“The bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists.”
This old Japanese proverb came to mind as my wife’s favourite mixing bowl slipping from my soapy fingers and disintegrated on the kitchen tiles. The bowl was bright red and one of the few remaining meaningful pieces that my wife had brought from the UK to personalise our new home in Malaysia four years ago.
It was the eve of Chinese New year and preparations were afoot across our Malaysian boarding school campus for the noisiest night of the year. Being February 2021 and mid-lockdown again, many boarders were spending yet another holiday at school and the aim, as ever, was to make it pleasant, fun and memorable.
The slower pace of the holiday, however, was making space for painful reflection that we and our many expatriate colleagues had not seen our families for over 18 months in most cases. My thoughts were on the pressures being faced by my staff and pupils, not on washing the bowl that had recently contained dumpling filling. I was immediately struck by how much I had heard and read recently about bending and bouncing and rebounding, particularly for those in leadership positions. These are all the qualities that my wife’s lovely bowl did not possess as it lay in pieces.
“The fight or flight response has become an almost permanent and unsustainable state for many leaders.”
Individuals around the globe face what, to many of them, are unprecedented worries about their families, health and income. Leaders, including school leaders, often find themselves sharing these along with the full weight of corporate success or failure. Since early 2020 organisations everywhere have been in continual crisis management and the fight or flight response has become an almost permanent and unsustainable state for many of their leaders.
Resilience, the ability to bounce back and carry on is the almost Churchillian quality that can be achieved by self-mastery to fortify the mind, body and spirit. We know the importance of setting aside time for mindfulness, gratitude, appreciating nature and people, exercise, diet and sleep. We can certainly build resilience by making healthy choices to cope with and control our stress, rather than choices which ultimately deplete and control us. Good choices make us healthier, happier, more efficient and have even been shown to have significant influence on antibody response levels during vaccinations.
However, the first century Stoic, Epictetus, advised that one should “on the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and enquire what power you have for turning it to use.” To embrace adversity as a catalyst for growth changes the lens through which we view challenge, our attitude to it and our behaviours.
“We certainly need to cope, but we can also grow and even flourish under the most testing of conditions.”
Leadership is about direction and navigation, regardless of the conditions; schools and businesses wish neither to stand still nor drift. To bring ourselves and our crew through fair weather and foul school leaders certainly need to cope, but we can also grow and even flourish under the most testing of conditions.
The red mixing bowl did not bounce or bend; it broke as ceramics do. However, even cracked bowls have become precious since the art of Kintsugi was developed in the fifteenth century to mend broken pottery with silver or gold. This highlights trauma and imperfections instead of hiding them, and celebrates the survival of beauty and purpose.
A human parallel was uncovered in 1996 when psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun published a study which identified and measured what was called a post-traumatic growth inventory or the extent to which growth has been achieved after a trauma. They looked for responses in five areas and subsequent revisions have increased the scale to 21 items, but the original core five were:
1: Appreciation of life
2: Relationships with others
3: New possibilities in life
4: Personal strength
5: Spiritual change
The scale has value in measuring how some individuals under extreme pressure can reconstruct or strengthen their perceptions of themselves, others and the meaning of events.
Meaning is of real significance and in almost every model of positive psychology, meaning has an important place. This owes much to the pioneer of logotherapy, Viktor Frankl. A remarkable survivor of the holocaust, Frankl developed a school of psychology based on our motivation to live purposeful and meaningful lives. Considering his experiences in Auschwitz, with devastating courage, he advised: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves… everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Although it is hard to imagine a school of thought more removed from that of Nietzsche, Frankl made use of his famous line: “He who has a why to live, can bear almost any how.”
Richard Tedeschi has indicated that Post-Traumatic Growth could be adapted for helping those who have not experienced it to enhance their understanding of how they would manage themselves, their relationships and the world in which they live.
“By embracing the context in which we live, we can flourish and help others to do so.”
So school leaders not only have the potential to survive the extreme challenges of the moment but also to grow and even thrive by harnessing our purpose, managing our wellbeing and relationships, developing our understanding and our meta-awareness. By embracing the context in which we live, we can flourish and help others to do so.
The red mixing bowl was not important; the celebration with family and friends to which it made a contribution was. Extreme times call for hearts of oak and minds of bamboo.