Leading in a Crisis: Embracing Transformation, Part Two

Vector set of realistic isolated neon sign of Question logo for template decoration and covering on the wall background.
The Power of Questions

As I mentioned in Part One of this blog post, I have spoken with dozens of (mostly) school leaders over the last six weeks. These campus and district/system leaders have, within a very short time, accomplished the heavy lift of moving all instruction on-line, of ensuring connectivity and nutrition to thousands of students and their families. And, they’ve created a sense of security in uncertain times and fostered unity of purpose for the adults—teachers and staff—in the system.

As I’ve engaged in these 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.

Learning from Chaos

In Part One, I referenced Margaret Wheatley and her thinking on chaos and complexity (Leadership and the New Science). Wheatley notes that when organisms experience extreme disruption, they fall apart. What follows that disintegration varies. The organism either dies or it adapts, transforming itself to survive and thrive in the new environment.

What can these lessons from organic systems as they confront stress and turbulence teach us about adapting? 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?

In Part One, I asked the leaders three questions:

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

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

3. What structures and routines are you putting in place to maintain some distance between work life and home life?

While these three questions ask leaders to think about life and work during the present moment, Questions Four and Five ask leaders to both look inside and reflect as well as to move their thinking forward into the future as they imagine and plan.

Shortcut From Point A to Point B Concept
Focusing Power of Goals

4. 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?

• Since I’ve been working on formalizing communication structures within my team, I’ve been in the process of moving from casual, impromptu check-ins and updates with my team members to a more structured one-on-one weekly or bi-weekly meeting. The current situation has pushed me to using tools that I knew about, but hadn’t used to facilitate this process. I created a Google Doc with the bare bones of our meeting and asked my team members to create the agenda for their meeting—what they were reporting on, what updates they had, questions, etc. We’ve scheduled these regular meetings via Zoom and we’re putting a good process in place.

• My goal has been delegating more effectively. Since we’ve been in crisis mode for several weeks, I’m taking this time to put some things in place that I’ve wanted and needed to for a long time. I’m seeing the necessity for spending time at the beginning of the delegation process and asking questions/making statements like:

o Tell me your understanding of what the purpose of this project/task is. o What will a successful result look like?

o How much structure do you need? Do you prefer to be told the end goal and have autonomy to complete the task or do you prefer an A, B, C approach?

o Because you’ve not worked on a project like this before, I would like for us to agree on some benchmarks and check-ins.

o What resources do you have for this project? What resources would you like to have?

o This is the help I can offer you.

• I’ve been intending to build in more connection points during my interactions with employees. During this time, I’ve put in place a quick check-in at the beginning of our meeting to let people share something personal. It doesn’t take much time at all and people seem to really like it. So that’s a keeper—the personal reflection or sharing at the start of the meeting.

• I was already really focused on developing and empowering members of my team and this crisis has really accelerated that. People on my team have really stepped up and pushed things through. And because we’ve had so much on our plate, some members of the team have really embraced (appropriately) their own autonomy with projects. They’ve taken the ball and run with it and I’ve learned a lot about what everyone needs in terms of communication and direction. Truly, we’ve developed each other.

• I had really been wanting to get more organized and to think of more effective ways to structure my days. This distinction between “manager” time and “maker” time really makes sense to me. (Manager time is reactive and involves quick decisions, meetings, calls and emails. Maker time is creative and involves deep focus such as designing curriculum, writing a grant, conceptualizing and building a system, etc. Originated by Paul Graham) I’m still trying to figure out how to structure this, whether to divide the day into one half maker and one half manager or to try and alternate maker and manager days. Either way, my stress levels are down just understanding the different kind of headspace needed for these different kinds of tasks. In almost every conversation, leaders explicitly or implicitly said that the process of having a goal, working toward the goal and getting feedback on their progress had made them more reflective and more purposeful in general. These qualities have been invaluable during this time.

Business progress and success of mixed media goals

What Is the Future You’re Moving Toward?


5.  What are some positive elements from this experience that you intend to carry with you into the future when we return to “normal”?

• While many of us are a bit “Zoomed Out” at this point, clearly, the power and efficiency of tele-conferencing is one to carry into the future. Many of us can connect and meet virtually and save minutes if not hours of driving time each week. While not an absolute substation for face-to-face meetings, I know that I will be thinking about whether or not a meeting must involve people being in the same room or if it would be just as effective via Zoom.

• I’ve been impressed with how our teams have come together and pulled as one during this time. I think we were all very clear about what we needed to accomplish and we had true unity of purpose. During the everyday work day, it’s easy to lose track of the mission, but as the leader, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that everyone is able to see how their actions link to the greater purpose at all times.

• The healthy practices that I have been very intentional about during this time of crisis can certainly be my practice when work life returns to normal. There is no reason not to continue taking brief brain breaks or even get outside during the day. Having a hard end to the workday is something I’d like to do more often. I know that it’s not always possible, but I’d like it to be an intentional choice when it’s not rather than just allowing it to happen.

• As a campus leader, I really focus on getting teacher teams to collaborate and work smarter by working together effectively. During this crisis, though, all of the principals/directors in our system have been collaborating, creating and problem-solving as a group every day. We will definitely continue this and I think it has the potential to take our entire organization to the next level.

• Since we’ve already been forced to make the big lift to 100% on-line learning, it has propelled us forward to more fully and more quickly to implement all of the digital learning elements we had been considering.

Again and again, these leaders voice the desire to continue to adapt and innovate.  Practices that had been contemplated prior to the pandemic have now been propelled into implementation and leaders see these being part of their leadership practice going forward.

I Have to Wonder…

More and more, as I talk with others and reflect on where we are and where we might go, what is becoming increasingly clear is that there will not be a return to “normal”. We are changed forever by what has been revealed and by what has been achieved during this time. Reviewing these responses, I have to wonder:

o How can we continue to distribute leadership?

o What connection and ownership of learning can technology foster?

o What will happen if everyone—adults and young people—in the system continue to be mindful and intentional about health and balance?

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

o How will we address the inequity issues that have been laid bare by this crisis?

o Could this be the disruption that ushers in authentic transformations in teaching, learning, leading and working?

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.

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 leadership goals were you already focusing on and how have these goals played out during this time?

o What are some of the positive elements from this experience that you intend to carry with you in the future as we return to “normal”?