Times of disruption, conflict, and crisis always shine a spotlight on leadership. The pandemic has not been an exception. Employees, students and families, and communities looked to those in positions of leadership in schools and school districts for guidance, judgment, clarity, and understanding.
The pandemic reinforced and, at times, amplified the importance of leadership skills and behaviors that we have always valued and expected from leaders. Leaders are expected to take steps to protect everyone. People look to leaders to consult with experts, make sense of what’s happening, and develop plans for the organization to follow.
As the pandemic unfolded, leaders were expected to maintain a focus on the mission and role of schools to educate students and support instruction despite the challenges and distractions. Leaders were looked to for acquisition and distribution of resources needed to allow instruction and learning to continue as effectively as practical.
Yet, within these larger leadership roles and expectations, the pandemic experience offered several specific lessons worth noting and heeding before the next extended, disruptive challenge emerges. Here are five of those leadership lessons and the implications associated with them.
First, relationships are key. We know the importance of relationships in the context of teaching and learning. The pandemic demonstrated that relationships are equally important for adults. Where leaders had developed strong, trusting relationships prior to the pandemic, stakeholders found it easier to accept leadership decisions and direction despite the fear and confusion they experienced. The pandemic taught us that we need to develop relationships before we ask people to trust us, do difficult things, and face the unknown. It was possible to develop trust and credibility during the pandemic experience, but too often it meant the loss of crucial time and sacrificed some early opportunities to respond. We also learned that when there is no relationship and trust is absent, asking people to take risks, engage without full understanding, and press forward despite uncertainty is likely to be futile.
Second, authenticity matters. People want to know that leaders really care and are not just “going through the motions” or “checking boxes” when they inquire about what followers are experiencing, questions they have, and answers they need. Perfunctory responses and generalized expressions of caring can leave stakeholders feeling dismissed and diminished rather than supported. Careful listening, empathetic responses, and honest commitment to follow-up are especially important when people are hurting, frightened, and uncertain of where to turn.
Third, positivity has its limits. While it is important for leaders to project a positive attitude and be optimistic about what is happening, messages they send must be grounded. Positivity must be connected to reality. When leaders ignore the level of pressure and stress people are feeling and project unfettered positivity, they risk perceptions of being disconnected and out of touch with what people are experiencing. Too much positivity without grounding can be toxic.
Fourth, strength does not mean having all the answers. Leaders often believe that to lead they must be fully in control and free of questions and doubt. Yet, the pandemic was plagued with uncertainty, unanswered questions, and changing conditions. In times such as these, leaders are often asked to lead without all the information they would like or need. Being willing to commit when commitment is called for, choosing to risk when action is necessary, and pressing forward when inaction would sacrifice the mission are steps leaders are called to take in times of crisis. Of course, even making the correct call does not always mean universal support and agreement.
Fifth, conflict is not always what it seems. Arguments over face masks, insistence on remote or in-person learning, and other pandemic-related issues were not always about safety and learning. The presenting conflict can be a proxy for other issues. Political perspective can override science. Childcare needs can prevail over risks of exposure to the virus. What people oppose or support can have as much to do with what they fear, personal priorities, and partisan politics as the importance of the stated issue with which they identify.
Without question, the pandemic reinforced what we know about the importance of leadership. It also invited us to learn the importance of less visible and more nuanced aspects of leading successfully during extended disruption.