How to Replenish Your Surge Capacity

How can leaders cope with heightened responsibilities in times of crisis? These tips may help.
Five people discussing
Women & Leadership New Zealand
3 min read

The coronavirus pandemic – and the response that has been required by leaders in all sectors – is truly one of the most pressing challenges we have faced in our time. Many of us are experiencing serious ‘carers’ load’ and ‘vicarious trauma’ as a result of the challenges presented at work and home.

This series of ‘recharge’ blogs explores themes and models that you can refer to in times of stress, to replenish your leadership capacity. In this blog, we look at the phenomenon of ‘surge capacity’ and how the application of constant ‘surge’ conditions has impacted school leaders during the COVID pandemic, and caused an increase in vicarious trauma and carers load for leaders.

What is surge capacity?

Have you ever scaled up your efforts – whether increasing your work hours, donating more to charity, or squeezing more tasks into your day – in times of crisis? If you have, then you have used your surge capacity. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive leadership qualities that leaders draw on in times of crisis, change or trauma to survive – whether figuratively, or literally. While these qualities can be used over a short period of time, they lead to burnout if we operate at that heightened level for too long.

The most tangible example is the extra resources that people pour into natural disasters – firefighters work around the clock to put out fires, SES volunteers go days without a break to rescue people from flood waters, and governments, private organisations and individuals donate large amounts of funds and goods to support the survival of the people affected. All these things have one common theme – they are unsustainable over time.

As a leader, you activate your surge capacity to protect your organisation in times of crisis or rapid, unpredictable change. The usual timeline of these situations would see you have an immediate surge response, and then soon after turn to rest, reset and rebuild, using more normal energy and resource levels.

Why has my surge capacity disappeared?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significantly drawn out timeline of a ‘disaster’ meaning that leaders’ surge capacity has been on heightened alert for the better part of two years. Without the usual timeline that allows for rest soon after the disaster, you are left feeling burnt out, depleted and wholly uninspired or motivated to lead your school community. This contributes to poor wellbeing for you, as well as your team, and your organisation more broadly.

How to support yourself:

Luckily, there are some things you can do to support yourself in times of crisis, to better cope with your heightened leadership responsibilities. These include:- Going easy on yourself. Giving yourself some extra time and space to get things done, leaving things that aren’t urgent and having more rest time aren’t selfish, they’re important for your health and wellbeing.- Acknowledging that things are different. There is a lot of commentary at the moment about things going ‘back to normal’, but the reality is that things really are different now. While it’s okay to miss things that are different now, there are a lot of positives to think about, too.- Recognising that you may be experiencing grief-like symptoms.

As mentioned above, you will miss some ‘pre-covid’ things, and that is okay. Taking the time to grieve for those things is an important step to letting go and moving forward.- Focussing on maintaining and strengthening important relationships. COVID was a big ‘reset’ for a lot of personal and professional relationships. Take the time to identify the relationships that might need to be reset or renewed, and focus energy into these.- Finding new activities and hobbies that offer some relaxation and reprieve.

Now that things are opening up, there are new opportunities to try new things, or to continue hobbies that we picked up during lockdowns. It is important to take time away from the ‘crisis’ and do something that is enjoyable and good for you.Dealing with elongated periods of distress and change is challenging for everyone. Understanding what surge capacity is, and taking steps to replenish your surge capacity, will help you lead productively and positively in your organisation.