Resilient Leadership as Main Course, with a Side of Italian

This is the first post in a new ELGL blog series by Ashley Jacobs (LinkedIn).


I was honored to speak on a panel with two other women entitled, “You Have What It Takes to be a Resilient Leader” at the ICMA Regional Summit in Savannah this spring.

When we arrived at the session, we were mic’d up and told, “We’re recording this.” As if it wasn’t terrifying enough to speak to a room of strangers about your most difficult professional and personal challenges. I wasn’t sure how much I was going to reveal before I started talking. But as the others began to open up and talk about their experiences, and I sensed the audience listening intently, the words started flowing.

Each of us talked about the obstacles we faced as women in the profession, as well as the unique difficulties we experienced in my past and/or current organizations. The one thing I didn’t share was that as I was working through these issues, I was also coping with a dysfunctional marriage followed by an equally damaging and draining divorce, as well as depression and the loss of equilibrium that accompanies tumultuous times.

I share it now to adequately convey the enormous weight I was feeling both at home and in the office, and to recognize that as we progress in our careers, life is also happening. There will be double and triple whammies. Let’s face it, dealing with major life events like divorce, death of a family member, depression, serious illness, or even something positive like the birth of a child, often requires the energy you put into a full-time job.

After the session ended, we were approached with such enthusiasm and interest, it was clear that many public sector managers are searching for ways to improve their resiliency, and survive the pressures of life and work. Here’s a toolbox of coping mechanisms I shared, as well as the lessons I took away from the other panelists and the general discussion.

  • Consider seeing a therapist. You could also employ a life coach or career coach. If you’re resistant to that thought, I understand. For most of my life, I thought therapy was total BS. I found the thought of confiding to a complete stranger equal parts terrifying and pointless. But, get this – they are actually trained professionals who can help you identify the roots of a problem and walk you through solutions. They’re also completely objective. Unlike your colleagues, family and friends, they don’t have preconceived notions, biases, or ulterior motives. If you’re feeling alone, don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek out help. For me, it was game changing and, quite frankly, lifesaving
  • Be hopeful. Don’t see situations or problems as the end of the world or as impossible. Be optimistic and expect good things and good outcomes. Just thinking optimistically improves your resiliency.
  • Communicate regularly and effectively. Be clear and transparent about your intentions and actions. Let people know where you stand. Silence makes bad situations worse, because in an information vacuum, people make assumptions.
  • Ride the waves, learn to surf. Remember Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest? Those who are the most adaptive have the best chance of survival. Expect change, and accept it as part of life. View experiences, especially negatives ones, as a way to become a stronger person and manager. You know how steel is forged, right? In the fire. So are you. Feel the heat, baby, and know it’s making you better.
  • Movement. Whether it’s physical movement or movement towards your goals, keep moving. If you aren’t athletic or regularly do something active, start running, kayaking, playing basketball, doing yoga, walking around the neighborhood. Anything. Don’t sit and ruminate. Blood pumping to the brain helps with problem solving. Also, the more physically fit you are, the better you sleep, the clearer your thoughts processes, and the less susceptible you are to illness.
  • Pleasure and relaxation. The mind and the body are better at absorbing stress when they have a bank of pleasurable and relaxing moments to sop them up like sponges. Do things that feel good whether that’s sailing, yoga, spa treatments, cooking, gardening, or coloring in your adult coloring book. Whatever rejuvenates your soul, find it and do it regularly. And for goodness sake, take vacations. Don’t be one of those weirdos who brags “I haven’t been on vacation in five years,” or so self-important to think that your office can’t survive without you for a couple of weeks. Everyone needs time to unplug and disconnect from work, it’s just the healthy and responsible thing to do.
  • Perspective. Will this matter in a year? In two years? Five years? What does this really mean in the grand scheme of things? Think long term: if I can accomplish this, if I can just get through it, it will serve this many people, or it will improve service for this number of citizens.
  • A sense of humor. As Joan Rivers once said, “Calm down. It’s all funny.” Recruit your friends to help you find the funny in your situation. If your friends can’t do this for you, you need new friends. (Not kidding.)
  • Remember your role. As you’re struggling to keep your head above water, don’t forget the rest of your crew. The people who work for you are depending on you to show up and lead. Try really hard to be there for them, and don’t shut them out, because they can be your greatest source of support and inspiration.
  • Sense of meaning. Remember the ICMA Code of Ethics? Keep your eye on the prize. We are here to be the guardians of tax dollars and the public’s trust. That can be a very strong motivator to keep going and stay focused.

As a manager, you will be questioned and challenged at times. You will be publicly criticized. There will be moments when you’re feeling pressure from citizens, employees, or elected officials, or all three at the same time. City/County management is not for the faint of heart; these are tough jobs.

When you’re feeling unsure of yourself, just think of this wonderful Italian phrase: Conosco i miei polli.

The literal translation is: I know my chickens. It means, I know what I’m talking about, I know what I’m doing. Believe in yourself, your abilities and experiences, and trust your instincts. No one can take that away from you.

(If they try, I have another Italian phrase for you…just call me and I’ll share it with you. Capisce?)

Supplemental Reading

  • Sarah Medary

    Thank you, Ashley! I always love your writing and this is great advice. I feel like you shared your chickens with us.