In January of my first year as Upper School Director at Marlborough School in Los Angeles, we experienced a magnitude 6.7 earthquake. On September 11th of my third year as Head of School at The Ethel Walker School, terrorists attacked the United States. In 2018, Holton-Arms School, where I have been head now for 13 years, found itself in the national spotlight when our alumna, Christine Blasey-Ford, accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault.
While I don’t wish crises on anyone, I am grateful to be able to draw on the wisdom gained from past experience as we face this unprecedented public health crisis. Herewith, I share that wisdom, for what it’s worth.
Be a sponge for information, but pick reliable sources.
Making sure we feel knowledgeable about a situation provides us with confidence that aids in decision-making. We need to absorb a lot of information, synthesize it, explain it to others, and use it to inform decisions. However, in the digital age, we can easily become overwhelmed with information, and it’s easy to fall prey to misinformation. I choose a few reliable resources which helps me to focus my learning, avoid rumors and misinformation (for the most part), and mitigate the feeling of being overwhelmed. The CDC, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Maryland’s governor have worked well for me.
Listen, but don’t be reactive.
As leaders, we need to listen to the range of perspectives and concerns people bring to us. First, they may offer an important angle we haven’t thought of, and second, they need to feel heard and that we care about them. At the same time, we need to evaluate concerns from our own perspectives. We need to ask questions to help understand the source and nature of the alarm. Is the person bringing the issue prone to overreaction? Are they operating based on rumor? How many people have actually raised the same issue? Who are those people? We have to use our judgment to determine when a listening ear is all that’s needed and when an issue demands a more comprehensive response.
Act as a force of calm and support, but be honest and create a sense of urgency if necessary.
Leaders must be calm in the face of crisis; even if we aren’t feeling calm, we need to project calm. At the same time, we need to be as honest and as transparent as possible. People deserve to know about major issues that may affect them, recognizing that privacy interests sometimes pose limitations. In addition, if we need people to act, such as getting to work on distance learning, we may need to create a sense of urgency. We want to motivate others, while not alarming them.
Calm is key. While projecting calm, we also want to be compassionate, acknowledging people’s fears and anxieties. Right now, our communities are facing a host of fears, fears about contracting COVID-19, fears about family members contracting the virus, fears about reduced income and lost jobs, fears about the world. Some people react by being very anxious; others choose denial, and as leaders, we need to meet everyone where they are. To the extent possible, we need to provide the support people need whether that is time, direction, resources, etc. Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear is modeling this kind of calming decisive leadership.
Recognize the challenges and downsides, but highlight the positives.
As leaders, we need to recognize the hardships, challenges, and anxiety the crisis is causing. It’s the rare crisis, however, that has no upsides, and we also need to help people see the positives. I think, for example, that distance learning has already helped us to identify what we really need to be teaching and how to do it more efficiently. We will continue to discover and use resources that will enhance learning when we return to school. Also, we are getting to know our students in new ways as they respond differently to this new learning environment. I fully ascribe to the saying, “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” Let’s find what we can learn from this one that will make our institutions stronger and our value propositions clearer.
Be decisive and flexible.
Being both decisive and flexible may be one of the hardest dualities in leadership to balance. In a time of crisis, people need clarity, direction, predictability, structure. Having synthesized the information from our reliable sources and listened to others, we need to make decisions in a timely manner. If you and your institution tend to be process-oriented, you don’t want to abandon process, but you do want to accelerate it. Because people need structure and predictability in a crisis, we need to stick to decisions, even when people start questioning them (which they will). That is, we need to stick to them until we need to adjust. This pandemic presents us with rapidly changing conditions which render yesterday’s well-founded decision imprudent today.
Being decisive does not mean being rigid. Indeed, rigidity can be as dangerous as indecisiveness. If we do make changes, we need to communicate clearly about the reasons for the changes. As we experience it firsthand, I imagine we will need to make changes in our distance learning plan. Before doing so, though, we need to have feedback that informs any potential changes; we need to agree on them together so that school messaging feels consistent; and we need to explain fully why we make any changes we do. This brings us logically to the next piece of advice.
Communicate often, but not too much, and do so with heart and head.
Few things stand out as more important in a crisis than effective communication. Depending on the circumstances, we may need to impart critical information (for example, how is school going to work remotely?) at the same time that we convey calm, transparency, compassion, and, when appropriate, urgency. Some of us, particularly those with a background in the humanities, may be tempted to write long, heartfelt letters. Heartfelt is definitely important, but people feeling anxious and hungry for concrete information (decisiveness) are not going to read long missives. Use bullets, bold fonts, and headings to enhance clarity — while reiterating our care and concern. Short, frequent messages are better than less frequent long ones. Enlist others to read what we write for tone, wording, etc.; doing so will help avoid mistakes of many kinds. But, don’t spend too much time wordsmithing; accurate, timely communication is more important than eloquence.
To the degree possible, we need to communicate in person — digitally, right now — so people can see us, hear our tone, watch our body language, and ask questions directly in a venue where all assembled hear the same answers. In-person meetings dispel rumors and false information more effectively than any written communication. They also give us the opportunity to gauge the mood of our people, be they students, faculty and staff, or parents.
Be present, but find time for yourself.
During a crisis, people need to feel we are there for them and with them. That means being physically present. It also means being responsive, answering emails and calls, talking to people who want to meet, listening. At the same time, leading through a crisis is exhausting physically, emotionally, and mentally. It demands everything we have, often for extended periods of time. To maintain our stamina and focus, we must take care of ourselves. I cannot advocate strongly enough for the value of daily exercise; it energizes us, aids our sleep, and allows time for free-form thinking, which personally I find invaluable.
We also need to remember that the people we work with need our support and encouragement to take time for themselves. I’ve been trying very hard to get our administrative team to take a true break during spring vacation. The coming weeks are going to be challenging, and they need to build up their emotional and physical energy reserves. It’s important for us as leaders to model taking care of ourselves.
Remember that the mission is our North Star.
No duality here; we must always take inspiration and direction from our missions. All our missions, regardless of specific wording, put students first. In a crisis, if we keep students and the health and integrity of the institution as our top priority, other decisions will fall into place. It’s remarkably easy to forget this in the press of competing information and demands. Don’t.
This pandemic has created conditions of uncertainty and fear as well as unprecedented demands on our schools and our staffs. We cannot provide total certainty nor abolish all fear. We can, however, provide leadership that holds our institutions sacred — honoring, protecting, and supporting individuals and community so we come through the crisis whole, even stronger.