Educational Leadership: Weathering the Storm

by Dr. Melanie B. Palmisano, retired superintendent – Diocese of Baton Rouge, Inspir-ED Consulting Leadership Coach & School Improvement Consultant

Leadership Challenges

All organizations have challenges, but some experience a culture of anxiety that inhibits growth and improvement. It can be extremely difficult for a leader to determine how to calm anxious waters that are swirling all around. Being able to think clearly about the real threats we encounter while leading with resolve and confidence best serves the leader and the organization. The question is how to do that.

It is generally accepted that the role of a leader today is challenging, whether it is at the school level or in the diocesan office. According to the National Center for Education Statistics research on principal turnover, about half of all new principals leave by the end of three years. Since school improvement research indicates that it takes between three and five years for a leader to effect meaningful change, the turnover of new principals not only disrupts the lives of those individuals, but it also negatively affects the organization.

Individuals leaving school and district leadership positions may do so for varied reasons such as retirement, changes in personal or family situations or burnout. Anecdotal conversations with other leaders in Catholic education for the past three decades suggest that most leaders are surprised by the enormous stress they experience in their role as leaders. They wonder what they are doing wrong and feel incompetent to perform their jobs well because of the untenable work schedule and tremendous demands.

Is it inevitable that leadership in our schools and central offices create unhealthy experiences for individuals willing to serve? Are we destined to continue the cycle of hiring leaders and watching a significant percentage leave after just a few years?

Research sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals in 2019 identified inadequate preparation and lack of professional development as one of the main reasons that principals choose to leave their jobs.

Resilient Leadership

To weather the storm in which most leaders find themselves, a new way of seeing, thinking and leading needs to be embraced to equip leaders with the challenges they face. My experience with Resilient Leadership (RL) has been one of the most personally and professionally useful tools I was blessed to receive during my long tenure in Catholic education leadership. Based on Murray Bowen’s theory of natural systems and Ed Friedman’s new understanding of leadership, Resilient Leadership 2.0 structures leadership principals around simple to use strategies. Authors Bob Duggan and Bridgette Theurer provide a formula for successful leadership—one that gives life to both the leader and the organization.

RL has a goal of helping leaders stay calm, stay the course and stay connected as they navigate the rough waters of increasing complexity and escalating change. How to do this is the key, and RL offers practical ways to identify and manage difficulties.

  • Stay Calm: Resilient leaders are step-down transformers amid anxiety, chaos and confusion. They de-escalate situations. That is not to say that they minimize everything in a laissez faire manner. Instead, they can calmly take stock though a balcony-view and lead with a level mind and peaceful spirit. Resilient leaders are responsive, not reactive, because they are self-differentiated and think in terms of the system.
  • Stay the Course: Resilient leaders remain focused and act boldly in fulfilling the mission of the organization, even when there is an increase in complexity and escalation of change. They recognize anxiety in themselves and in others but employ strategies to stay the course in the face of resistance and sabotage without becoming defensive or creating a win/lose scenario.
  • Stay Connected: Resilient leaders maintain a healthy balance between staying close enough to be influential but distant enough to lead effectively. They avoid over-functioning and manage toxic triangles that naturally form between members of an organization. Resilient leaders avoid the empathy trap and help others to become their best selves as they grow in competency and skill.

See Dr. Palmisano at #NCEA2024

Melanie B. Palmisano, Ed.D., will be speaking at NCEA 2024 in Pittsburgh. Come learn strategies to lead with conviction to enable leaders to weather the storms of chaos.


Duggan, B. & Theurer, B. (2017). Resilient Leadership 2.0: Leading with Calm, Clarity, and Conviction in Anxious Times. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform.

Levin, S. & Bradley, K. (2019). Understanding and Addressing Principal Turnover: A Review of the Research. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Principal Turnover: Stayers, Movers, and Leavers. Condition of Education. U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved February 8, 2024, from