive resilience framework, which consists of:

The interpretation of current adversity and future possibility;

The resilience capability to tackle adversity;

The actions needed to become more resilient in the face of adversity.

The school leader’s resilience strength, it is suggested, is the sum of the dynamic interaction among these three dimensions of resilience: interpretation, capacity, and action. Although the authors suggest storms and adversity are inevitable, and that we all have patterns of responses we typically employ in dealing with these challenges (some more productive than others), what is encouraging is the claim that resilience is developmental, and that it can be learned and taught.

Patterson and Kelleher acknowledge that we cannot control all that we are presented with as school leaders, but we can control how we “interpret” things that happen. We can choose to adopt the stance of either realistic/unrealistic optimists or pessimists; the authors suggest that applying the skills and outlook of a realistic optimist will bolster one’s resilience. These leaders seek to understand fully what is really going on, including how they may have played a role in the adversity. Realistic optimists also believe they can make a difference in the future despite the constraints imposed by reality. The argument presented is that changing one’s perspective is a matter of mere choice, likely leaving some readers wondering why it might be so difficult for individuals to simply opt to adopt a change in perspective. Although there is no simple solution, the authors do spend several chapters discussing values, efficacy, energy, and how developing a greater understanding of these characteristics can assist in the beginning of a change in perspective to that which is reflective of a more realistic optimist.

Suggesting that the inevitable crises generate adversity—whether extreme or less dramatic—all may serve as catalysts for building resilience and one’s own resilience capacity. This capacity is governed by three fuel sources for resiliency: personal values, personal efficacy, and personal energy. All of these influence the boundaries of resiliency capacity and are determined primarily by accumulated life experiences. What is critical to note, however, is that according to the authors, resilience capacity is elastic over time, leaving us with the understanding that as we strengthen our own personal values, efficacy, and energy (through repeated encounters with adversity), our resiliency develops as well, better preparing us for the storms ahead.

The authors identify four phases of a resiliency cycle that school leaders move through when adversity strikes: deteriorating, adapting, recovering, and finally, growing, whereby one is able to mentally and emotionally benefit from trials and tribulations. The authors make effective use of real life examples of both school and personal life experiences, and use these as examples to illustrate the power of perspective on outlook and action. Suggesting that a relatively optimistic, yet realistic perspective on adversity will allow one to weather any storm best, they pose a series of six key questions to challenge the reader in examining their own perspective and changing as required:

What assumptions do I hold about reality?

What are the causes of the current adversity, including my own contribution?

What are the risks posed by the adversity?

What is my ability to influence future events?

What are my expectations for success?

What will be the focus of my efforts?

In their discussion and exercises relating to values, the authors invite the readers to explore and reflect on their core values, their ethics as it were, and their individualized values that Michael Fullan suggests define our own moral purpose. These core values help define both our educational and program-related values, which we rely on to guide decisions in our professional conduct. Again, the authors offer examples that guide the reader through the process of addressing competing values (Badaracco, 1997) that we are all faced with as educators from time to time, and how to rely on and use our core values to guide us through the toughest of conditions of adversity.

Asserting that a school leader’s impact may be great if the leader has optimistic self-efficacy, the authors are themselves realistic in noting that there are frequently limitations to what school leaders may achieve given the imposition of external constraints and mandates in today’s educational milieu. Acknowledging that these are not likely to change in the near future, the authors offer a host of constructive ideas on how leaders might respond to these challenges and frame such situations in a way that allows them to work within realistic constraints, but also achieve their goals and maintain their energy (both mental and emotional), sense of purpose, feelings of accomplishment, and so forth. The illustrations provided are again helpful in gaining understanding of how this might be applied in one’s practice.

The book draws to a close with a short but very important penultimate chapter on team resilience and the need for school leaders at all levels to work collaboratively toward building resilience within the organization itself. Citing Fullan (2001), the authors point out that “The individualistic solution [to becoming more resilient] is only half of the solution. The other half of the solution is trying to change the organizational side, the organizational culture.”

The last chapter ties the book together with a brief overview of the “Six Strengths of Resilient Leaders” and the attributes that accompany each strength. As a road map to resilience, they provide guiding principles that highlight what has reportedly proven to be characteristic of resilient leaders in their endeavors while leading through adversity. These six strengths that resilient leaders share are that they:

Assess past and current reality

Are positive about future possibilities

Remain true to personal values

Maintain a strong sense of personal efficacy

Invest personal energy wisely

Act on the courage of personal convictions

The main messages in this book are inherently quite empowering in that they reinforce the notion that educational leaders have a vision worth actualizing, and that persistence and perseverance in the face of adversity will pay dividends in the end. I suspect this way of thinking will indeed prove to be beneficial to all members of the school community. That said, the authors might have suggested and provided exercises that would allow educational leaders to explore their core beliefs in greater depth, rather than assuming that these are always going to be aligned with an appropriate moral purpose such as that referred to by Michal Fullan (2001). If indeed one’s core values and educational values reflect a “student’s first” perspective, then resiliency will likely yield long-term gains and rewards for the school community. However, one can be as optimistic, energetic, and charismatic as one likes, resilient to any storm that comes, but both she and the organization will not be able to stay the course if their values and moral purpose are not closely aligned with the best interests of her students. In this sense, resilience, or the potential of resilience within the educational enterprise, is either constrained or enhanced by the alignment of purpose with the lives of students. Only those leaders who continually put students first will have the legacy of being remembered as our most truly effective educational leaders of the 21st century.

One limitation of the book is that the focus is primarily on school leaders such as principals and superintendents. Only one half of a page at the end of the book gives mention to leaders, including both formal and informal roles such as those filled by department heads (formal), and teachers “with credibility, expertise, and relationship skills,” (p. 144) and their unique ability and role in developing team resilience. If Patterson and Kelleher really do mean to include these groups of educational staff as leaders, then all that is written in the context of this book applies to them equally; there is no need for special mention at the end. If they did not intend for it to apply, they should have, and they consequently missed the mark given the pivotal role each and every contributing member of the organization plays in the development of a culture of resiliency within a school. Accordingly, this is a book for all educators, not just those who might define themselves as “school leaders.” This is a book for educators in general, all of whom face adversity and challenge as well as competing demands and obstacles that at times may seem overwhelming and out of control. Like traditional formal leaders, all educators have their own set of values, and build on and rely on their own resiliency to guide them through each encounter with adversity and the many storms and turbulent times that they themselves weather through.  Accordingly, I would suggest this book be available in every school on the staff room table, where all staff may read through it in the hopes of initiating school-wide dialogue around building a resilient culture that will better enable and empower all staff to weather the storms, as it were, and continue to build capacity (individual and team) to deliver the best education to the students and the community they serve.  


Badaracco, J. L., Jr. (1997). Defining moments: When managers must choose between right and right. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Fullan, M. (2002). The change leader. Educational leadership, 58(9), 6-10.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 15, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12710, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 2:59:23 AM

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About the Author
  • Michael Parr
    Nipissing University
    E-mail Author
    MICHAEL PARR currently teaches in the Faculty of Education at Nipissing University and brings with him considerable experience working with students ‘at risk’ as well as those students identified as having specific emotional and behavioural disorders. His wide variety of teaching experiences in both segregated and regular classroom settings, as well as his experiences as an administrator, have been instrumental in serving as a springboard into his research investigating the needs of students ‘at risk’. Other research interests center around teacher education, and educational leadership & change with emphasis placed on practices that foster Inclusive schools.
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