Crisis Leadership and Management for School Leaders

May 1, 2020 ACSA Partner

The following was written by Ruben L. Ingram, President, Ingram & Associates LLC.

For all the strategic planning, goal setting, LCAP Plans, student data analyses, curriculum mapping, three-year budget projections, staffing analyses, multi-year collective bargaining agreements, etc., etc., everything became less important than how to educate our students, protect our employees, and support our families and communities with the sudden closure of schools.

I doubt if any of us had a play book on our shelves to guide us in the recent weeks and months. In spite of a lack of such direction, we have all accepted the cards we were dealt, and have marshalled our resources, energy, and ingenuity.

After reviewing some recent and relevant writings on the topic of leadership in crises, I would like to share some ideas for you to consider. Having said that, surely many, if not all of you have already incorporated many of them into your processes and protocols. In that light, the discussion that follows may help reassure that you are on the right track, or offer a few more ideas to ponder and hopefully use.

Here is a one definition of a crisis. “A crisis can occur as a result of an unpredictable event or an unforeseeable consequence of some event that had been considered as a potential risk. In either case, crises almost invariably require that decisions be made quickly to limit damage to the organization.” i

During my stay-at-home time, I increased my reading, as you have probably have. Historian Erik Larsen wrote a great new book titled “The Splendid and the Vile.”ii He focused primarily on 56 straight nights of the London Blitz. He compared the leadership of Churchill and Hitler emphasizing Churchill’s resolve against Hitler’s single-minded goal of bringing England to its knees.
Larsen documents that the Nazis and Hitler could not believe Churchill could not only keep his people with him through the ordeal, but was actually inspiring them. It came from his speeches, and his walking the ruins the mornings after bombings. What can we learn and use from his courage and resolve?

First, make sure the message comes from you, the leader, and not the “district”. People trust other people more than they trust institutions. That is, if you have earned their trust. In order to earn that trust, you have to do what Churchill did; talk to people often, and do it over and over. Their anxiety requires plenty of reassurance. You must do this externally with the parents and community and internally with the students and staff. You can use social media, but there is nothing like seeing you “walking the bomb sites”. Use video, Zoom, or other media to be visible on a regular basis.

In an article, “The Importance of Leadership in Time of Crisis? Gianpiero Petiglieri explains the psychology of “holding”.iii

He reviews what we all know about children needing physical and emotional holding in order to survive and grow. He adds, “Adults do too, throughout their lives. To face difficult circumstances, master new conditions, and develop in the process, we need holding from our leaders and organizations.”. Above, it was noted how Churchill did it. Petiglieri advises that leaders provide institutional holding which is strengthening the structure and culture of the organization or group. So how do we do that?

Leaders need to soothe distress and help others make sense of a drastic change to the way we have always done things. We need to help them think clearly, give lots of reassurance, while not shielding them from reality, and finally, help them stick together.

For our students, not only do the teachers need to stay in close touch with them personally to give them reassurance, but so do you as the leader. We noted above the use of video and Zoom, but more than that put on your mask and gloves and personally give out food, computers, etc.

For our staff, adopt policies and procedures that reassure them about their job security, or if changes have to be made, be sure they are treated fairly. Promote collaboration with your bargaining units through dialogue and participation in decision-making. Give maximum support in adapting to the new challenges, such as distance learning.

For parents and community, give unlimited expressions of appreciation, sympathy, and understanding. Governors Newsom and Cuomo are setting good examples of regular press conferences and answering call in questions. If you have the capacity to set up streaming live videos, great. If not, set up times for staff, parents and community to call in questions that you and top staff answer personally.

What not to do? Do not default to “command and control”. Tough times do pass, but people never forget how they were treated during those times. Even with a severe strain on resources and past procedures, leadership that practices “holding” helps everyone work thought it.

Frank Molinario, a member of the Forbes Human Resources Council, says you should ask yourself at least two questions in times of crisis:iv

1. “Did I fulfill the responsibilities of my position with the needs of all constituents in mind?

2. “Did I wait and move too cautiously or did I step up to the plate knowing I could help mitigate some of the fallout?”

The answers to these questions will depend your own situation, but leadership requires taking risks. Only you can judge that metric, but at the same time, it is never too late to recruit and inspire others to join you in meeting the challenges. Try picking up the phone and asking them to volunteer. Look what happened when a call went out to non-active health care workers across the state and nation. Thousands of them answered that call. Try it with your retired staff and others in the community. I’ll bet they will come forward willing to help any many ways.

In an article by Nancy Koehn entitled, Real Leaders Are Forged in Crisis,v she gives four guides, my comments are in parenthesis:

1. Acknowledge people’s fears, then encourage resolve (remember Churchill).

2. Give people a role and purpose (ask for helpers).

3. Emphasize experimentation and learning (don’t default to command and control).

4. Tend to energy and emotion-yours and theirs (remember to “hold” people).

Finally, what can we learn about recovery? Dr. Robert C. Chandler, professor at the University of Central Florida, and an internationally recognized social scientist says in Stage Six: Recovery, “An organization must coordinate its critical communication strategy, prevent rumors and misinformation, and avoid communication breakdowns. Returning to normalcy is the major goal of communication during recovery. Message content should include ways to access available resources and address long and short term plans for recovery.” vi

Following are the recommendations:

1. Incorporate social media into your communication plan. Use what you already know about social media. Don’t be afraid to use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. in addition to your local resources. Monitor all the social media platforms to gather and use situational leverage to understand what is being received by all constituents. Then respond by delivering up-to-date notifications. Use all input and intelligence to make better decisions.

2. Provide details about how to access critical information and resources. Communicate policy and procedural changes before, during, and after the crisis. Use email, fax, SMS, text messaging, etc. to effectively deliver critical information to all constituents.

3. Understand how long it takes to fully recover from a crisis. There will be costs associated with the crisis. Those costs can and will have short term and long term impacts on your district. Everyone will be negatively affected by the crisis in emotional, physical, psychological, and economic terms. Throughout the crisis and in the post-crisis keep analyzing how long it will take to recover.

4. Use meta-messages to support your recovery efforts. Every message should be clear and concise with instructions about what to do. Be cognizant how you say it, when you say it, in what context, and consider the mental and physical status of the audiences. Craft your messages to avoid misinterpretations and confusion and be sure all notifications are reviewed and validated for different contexts and audiences.

I know our profession, its people, and our parents and community. We will not only weather this storm, but we will learn from it, and our schools and educational programs will evolve into new and exciting innovations.

Dr. Ruben Ingram is the President of Ingram and Associate. LLC. He previously served as the Executive Director of School Employers Association of California, Executive Director of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing and the Superintendent of the Fountain Valley School District. He was a founding member of ACSA in 1971.

i What is Crisis Management?>definition>crisis-management.
Accessed April 27, 2020.

ii Larsen, Erik. 2020. The Splendid and The Vile. New York: Crown Publishing.

iii Gianpiero Petiglieri, “The Psychology Behind Effective Crisis Leadership”. Harvard Business Review-Digital, April 22.2020. Accessed April 27, 2020.

iv Frank Molinario, “The Importance of Leadership in Times of Crisis”. Forbes Human Resources Post, April 23, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020.

v Nancy Koehn, “Real Leaders Are Forged in Crisis”. Harvard Business Review-Digital, April 3, 2020. Accessed April 27, 2020.

vi Robert C. Chandler, “Six Stages of Crisis; Stage 6: Recovery”. Everbridge: Accessed April 27, 2020

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