Sunday, June 28, 2020

Leading in Uncertain Times

The concept of leadership hasn’t changed, although the conditions under which leaders work and learn sure have. Prior to COVID19, the vast amount of uncertainty in education lay in societal changes resulting from the 4th Industrial Revolution. The world of work was being disrupted right before our eyes. A rapid evolution in artificial intelligence, automation, and advanced robotics should have served notice to anyone in the education space that things needed to change. No longer did a “this too shall pass” mantra carry any weight.  In the end, though, scalable change resulting in a transformation of teaching, learning, and leadership was more of an exception as opposed to the rule.

Then the COVID19 pandemic came crashing down on the world.  Schools were not prepared, as nearly no one could have envisioned the mass closings for extended periods of time.  Triage resulted as educators valiantly put remote learning plans in place while attempting to overcome a myriad of challenges.  As the virus continued to leave its mark, the world began to rise up in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.  A social justice movement formed in ways that many of us have never seen, which in turn has raised the central role that education must play to combat racism. Curriculum must be revised, assumptions taken head-on, and a school culture that focuses as much on equality and equity as it does everything else.

The bottom line is that the world has been turned upside down, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. In times of uncertainty, strong leadership is needed more than ever.  

Embrace vulnerability

It is a misconception that being vulnerable means you are weak.  On the contrary, it is a sign of strength. Brene Brown shares the following in Dare to Lead, “vulnerability is the emotion that we experience during times of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. It is having the courage to show up, fully engage, and be seen when you can’t control the outcome.” Leaders use this as a tool to build strong relationships with the people they work alongside by making known what is going on in their heads. As the saying goes, …sharing is caring.

Demonstrate empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I shared the following in a previous post, “As leaders, it is important for us to imagine ourselves in the position of our students, staff, and community members. This gives us a better perspective on the challenges and feelings of those we are tasked to serve. Better, more informed decisions can result from “walking in the shoes” of those who will be most impacted by the decisions that we make.” Empathetic leadership builds trust and helps to create a culture where change will be more readily embraced in uncertain times. 

Exhibit courage

Now is the time to challenge assumptions, tackle bias, take risks, make bold decisions. To move forward with needed change, we need leaders who are able to persevere in the face of uncomfortable situations and not back down when things get difficult. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.

Be a great listener

There are many ways to earn respect and build trust, both of which are needed to get change efforts off the ground. Active listening helps to accomplish both while opening up a leader to new ideas, strategies, and feedback. Research has shown many positive outcomes associated with excellent listening skills.

Health & safety first

As we continue to move forward in unprecedented times, the pandemic has made painfully clear that health and safety must supersede everything else.  Closing achievement gaps and addressing learning loss will always be critical, but in challenging and disruptive times leaders must emphasize Maslow’s over Bloom’s.  

Model the way

Leadership is not about telling people what to do. It’s about taking them where they need to be. Don’t ask others to do what you are not willing to do yourself. Empowerment rests on leading the way through observable actions. Modeling helps to instill belief.

Ask questions

No one has or will ever have all the answers. To assume as much is unrealistic, to say the least. One could even say that there are no definitive answers in uncertain times.  The best leaders ask questions, and the more of them the better. Developing, asking, and following up on the right questions can lead to answers that will help usher in the changes that are needed now and in the future.

Provide support

Support can come in many forms, such as resources, time, and professional learning opportunities.  It can also manifest itself through many of the points listed above, such as showing empathy, listening, putting safety first, and modeling.  Leaders need to determine what types of supports they can readily provide as well as those that need to be acquired, such as needed professional learning on re-entry, personalized/blended learning, and implementing hybrid models. We at the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE) are ready and willing to assist is needed. 

Relentlessly communicate

You will not find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator. It’s all about getting people the right information at the right time through the proper means. During uncertain times you can’t communicate too much. Digital leadership is essential, and it compels us to meet our stakeholders where they are at while employing a multi-faceted approach.

Learn from the past

A great deal has been learned since the onset of the pandemic and the social justice movement. We can ill afford to continue to do what we have always done and expect a different or better result that aligns with reality. Critical lessons have been learned, which can lead to new opportunities to transform teaching, learning, and leadership.  Leaders need to make sure past mistakes are not repeated.

None of us know what the future holds in the face of these unprecedented times.  What we do know is that schools and educators need leaders to guide them in ways that help to subdue the fear and confusion that naturally arises during uncertain times. Leaders set the tone, and they are needed more than ever to step up and accept this responsibility.

Want to learn more? Check out the presentation I did on the topic below. 

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