Leading in a Crisis : Embracing Transformation


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Questions for Leaders

I have spoken with dozens of leaders over the last several weeks, most of them school—both campus and district/system—leaders. These leaders, in a very short period of time, have accomplished the heavy lift of moving all instruction on-line, of distributing laptops, tablets and hot spots in order to ensure that students have access and connectivity, of making sure that students receive food and nutrition, of sustaining collaboration among principals and teachers and so much more.

In the midst of leading during a time of great fear and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, these leaders are also working in a way that they are not accustomed to—from home.

As I’ve engaged in conversations, I’ve asked all of these leaders similar questions and I’ve been intrigued by their insights and answers about how they’re living, working and what innovations they plan to carry with them, post-pandemic.

A Bit of Chaos Theory

Abstract art background with colorful acrylic paintBefore exploring their thinking about the ways in which this crisis might signal a re-set, let’s explore a bit of chaos theory to illuminate disruption at a system level.

Margaret Wheatley, discussing chaos and complexity cites Nobel Prize winning chemist, Ilya Prigogene who explored what happens to living organic systems when confronted by stress and turbulence and what this knowledge might teach us about our organizations and ourselves.

Prigogene found that organisms, when experiencing extreme disruption, reached a point in which they let go of their present structure. They fell apart and disintegrated. But after that, they had two choices. They could die or they could reorganize themselves in a self-organizing process and truly transform their ability, their capacity to function well in their changing environment.

So, how are these campus and district leaders transforming themselves and the organizations they lead in order to survive and thrive in this “new normal”? And how will they emerge on the other side of this disruptive time? What innovations will follow?

1. What have you learned about yourself                              and your leadership during this crisis?

Handsome afro guy holding laptop on white background

• I spend a lot of time walking around and talking with people at work. In some ways this is good—I maintain relationships, I learn things that I might not otherwise. However, this walking and talking takes a lot of time out of the day. Not having the option to do this now has gotten me thinking about how I might want to do this differently, with more purpose, going forward.

• The internal resources that I’ve worked hard to develop—through structured reflection and mindfulness—and that come naturally to me—my intuition and my ability to build relationships with people—are very positive qualities at all times, but especially during times like these. I tend to not really think about this quality of mine because it’s just who I am. However, I’m coming to see how important it is, this ability to be calm, especially now, and I want to be more aware of this when life returns to normal.

I’ve learned how important it is for a leader to tell the truth, even when it’s not something that people want to hear. Previously, I’ve thought that during the rollout of district initiatives, for example, it was best to keep potential challenges in the plan close to our vest. Now, though, I think people want to hear that things are going to be hard, but that we’ll get through it together. I guess in a way that is being more vulnerable and transparent with people and that is sometimes hard for me to do, but it seems like it’s worth it in the long run.

• Emotions and feelings matter. I tend to want to get right into the business side of things—and others have tried to convince me in the past that people need to feel a personal connection to the team in order to do their best work. Because this is a really scary time and people are feeling unsettled and uncertain, I’ve implemented a brief personal check-in time at the top of our meetings. This is sometimes a minute of silence, sometimes it’s everyone sharing one thing that they’re grateful for or one way they’re keeping themselves healthy during this time. It doesn’t take much time and I do think that people need the emotional connection right now. As much as I tend to want to get down to business, I need to build in this time to help people connect at a feeling level.

2. What practices have you put in place to sustain good physical and mental health?

Free and happy woman raises arms against the sunset sky. Harmony and balance• Managing my daily news in-take, nothing after 7 PM

• Getting outside every day

• Getting some exercise every day

• Cooking healthy food at home

• Taking short breaks throughout the day

• Saying gratitudes

• Breathing

• Meditating

• Having quality conversations and interactions with my family each day

• Family meetings to ensure we’re all on the same page

• Journaling

• Being intentional about getting enough sleep

• Having a hard ending time for work each day

One of my own gratitudes each day centers on the fact that my work CAN be done from home. NYT columnist Charles Blow in his recent column, “Social Distancing Is a Privilege,” points out that in the lowest quartile of wage earners only about 10% are able to work from home. This is a group that likely includes the families of many of our most vulnerable students. Thus, a daily practice of gratitude giving for those of us who have this option seems even more essential.  And, for me, to commit to actions that make this more equitable, in both the short and long term.

3. What are you putting in place to maintain some distance between work life and home life?                        (now that you’re working from home)

• I’m trying—and succeeding more in week three and four than in week one—to adhere to normal work routines: Getting up at the same time each day, showering and getting dressed for work (at least the top half of me!).

• Having a specific place for work (and having that be a place where I can either open the window and get fresh air or look out the window).  And when I finish with my work day, I put everything away and turn my work space back into my [dining room, etc.].

• Having a specific starting and ending time for work. Even when I don’t achieve this, I actually re-negotiate the ending time with myself and with my family. I don’t just let it happen.

• I’m resisting the urge to multitask. I know that it’s not productive at any time, but there are many temptations at home. I’m forcing myself to intentionally take a break and deal with any home issues that have arisen rather than doing it while working.

I Have to Wonder…

Reviewing these responses, I have to wonder:

o Why not continue with these practices of health, balance and mindful leadership even after we return to a workplace that more closely resembles what we had been accustomed to?

o What can this turbulence teach us about ourselves as leaders and about our organizations?

o Could this be the disruption that ushers in transformation?

As we as leaders manage—and help others to manage—a great deal of anxiety and uncertainty, let us continue to be reflective and conscious about what is happening now and what we want the future to look like.

In the next post, I’ll share leaders’ responses to Questions Four and Five:

o Thinking about the leadership goal that you were focusing on before the world turned upside-down, in what ways has this goal come into play in the current situation?

o What are some positive elements from this experience that you intend to carry with you into the future when we return to “normal”? Thanks to all of the amazing leaders who have shared their thinking with me over the last several weeks.

Your Thoughts?

I’d love to hear more thoughts from you.

o What have you learned about yourself as a leader?

o What are you doing to stay healthy and what do you think you’ll be carrying forward from this time?