Why resignation is often the most significant problem leaders face – and what can be done about it

Dennis Sparks

In the face of major national problems like gun violence and the privatization of public education it is easy to feel overwhelmed and insignificant.

Whenever I am faced with problems of some magnitude, I realize that I’m usually confronting two problems – the first is the problem itself, and the second is the resignation and sense of hopelessness I feel in its presence.

In the long run, the second problem is the more important one because it deprives us of the energy to take action by ourselves or with others.

At such times I have learned that it is essential that I find sources of inspiration, often in the work of individuals who have made a difference.

I remember hearing several years ago on the CBC an influential scientist who said that his interest in science began when he read Silent Spring.

A New York Times article about Rachel Carson, Silent Spring’s author, offers important lessons and provides inspiration to principals and teacher leaders regarding the significant contributions individuals can make whether their focus is the classroom, the school community, or the larger society.

“She was a classic introvert who exhibited few of the typical qualities associated with leadership, like charisma and aggressiveness,” Nancy Koehn writes. “But as people like Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, have pointed out, leadership can come in less obvious forms.”

Koehn draws these conclusions about Carson’s leadership (the italics are mine):

“Rachel Carson’s story offers many leadership lessons, including the importance of persistence in pursuing an objective. When I discuss her with business executives, many are struck by her ability to stay focused on goals in the face of obstacles including severe illness.”

“Another lesson involves the importance of doing thorough research and taking the long view. A sense of context based on hard facts, along with a knowledge of history, is essential to understanding what’s at stake in difficult and uncertain situations. It also confers a sense of authority on the person who has acquired this knowledge.”

“A third insight concerns the juggling of personal demands and professional ambitions. Carson understood the challenge — and satisfaction — of dealing with our obligations to others even as we follow our professional drive. And she saw that this can rarely be navigated smoothly. For her, and for many executives with whom I have worked, times of great productivity were followed by fallow periods when ambitions had to be put aside for personal reasons.”

A lesson that I draw from Carson’s life and work is that position power is not a prerequisite to making a meaningful and lasting contribution to the world or to our small part of it. Another lesson I extract is that influence often takes “less obvious forms” than the charismatic and aggressive appearance it often displays in American culture.

Instead, moral purpose, clarity, and persistence are hallmarks of such leadership and influence.

To whom do you look for inspiration when feeling overwhelmed and resigned? And what have you learned from those people?

2 Responses to “Why resignation is often the most significant problem leaders face – and what can be done about it”


  1. 1 Kent Peterson February 4, 2013 at 11:11 am

    This is a powerful statement about leadership–the damage that “Resignation” can do to the motivation, energy, and the focus of leaders. Everyone who leads any organization should read this.

    I am again reminded of the importance and interconnection about “moral purpose, clarity, and persistence.” Leaders with moral purpose have that as the lens to provide clarity and the driving force for persistence in the face of difficulty.

    Kent Peterson
    Co-author, “Shaping School Culture: Pitfalls, Paradoxes, and Promises”

  2. 2 Dennis Sparks February 4, 2013 at 11:15 am

    Well said, Kent! Moral purpose provides the energy and courage to sustain important work in the face of inevitable challenges.


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