Leading Through The Certainties Of Uncertainty
Every summer, I look forward to seeing the Little League World Series prominently displayed on ESPN. Over the past few years, we could see more and more of the journey teams would go through as they play their way to their final destination in Williamsburg, Pennsylvania. There is something about the freshly cut grass, the metal bleachers filled with people from all over the world. Who can forget the left-field seating area as it hosts lawn chairs full of onlookers or cardboard box sleds of happily muddied kids depending on the weather? All of this creates the ultimate nostalgic moment of America's pastime. The drama, cheers, and occasional tears were always welcomed in my house as one team was eventually crowned champion, year after year with certainty.
This summer is different.
In the past few weeks, I have seen face masks become more common, directional signs added in front of grocery aisles, and plexiglass between the cashier and me is now expected. The terms social distancing, PPE, and "flatten the curve" have become mainstays in many of my conversations. The Little League World Series, on the other hand – our summertime mainstay – is gone.
Between the rise of a pandemic that we have never seen before and the fall of our economy, we realize a lot about ourselves. We have started to question how we got here, and why it is happening at all. More and more people are starting to also see that our society has a clear and systemic divide. This intentional reflection is not only beginning to open many minds to the inequities that exist in our world, but it is also helping people see the realities that so many marginalized people, especially people of color, have experienced for years.
The one certain thing we need is leadership.
Times like this demand extraordinary things from exceptional leaders. Leaders who are able to give hope and be certain when times are anything but that. That leader is in you. I have led schools and districts through active shooter experiences, tremendous academic challenges, and significant organizational shifts, but nothing compared to the magnitude of what our leaders are experiencing right now (I tip my hat to you). Regardless of the situation, some things may not be top of mind, given the influx of information that is put in front of you daily. As long as this sits at the top of your inbox, take these few things leaders at all levels could think about as we navigate this space.
Over-communicate the truth, hope, and scope
People want and need to hear from you. There is something about your leadership that brings the best of people when the times are the worst. Creating a regularly scheduled way for them to connect with you, albeit virtually, may be the boost they need during these times. To do so, you want to make sure you understand or have a sense of where the people you serve might be mentally and physically. Showing a high level of empathy and compassion for their lived experiences will go far. One way to gain perspective is to check in with a few community members by phone for a few minutes or drop into a Zoom call with a teacher and their students.
As we build our approach to Educational Equity at Education Elements, we call this "connected intelligence." Our working definition for connected intelligence is the ability of a person to empathize with the position of the people they serve, and those who are most impacted by the decisions the leader makes. This will give you a pulse on what might be going on and how people are feeling in the moment. In short, the ability to "read the room," capture what is needed, and deliver. I have seen many leaders do this by hosting a "Friday Fireside chat" with the community through their favorite social media outlet, or send out a series of Tweets or a short newsletter to the community on a weekly basis so that folks feel and sense some normalcy.
As you create your weekly outlook or just establish your goals for the upcoming week, square away some time (maybe 30-45 minutes) a week for people to hear from you. Your connection will go far.
A few questions I would recommend you ask yourself as you communicate to your community:
1. What is the most important thing you want them to hear this week?
Having consistent updates on specific topics that are important to your community will be needed at this time. Your community will appreciate your transparency and consistency in the long run.
2. What story can you share to help relate to what they may be feeling or experiencing?
Our minds are wired for stories. If you can help bring your audience to your main points or updates, they will connect with your message more easily.
3. What can you say to illustrate hope and inspiration?
Now more than ever, people need positivity. Leaving folks with a sense of possibility, laughter, and joy will set them up for the rest of the day. Find a way to put a smile on your community's face as they finish their time with you.
Leadership is way too lonely at times because of what people see when they think of a leader. But in many ways, leadership doesn't have to be that way. Yes, individuals in your community may have gotten used to seeing you professionally dressed in heels or a suit and tie; but if nothing else, people also value humanness. I remember the first time I saw my former boss without a tie on. It instantly created a deeper connection for me with my boss, "the person," and my boss, “the professional." Consider ways that you can show your human side to those around you. The most captivating videos, moments of vulnerability, and insights into your life create a relationship that will help you connect at a deeper level. To do so, bring your kids, pets, or loved ones to the next Zoom or Microsoft Team call. Represent the sports team that means so much to you in your next video; show people who you are in the ways that make you human to others. The results will be a community of people that is more committed and connected to you as a human because you are human. As a result of your vulnerable leadership, you will receive more authentic experiences with your staff than ever before because you have given them "permission" to be themselves in ways you may not have known were needed before. These times are stressful enough; here is one way to relieve some of that stress by allowing people to bring themselves to work in a real way.
