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Dr. Vern Minor, Director of Educational Leadership
To cite this article: Minor, V. Lead Now Like Then. Kagan Online Magazine, Issue #63. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. www.KaganOnline.com
To the best of my knowledge, the COVID-19 pandemic has not been declared “over” yet by the CDC. To be honest, I don’t have a clear picture of the scope of the pandemic at this point. Little is being shared in the media these days. However, there are plenty of indications to suggest that we are on the heels of the pandemic. From my point of view, we seem to be approaching “normal” again (if there is such a thing).
In my role as the Director of Educational Leadership for Kagan, I work directly with educational leaders across the country who have made student engagement a focal point in school improvement. Prior to accepting this role, I spent 23 years as an administrator myself, so my involvement in leadership has spanned three decades. During the pandemic, I was intrigued by the number of articles that were penned on the subject of leadership. Among them were a vast number devoted to the qualities it took for a leader to be effective during a time of crisis.
There is no doubt that the speed and scope of the pandemic put leaders in very difficult circumstances. I don’t disagree with any of the advice I read in those articles. However, the opinions that were given caused me to reflect on an important question. Does effective leadership during a crisis look different from effective leadership during the good times? Some authors seemed to suggest that was the case. I am not sure I agree with that observation.
Let’s examine one article as an illustration of what I am suggesting. The commentary is entitled, “COVID-19: What Makes a Good Leader During a Crisis,” penned by United Nations Global Compact. In the article, four actions are proposed for leaders during times of crisis; highlights of each are noted below in italicized print. Let’s address each and see how these actions are as relevant now for educational leaders (i.e., post-pandemic) as they were then (i.e., during the pandemic).
In difficult times, it can be tempting to move fast and make decisions without seeking input from others. Fluid situations mean things change from one minute to the next, which can make consensus-building hard.1
Is this good advice for a crisis situation? Absolutely. However, it is also sound advice outside of crisis situations. The days of autonomous, top-down decision making are gone in education. That is not to say that leaders never make independent decisions; however, educational leaders should never put themselves in a situation where they feel like they must have all the answers to the challenges facing educators. That is a tough way—an impossible way—to lead.
Professional learning communities are rich in dialogue. Educational leaders have an obligation to create communication processes that enable all members to be part of decision making. Without dialogue there is no consensus. By involving staff in deep, rich, meaningful conversations, we create a sense of mission and vision. People support what they help create, and that is typically a function of the degree to which they are involved in dialogue and decision making.
A great leader never has tunnel vision.1
I was amazed during the pandemic at the number of corporate leaders who set business goals on the back burner for the sake of their employees. I suspect we all know of companies that were willing to put “the collective good” ahead of the pursuit of company goals.
For leaders in education, what is the collective good? That is a difficult question to answer because we have so many stakeholder groups (e.g., children, parents, teachers, classified staff, patrons). I think the key for leaders is to not allow our own self-interests to cloud our judgment. The collective good must outweigh what we may perceive to be our personal good. Effective leaders are selfless, not selfish, and they are often called upon to make sacrifices for the sake of others. That is true during and beyond crises.
In a crisis, new information is being learned all the time. Great leaders understand that while they might have a plan, they will also need to adapt it to these new realities.1
Without a doubt, this is an important attribute for leaders during a crisis. The pandemic was a perfect illustration of this. We knew so little about the coronavirus in the early stages. As we gained more and more information, solutions and responses changed to reflect that new knowledge.
That same mindset needs to be embraced by educational leaders today. Let’s be brutally honest with ourselves—education has changed little over the past several decades (dare I say centuries?). For example, I think we would all attest to the fact that the predominant room arrangement for students’ desks is still rows, and the predominant teaching methodology continues to be teacher talk. We know that this pedagogical approach to teaching and learning (i.e., lecture, sit-and-get) produces learning gaps.
Research in the field of education has exploded over the past 25 years. We know what works to narrow achievement gaps. Educational leaders need to be well-versed in the research. We need to stay abreast of what we are learning about what helps and hinders learning. No longer should we simply search for a program to fix our situation. Practices, not programs, are the answer. Instructional leaders know pedagogy and ensure implementation of research-based strategies is taking place.
When you’re in the middle of a crisis, it is all too easy to move into survival mode. Working through the latest issue comes at the expense of longer-term problems, which can wait until tomorrow. But the best leaders understand that this is short-sighted.1
How true this statement was for the pandemic. It seemed like one mini-crisis led to another mini-crisis which led to another mini-crisis. It was so easy to slip into “survival mode” over the past two years. However, if we are not careful, leaders can slip into this mindset post-pandemic.
Education is a people business. We work with people day in and day out—students, parents, teachers, patrons. As a result, we encounter on an almost daily basis a “crisis” from someone. If all of our time and energy is devoted to dealing with petty issues and putting out fires, we can lose sight of what is of greatest importance in education.
Why do we exist as a profession? We exist, first and foremost, for the purpose of educating children. There is nothing more important for educational leaders than teaching and learning. Short-sighted leaders are easily sidetracked by managerial issues (e.g., budgets, buildings, bus schedules, bond issues). I am not saying those matters are unimportant—they are simply not the most important. Leaders cannot delegate to others what is most critical for education, and that is teaching and learning.
I could have taken just about any leadership article that I perused over the past two years and made similar observations. There were numerous recommendations made that I contend are effective leadership strategies for today, after the pandemic has gone. For example, consider this short list of additional ideas.
Lead now like you led then. Lead in post-pandemic times like you led during the pandemic. You were incredible this past two years. I have never been prouder of our profession. So many of you in leadership were challenged in ways you never thought imaginable, and you came through with flying colors. Now take what you learned during these past two years and apply your newfound leadership skills to tackling what has plagued us for centuries: narrowing achievement gaps. Let’s tackle the issue of equity with the same intensity, fervor, and effort as we did COVID-19.
1. United Nationals Global Impact (n.d.). COVID 19: What makes a good leader during a crisis. https://unglobalcompact.org/take-action/20th-anniversary-campaign/covid-19-what-makes-a-good-leader-during-a-crisis
2. Kerrissey, M. and Edmondson, A. (April 13, 2020). What good leadership looks like during this pandemic. https://hbr.org/2020/04/what-good-leadership-looks-like-during-this-pandemic
3. International Association of Chiefs of Police (n.d.). 10 leadership strategies for navigating COVID-19. https://www.theiacp.org/sites/default/files/202004/10%20Leadership%20Strategies%20for%20Navigating%20COVID-19_0.pdf
4. Ahern, S. and Loh, E. (December 2021). Leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic: Building and sustaining trust in times of uncertainty. https://bmjleader.bmj.com/content/5/4/266
5. Mesaglio, M. (November 18, 2020). 4 Actions to be a strong leader during COVID-19 disruption. https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/4-actions-to-be-a-good-leader-during-covid-19-disruption