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Leading in Uncertain Times

By Scott Spreier and Andrea Fletcher

Covid-19 has changed the world overnight.  As leaders who must constantly – often from a distance – deal with rapidly changing scenarios and the emotional roller-coaster of uncertainty and fear, the challenge can be overwhelming. Everything we thought we knew about leading and engaging with others seems inappropriate and inadequate.

And yet, as unhinged or hopeless we may at times feel, we continue to push forward, driven by passion to provide the learning and support our students and their families have come to expect, while at the same time creating the stability and direction our schools and districts must have.

So how, during this chaotic, life-changing pandemic, can we accomplish the seemingly impossible?

First and foremost, we need to take care of ourselves. As much as we feel driven to care for others, we first must maintain our personal emotional equilibrium. In a recent Harvard Business Review article on the intense emotions many of us currently are experiencing, David Kessler, an expert on grief, notes that “we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different.”

Among these emotions, Kessler says, is anticipatory grief, the worry we experience as we imagine all the terrible things that can happen in an uncertain future.  To combat this anxiety, he says, it is helpful to “come into the present,” focusing on our surroundings and realizing that, in the moment, we are still ok, while also letting go of what we can’t control.

Another helpful centering tactic is revisiting your values and the experiences that shaped them. Retelling our personal narratives about who we are and what drives us can help to motivate us to take needed action and inspire others to do the same.

As leaders, we also can use many of these same behaviors and approaches to calm and focus our school and district teams as well as our students and their parents, all of whom are seeking clarity, understanding and a healthy dose of empathy.

Given the ever-changing situation, the constant drumbeat of rumors, fake news and even facts, frightening as they are, we must expand and flex our repertoire of leadership behaviors as we’ve never before had to.

It starts with our leadership presence. We must be attentive and empathetic to the concerns of those we lead. We must be honest. If we don’t have the answer we must say so. As hard as it is for some of us, we must demonstrate a quiet confidence, and consistently align our words with our action. The focus must always be on our students, their parents, and those we lead. Not on us. Arrogance, anger, defensiveness, and self-preservation have no place in crisis leadership.

Take time daily to reflect on what you are learning about yourself and your leadership: the emotions you are experiencing, where you are finding strength, how you are feeling and how your leadership is making others feel. Also reflect on what you see in others: Who has strengths you didn’t anticipate? Who is struggling and why? How can you help them?

This also is the time to embrace our tribes. During disruptions of the magnitude we’re facing, we all yearn for meaningful connections to make greater sense of the world.  We can do that by expanding our networks and seeking counsel and coaching from our team members, those above us, those who lead us and those we lead.

Social distance doesn’t need to limit our sense of connection.  Reach out to someone who you don’t usually talk to and tap into their expertise, experience, and yes, empathy.

As dire and dreadful as this time may it, has the potential to change forever public education. Each of us, through our leadership and learning, have an opportunity to be on the front line of reimagining what it will look like. As we all move forward in these unprecedented times, we challenge you to embrace the learning we are experiencing. It will make you stronger, more effective leaders. It will make those you lead stronger, more effective educators. It will allow all of us to take the education of our nation’s youth to a new level.