5 leadership strategies for thriving in challenging times

Superintendent Jill Siler offers five leadership strategies for coping with fear and failure
By: | January 29, 2021
Gunter ISD Superintendent Jill Siler (back left) says ordeals of COVID can be seen as a “season of growth” as leaders adjust to online, hybrid and other new methods of supporting students.Gunter ISD Superintendent Jill Siler (back left) says ordeals of COVID can be seen as a “season of growth” as leaders adjust to online, hybrid and other new methods of supporting students.
Jill Siler, FETC 2021 speaker and Gunter ISD superintendent

Jill Siler, FETC 2021 speaker and Gunter ISD superintendent

Superintendent Jill Siler loves her job 95% of the time and believes many other education leaders share that sentiment.

Pushing through that challenging 5% when educators don’t love their jobs is the truest test of leadership and courage, said Siler, the superintendent of Gunter ISD in Texas, in her motivational keynote speech at Future of Education Technology Conference®.

And there have been a lot of those tests this year of COVID’s disruptions—which she considers an opportunity for growth, says Siler, author of Thrive Through the Five.

“We had to rebuild everything from scratch and there are so many opportunities for failure,” Siler said. “Failure is not just something we endure; it is the thing that can make us great.”

She covered five strategies for how leaders can grow during those most challenging times:

1. Recognize that failure is part of it.

The ordeals of COVID can be seen as a “season of growth” as leaders adjust to online, hybrid and other new methods of supporting children academically and emotionally, Siler said.

One of the biggest challenges has been coping with the criticism coming from outside the profession, from people who don’t have a concept of the adjustments educators have had to make.


More from FETC: How to capitalize on COVID’s equity lessons


The key for leaders is not to let themselves by defined or discouraged by mistakes or missteps.

“Just because you are not moving in the seamless, straight trajectory you had anticipated or hoped for, it doesn’t mean that you are not ready or equipped to be successful in your next steps,” Siler said.

2. Reclaim action in the midst of fear.

Failure is an event that has consequences but is finite. Fear can be ever present and paralyzing, leading to doubt and inaction, Siler said.

But asking how to get rid of fear is the wrong question, because that could also mean not taking risks or doing purposeful work.

“Fear is not the enemy; paralysis is the enemy,” Siler said. “The goal isn’t to eradicate fear; the goal is to lead through it anyway.”

Educators shouldn’t conflate fear and unpreparedness. Just because you are fearful, doesn’t mean you aren’t ready to take a chance, she said. Ultimately, individuals can decide how much weight to give their fears.

“When we choose action in the midst of fear, when we lead anyway, that courage is the birth of greatness,” she said.

3. Reconceptualize balance and re-prioritize self-care.

Expecting perfection can make it hard for a person to find balance.

“We put our real lives on trial to some picture of balance that is neither attainable or realistic,” she said.

Balance, rather, can be viewed from a monthly and even yearly perspective. Individuals—particularly education leaders who may working 24/7—must carve out time to take care of their personal lives, including families and hobbies.

A key to finding balance is being able to say “no.”

“Decide what your highest priorities are and have courage to say no to other things,” she said.

4. Realize that our actions matter.

Education leaders have to carefully consider the culture they create and whether they are lifting others up and bringing joy to their organizations, Siler said.

This is more challenging because the complexities of public school leadership, where not all decisions are black and white.

Even now, 10 months into the pandemic, educators are still dealing with shifting and conflicting information, she noted. “When confronted with something messy, don’t go for quick solutions. Instead, try to understand the situation from every angle.”

5. Reveal your heart and lead with love.

Educations leaders must prioritize the physical and emotional health of students, families and staff now and throughout the coming months.

She recalled that when she first became superintendent of Gunter ISD in 2012, she had to had to give her staff a clear idea of the district’s financial problems.

“Leadership is not a scientific step by step act,” Siler said. “It’s an art that ebbs and flows, where we must show strength and stability one moment and compassion and grace in the next.”