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How to replenish your surge capacity

By Suzi Finkelsten
By Suzi Finkelsten

Executive/Leadership Coach, Facilitator, and Board Director.

How to replenish your surge capacity?

What is surge capacity?

Have you ever scaled up your efforts – whether increasing your work hours, donating more to charity, or squeezing more tasks into your day – in times of crisis? If you have, then you have used your surge capacity. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive leadership qualities that leaders draw on in times of crisis, change or trauma to survive – whether figuratively, or literally. While these qualities can be used over a short period of time, they lead to burnout if we operate at that heightened level for too long.

The most tangible example is the extra resources that people pour into natural disasters – firefighters work around the clock to put out fires, SES volunteers go days without a break to rescue people from flood waters, and governments, private organisations and individuals donate large amounts of funds and goods to support the survival of the people affected. All these things have one common theme – they are unsustainable over time.

As a leader, you activate your surge capacity to protect your school community in times of crisis or rapid, unpredictable change. The usual timeline of these situations would see you have an immediate surge response, and then soon after turn to rest, reset and rebuild, using more normal energy and resource levels.

Why has my surge capacity disappeared?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significantly drawn out timeline of a ‘disaster’ meaning that leaders’ surge capacity has been on heightened alert for the better part of two years. Without the usual timeline that allows for rest soon after the disaster, you are left feeling burnt out, depleted and wholly uninspired or motivated to lead your school community. This contributes to poor wellbeing for you, your teachers and the broader school community.

Distractions All Around

While we’re living in a world of ultimate convenience, it also has its downsides. You always have something to do – from posting useless posts on social media to watching videos on YouTube. Sometimes, it’s not the digital world but your social life that gets in the way. Your startup office turns into a party spot.

If you’re not going out of the way to keep yourself away from distractions, chances are you won’t be able to get anything done. There will always be something you would want to do more, and that false sense of security of having ‘tomorrow’ will lure you in.

How to support yourself:

Luckily, there are some things you can do to support yourself in times of crisis, to better cope with your heightened leadership responsibilities. These include:

  • Going easy on yourself. Giving yourself some extra time and space to get things done, leaving things that aren’t urgent and having more rest time aren’t selfish, they’re important for your health and wellbeing.
  • Acknowledging that things are different. There is a lot of commentary at the moment about things going ‘back to normal’, but the reality is that things really are different now. While it’s okay to miss things that are different now, there are a lot of positives to think about, too.
  • Recognising that you may be experiencing grief-like symptoms. As mentioned above, you will miss some ‘pre-covid’ things, and that is okay. Taking the time to grieve for those things is an important step to letting go and moving forward.
  • Focussing on maintaining and strengthening important relationships. COVID was a big ‘reset’ for a lot of personal and professional relationships. Take the time to identify the relationships that might need to be reset or renewed, and focus energy into these.
  • Finding new activities and hobbies that offer some relaxation and reprieve. Now that things are opening up, there are new opportunities to try new things, or to continue hobbies that we picked up during lockdowns. It is important to take time away from the ‘crisis’ and do something that is enjoyable and good for you. 


Dealing with elongated periods of distress and change is challenging for everyone. Understanding what surge capacity is, and taking steps to replenish your surge capacity, will help you lead productively and positively for your school community.


Suzi Finkelstein CEO, ASAM