Pivot with a purpose
Everything continues to change on a daily basis, which means we should as well. As leaders, our ability to be flexible is a test we are going to have to take and pass. Think about it–within the first few weeks of the pandemic, state standardized tests that are normally heavily relied on were nixed in minutes. The idea that we can't possibly instruct kids at home became a thing of the past (even though the quality across the board varies). The very idea that we need kids in desks for them to learn and teachers need to be in front of them to succeed isn't even an option. So what is? Flexibility. We now know, by force rather than exploration, that people are more flexible than we thought they could be. As leaders, we should see this as something that continues to matter. Our best-laid plans are flexible ones. As you begin to build out your return to school plan, check out how we have started to think about it in our guide to responsive return planning.
Then ask yourself a few essential questions:
1. What are the different ways I can get to the outcomes I need?
Once you answer this question, become okay with any of the options you identified by building a narrative around each.
2. Who is most impacted by the decisions I will make?
Once you answer this question, create ways to communicate with the stakeholders to gain their perspective before moving forward. Be okay with their ideas to be all over the map as long as you figure out how you can navigate where they take you.
3. What are the different scenarios we need to play out?
There is no right answer to this, but it gives you space to think through everything that could happen so that you are more prepared for whatever may come your way.
Think less about "what needs to get done" and more about the "how". We can get lost in checklists (which are important), but checklists do not help manage change. The ability to be flexible does.
Plan for more uncertainty
The rate at which we had to turn our brick and mortar education into a virtual community was metaphorically faster than Usain Bolt running the 100-meter dash. It is truly commendable that so many districts have been able to create virtual learning opportunities as quickly as they did. The unfortunate reality is that there could be more uncertainty to come, and here's a chance to plan for it. Right now, you can get ahead of the next challenge that will be coming your way. Every community is different, but the challenge of bringing a new and hopefully better normalcy to your school community is the same for schools and districts across the country. In a future blog, I will share some of those things to think about, but for now, begin to think about the process you engaged in to shut down the school and move learning to virtual environments. Ask yourself what went well, where you needed more support, and outline things that you would want to consider as you ramp up for the return to school. Once you have a few sticky notes or a running list, think about how you will prepare for the next potential school stoppage. Not only will you have an early roadmap for the next interruption, but it will bring solace to your community who wants and needs certainty even if it means you are planning for the uncertain.
A few essential questions to consider:
1. Who are the children and staff members we must plan for first?
Everyone has and will present different needs during times of challenge. As you think about planning for the next uncertain moment, consider those that need something different from the majority and prioritize them first. Meeting their needs will ensure our most vulnerable and marginalized populations get what they need first.
2. What new considerations or challenges must I recognize for a potential future closing?
The emergency closing of all schools is something we prepare for, but nothing like what we are experiencing because of COVID-19. Now that you have gone through it, you are probably reflecting on things you didn't think would present themselves as a challenge, but did. Naming those things will be vital as you plan for future interruptions.
3. What are the most important areas I will prioritize for a future 14-day or 28-day closing?
The likelihood of this happening is unfortunately great. Knowing how to set up your staff and kids for success with strong 14-day or 28-day intermittent learning plans will be nice to have in your back pocket.
These times of uncertainty are easy on no one. However, leaders who are able to stay just ahead of what is coming will create a sense of calm and consistency that communities need right now. Plus, the confidence your community will have in you as a leader will continue to grow because you are "reading the room" in a way that speaks to the hearts and minds of those that follow you and need their leaders more than ever. I thank you for being that leader, and I am sure your community will do the same.
About David Hardy
David Hardy is a Managing Partner at Education Elements. Dave Hardy Jr has led the state turnaround efforts of the second lowest-performing district in Ohio since 2017. In this capacity, he assumed the responsibilities of the Superintendent and the school board. Under his leadership, Lorain City Schools received its highest performance marks in nearly a quarter-century, moving from an F grade to a B grade in the Achievement Gap Closing metric, and touted as being in the top ten percent of the fastest improving school districts of the states 646 school districts in the state of Ohio by State Superintendent DeMaria. Previously, David was the Deputy Superintendent of Academics for St. Louis Public Schools. He was charged with the mission-critical task of setting and meeting academic standards, which resulted in St. Louis Public Schools receiving full accreditation for the first time since 2000. Prior to his role as Deputy Superintendent of Academics, he spent a year as a School Systems Leadership Fellow in the School District of Philadelphia as the Chief Academic Support Officer. David also served as the Executive Director or Regional Achievement in Camden/Burlington, New Jersey after being the founding principal of Achievement First Middle School in Brooklyn, New York. He earned his bachelor’s degree in economics as a scholar-athlete from Colgate University. He has also earned his Master’s degree in Urban Education from Teachers’ College, Columbia University and will complete his doctorate from Columbia University in 2020.