How to Survive a Setback

4 strategies women in leadership can use to build resilience and persist toward their goals.

Topics: Assistant Principals

Every colleague you see receive a promotion or award has also likely experienced their share of professional setbacks. Rejection and failure is just as integral to our careers as the job offers, promotions, raises, and awards.

Research says that how you react to, and learn from, a setback can set you apart in your field, however. And resilient women in educational leadership tend to follow several specific strategies after experiencing a setback.

1. Assess your values. Women educators often report that their values drove them to pursue leadership and sustain them in their leadership positions. Revisiting your personal values can help you think about a setback as an opportunity to realign your work to those values and to recognize any mismatches between your values and your organization. Did the setback arise from a compromise of, or conflict with, your core values? Clarifying this will provide you with a framework from which to understand, analyze, and learn from a setback.

2. Connect with a mentor, sponsor, or role model. Women who succeed after setbacks tend to do so with the assistance or expertise of a mentor, sponsor, or role model—or all three. These individuals differ in important ways: A mentor offers specific, personalized advice; a sponsor champions your accomplishments even when you aren’t present; and a model is someone you may not know but whose example you emulate. Consider the people who might fulfill these roles for you.

If you have relationships with one or more of these people, ask them to offer their observations and suggestions. They might draw upon their own experiences or offer resources. Mentors are critical to the success of educational leaders, especially for women in leadership positions. If you can’t currently identify a mentor, take this opportunity to cultivate a relationship with someone whose mentorship would be helpful as you assess any setbacks.

3. Gather feedback. Resilient leaders want to know the truth about themselves, their organizations, and their leadership. So they seek out—instead of shrinking from—honest feedback about the causes of a professional setback. This kind of perspective-taking allows individuals to rectify mistakes, build essential leadership skills, and bolster their organizations against future disruptions. Your mentor may be an excellent source of feedback and help you develop strategies to move forward. Critical feedback can sometimes sting, but it is a useful tool in the hands of a resilient leader.

4. Strengthen your efficacy beliefs. Resilient leaders also tend to be efficacious—that is, they are able to marshal the skills they need to bring about a desired outcome. Efficacy beliefs get stronger through four pathways: emotional engagement (care for the task), vicarious experience (observing someone else do the task), verbal persuasion (someone coaching you through the task), and direct experience (practicing the task). The last pathway—direct experience—is the strongest. If you want to increase your skill set, engage a particular task in each of those four ways. For example, if you want to get better at a task associated with instructional leadership such as coaching teachers, you might do the following:

  • Consider your values and why you care about coaching teachers (emotional engagement);
  • Watch a skilled instructional coach at work and ask questions about what they do (vicarious experience);
  • Solicit feedback by asking a mentor or colleague to accompany you on a walkthrough or sharing a recording of yourself in a coaching conversation (verbal persuasion); and
  • Commit to performing teacher coaching as you apply what you have learned through the other pathways (direct experience).

Educational leadership is a challenging place for women. Our research in “Held down and held back: Systematically delayed principal promotions by race and gender” shows that patterns of promotion for women are often different from those of men. Women are likely to have more experience before they reach the assistant principalship and are also likely to be promoted to elementary and middle schools, even if they worked as APs in high schools. This means women often have to work harder to prove that they qualify for the highest levels of educational leadership such as a superintendency.

Because the leadership pathway holds additional hurdles for women, setbacks are inevitable. Resilience is a skill we learn—and an essential skill for those who lead schools or aspire to school leadership.

Lauren P. Bailes is an assistant professor of education leadership in the School of Education at the University of Delaware.

Sarah Guthery is an assistant professor at Texas A&M University–Commerce.