January/February 2021

Leadership Letter: Sometimes, Life is Like a Sugar Cookie

By Thomas E. Bertrand

In the book Sailing True North, Admiral Bill McRaven provides a vivid illustration of the unpredictable, unforgiving, and sometimes seemingly random events that occur in our lives. McRaven describes the experience of Navy SEAL trainees who are subject — often randomly — to a punishment where they are directed to get wet and sandy on the beaches. By the time they are finished the trainees, covered in sand, look like “sugar cookies.”
McRaven goes on to state, “Sometimes, no matter how well you prepare or perform, you still end up as a sugar cookie. It’s just the way life is sometimes. In order to lead, you’ve got to be able to ‘get over being a sugar cookie’ and keep moving forward.”
SEAL trainees are challenged to develop greater resiliency regardless of the challenges they face. None of us could have imagined last March that we would be nine months into a global pandemic that has disrupted all facets of our personal and professional lives.
Fighting your way through so many challenging moments in life requires real resiliency. While part of resilience may be inherent in one’s character and beyond one’s control, McRaven suggests that resilience can be further developed based upon three elements of our lives that are within our control.
The company we keep. Seek out others who have successfully managed adversity and emerged on the other side. Too often we undervalue the experiences of our peers who set examples of resilience for us.
The books we read. There are many examples of resilience in literature and history. One example that I read last year is The Choice: Embrace the Possible, by Edith Eva Eger. A Holocaust survivor, Eger reminds us that our painful experiences in life “give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.”
The inner conversations that we have. I recall Eger posing the essential question for survivors as “What next?” rather than “Why me?” It’s important that in our inner conversations we tell ourselves “I refuse to be a victim. I will prevail. I will not blame others. I will live to fight another day.”
School board members have faced extraordinarily painful decisions over that past year, and there are more difficult decisions to come. Despite your best preparation, your best plans, and your most informed decisions, things may fall apart — often because of circumstances beyond your control. I have been amazed at the resilience and perspective displayed by dedicated school board members across Illinois.
The fact is that at some point we may all end up as a sugar cookie, but we also have a choice as to how to respond. Nearly two million public school children are counting on us to keep moving forward and to provide hope and optimism for the future.  

 Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.