Leadership When the Heat is On

Three years ago, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, was a comedian with a young family and a popular television show. Today he moves around in bunkers, rallying his battered nation, inspiring freedom-lovers the world over.

Leaders like Zelensky fit a certain pattern. Often ordinary people, they get thrust into a vortex. Yet they rise when all about them there is chaos. The moment of crisis becomes their moment of truth. It brings out strengths they may never have needed before. It galvanizes others to give their all.

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, but in the VUCA world (volatile-uncertain-complex-ambiguous) we are now living in, it may be only a matter of time before you face a defining moment of crisis. It might already have arrived in the form of a pandemic, or a war, or an insurrection. But it might show up in the form of a wildfire, hurricane, or other natural disaster. It might come as a coup attempt in your nation’s leadership. It might be an existential threat to the organization you lead.

The question is: How will you rise up to meet that crisis? How will you lead? And what can you do right now today to prepare? Recently I gained insight into these questions from an educational leader in North Carolina.

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, Dr. Andrew Smith was serving as the chief strategy planning officer for the Rowan-Salisbury School System in Salisbury, North Carolina, 44 miles north of Charlotte. It was his task to help his fellow leaders deal with a multi-pronged crisis, with dimensions that none had ever experienced before.

“For the first month, we were making poor decisions left and right,” Smith told me in a recent zoom interview. “They were all very much emotionally driven and reactive. I told the team: ‘We can’t move forward because all we do is talk about what ifs’.”

With his strategy and business-school background, Smith brought a different perspective to public education. He had long observed that schools were woefully unprepared to make dramatic changes in service delivery and business model. Suddenly Covid 19 had made that a necessity, as parents, teachers, stakeholders and the kids themselves faced an existential health and safety threat that demanded action. What to do?

Smith’s first move may have been his most critical. He requested permission from his boss to take two days out to clear his head, come up with an approach. During his mini-sabbatical, he came across notes from a risk management and contingency planning course he’d taken at Wake Forest University. A chart from the course gave him the insights he needed to lead during a difficult period.

Back at the office, and with the full support of his boss, superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody, Smith convened the district’s leadership crisis team. He challenged the group to write down everything they were worried about: “Every scenario for the next six months that’s causing you heartburn,” is the way he described it to me.

They wrote them all down. Doing so had a clarifying effect. Next, Smith led the group in winnowing down the bulky list to focus in on 13 “most likely” scenarios. “They quite frankly scared the hell out of us,” Smith recalls. We realized we needed to really think through them.”

Smith used a risk analysis tool he’d learned at Wake Forest to assign variables to each of the likeliest scenarios. The team assigned a probability that each scenario might come to pass and recorded it on the “Y” axis. They assigned a probability of impact on the organization to the “X” axis. In this way, the impact represented the district’s ability and current infrastructure to address the scenario. Based on the probability and likely impact on the kids, and on all stakeholders, they created a Risk Analysis Index graph to help them visualize the highest risk scenarios, and to surface the most likely scenarios.

As events unfolded, the top three most likely scenarios were amazingly accurate predictors of what would transpire. Because they monitored the news and were in constant touch with the Governor’s office on the issue of school closings/re-openings, they were able to forecast one of the parameters with greater precision.

“We ranked at a 95 percent chance of happening that schools would be closed for the remaining school year for students and staff,” said Smith. “In April 2020, barely a month into the crisis, the team realized “we should stop worrying about returning to in person and start worrying about next school year because we’re already behind the game here.”

Another key to the team’s leadership through a fast-changing healthcare and social crisis was its willingness to do research. To inform their decisions, the team conducted daily, sometimes hourly media monitoring research into what other organizations were doing to confront the crisis.

Denmark’s approach to reopening its schools was particularly innovative. Their strategy included staggering arrival and departure times, requiring students to wash their hands every two hours, disinfecting surfaces twice daily, and splitting students into smaller groups. They reorganized classrooms so that desks were at least six feet apart. Outside education, the team examined business models for reopening to triangulate best practices for bringing students back into schools; including examining Disney’s model.

For each of the most likely scenarios, the team built a contingency plan, ready to go into effect: If X happens, we’ll be ready to do this, this and this. The tools of contingency planning literature was helpful in their thinking through a range of eventualities. Public schools were in the harsh light of second guessing and criticism for missing important developments. So as part of his facilitation role, Smith urged the team to revisit core values and focus on those that would come into play with the execution of each plan. The goal was to create a shared vision for how best to institute re-entry plans, and communicate both the vision and the game-plan to stakeholders to build trust and ensure buy-in, and constantly seek feedback through focus groups to gauge community and parent reaction.

The plan needed to take into consideration the overall probability, impact, and risk of various scenarios, to ensure the continuity of learning and overall strength of the organization. It needed not only to ensure the health and safety of students, but also teachers, staff and the general public. It needed to honor and serve the students, families and employees, and address the inequities that exist among students’ access to content and instruction during school closure period.

And it needed to meet challenge with a spirit of innovation.

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