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.
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.
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.
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:
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