They are words parents pray they will never hear: “Jim, you have to go meet the ambulance at the hospital. Now! Katelyn’s coach just called. She said Katelyn fell from the uneven bars and that it is bad! I’ll meet you there.” Click. The voice of my wife disappeared from the car phone speaker overhead. Wait. Bad? What does that mean? I tried to ignore the frightening images forming in my head, and I quickly turned the car around. Injured on the uneven bars? She’s the State Champion in that event. This does not make any sense. Please, God. Please let my little girl be okay.
The ambulance beat me to the hospital. An attendant whisked me to an area at the back of the emergency room, and I spotted Katelyn sitting up in a bed. As I walked toward her, I was overwhelmed with relief. Swallowing the large lump in my throat, I smiled. But, then I looked at her mangled and swollen arm, then her face, and I froze. Sobbing, Katelyn took a deep breath and whimpered to me, “I’ll never bounce back from this.” Heartbreak.
I’ll never bounce back. Defeat in the face of adversity. Isn’t that how we feel sometimes as educators and school leaders? We encounter barriers or unexpected setbacks that we perceive in the moment as devastating to our purpose or vision. Wrapping up my first year as an assistant superintendent, I feel it now. As I sit here and reflect on the past year, I regretfully acknowledge that many of my plans and goals for the year were thwarted by unintentional disruptive change or simply by my own inability to get the job done. Like a raging river or a surging train, I feel myself being pulled and pushed, hurled forward, dragging alongside me all of the half-baked projects, unexecuted or poorly executed plans, and unfinished reports whose deadlines have either passed or wait impatiently for me on my summer calendar. “How will I ever bounce back from this?” The answer may be simple: don’t. Instead, bounce forward.
Bouncing back will return me to the path on which I initially started. Is that what I want? Do I want to bounce back to how it was ten months ago? Honestly, it did not turn out in the end as well as I had hoped. In many cases, I misjudged. I overestimated. I underestimated. Don’t get me wrong, there were many high points and successes, and I am happy and grateful for those accomplishments and new challenges. But, for some reason the successes are pushed aside by palpable regret. I regret that I am nowhere close to being as effective as a leader as I thought I would be at this point. Nor am I the leader I want to be. Nor am I the leader I need to be. Am I resilient enough to catapult myself forward AND lead my team toward something bigger and better? According to author Elle Alison-Napolitano, what I need in the face of this challenge is extraordinary resilience that grows, not from bouncing back, but from bouncing forward.
In her book, Bouncing Forward: the Extraordinary Resilience of Leadership, Elle Allison-Napolitano describes three capacities that enable leaders to be extraordinarily resilient in times of disruptive change, adversity, and challenges. These capacities are relationship, resonance, and renewal. Do I have these capacities? Okay, so I am going to be crazy transparent here. Truth is, I am struggling with all three. As a building principal, I honestly believe I demonstrated each of these capacities with some measure of proficiency. In fact, I would have probably included them among my areas of strength. But, as a first year assistant superintendent, I’m not sure. My work relationships are new, I lack the level of knowledge required to support and sustain resonance, and my opportunities for renewal are taking a back seat to a Herculean effort to navigate a steep learning curve. So, what should I do? Next month, I will join the other administrators in my district for an opportunity to work with Elle Allison-Napolitano and reflect upon our individual capacities for relationship, resonance, and renewal in search of extraordinary resilient leadership. I look forward to sharing my reflections about this professional learning in a future blog post.
What about Katelyn? Well, she has two permanent screws holding her ulna bone to the growth plate on her elbow, and she is making progress every day. She is eager to finish her therapy and get back to the gym. She talks about it every day. But, her training will be different from what it was before her accident, because her arm will be shaped differently. The doctor predicts that, while she will not likely be able to fully straighten her arm, she will hopefully be able to get it close, to within 10 or 15 degrees of straight. This unintentional disruptive change to her arm will require adaptive change to her training, and a new competitive plan for reaching her goals. She will have lost the ability to perform some skills that made her a champion, but the loss will only make room for new skills that will take her somewhere else exciting. It is true: she will never bounce back. But, she will bounce forward.