Certainly, 2020 was a bewildering, nerve-fraying, distraction-filled year. Few, if any of us, would have guessed when the virus emerged that our lives and work would be so disrupted for such a long time. The year will be remembered for many unpleasant things. Yet, it also offered important lessons. It taught us much about leadership in uncertain times. The experience also presented challenges few people even imagined we should be prepared for. We were asked to lead anyway.
As we “turn the page” to face a new year, we would do well to let go of what might have been and what we wish we had known from the beginning. The best we can do is to value what we learned, forgive ourselves for what we might have done better, and leverage the lessons and experiences we gained for a new start and more successful and satisfying year ahead.
Difficult and disappointing times like we experienced last year can still offer insights and opportunities important for recovery and moving forward. In fact, they can be foundational for a future that goes beyond just returning to what had been to create a better new normal. Nevertheless, there is little chance that such a shift will occur unless proactive, committed leadership is present to nudge, encourage, and guide the process.
Our opportunity as we begin a new year is to find and utilize strategies that can inform and inspire those around us to move forward to what can be, rather than be satisfied with returning to what was. Here are six leadership strategies we can employ now and throughout the coming year to help us make this challenging but crucial transition.
The first strategy is to revisit and reexamine the core beliefs, values, and purpose of the organization. Everyone has been buffeted over the past year. Taking time to refocus and regain clarity about who we are and what we exist to do can offer powerful leverage for examining practices and exploring new perspectives on our work. For example, we might recommit to having the interests of learners and learning as the key criteria for post-pandemic decisions and direction setting.
A second strategy is to capture the most important lessons learned from the pandemic experience. It might seem that what has been learned will naturally translate into post-pandemic practices. Yet, experience shows that without intention, focus, effort, and expectation for this type of learning to be preserved and applied, it will be lost in pursuit of a return to pre-pandemic normalcy. Collecting and documenting key ideas, practices, and innovation that emerged during the pandemic now can prevent the natural loss of focus and abandonment that otherwise is likely to occur.
Third, commit to moving forward, not backward. Language is important. It focuses attention and sets expectations. Implying that life will return to normal after the pandemic risks ignoring and losing valuable insight, innovation, and an opportunity to level up. As plans are discussed, we need to challenge tendencies to fall back, let go, and prioritize what was familiar.
Fourth, resist pinning hopes to a specific end date for the pandemic. The development and growing availability of vaccines can lead to unrealistic expectations and premature declarations of the end. It is likely that there will be setbacks and disappointments in the coming months. Children and young people may be among the last to receive vaccinations. It is difficult to predict when the end will arrive. We need to keep the focus on serving the needs of learners rather than becoming preoccupied with what is likely to be an uncertain end to the pandemic.
Fifth, close doors to practices and behaviors that need to be left behind. One of the benefits of the disruption we have experienced is that some traditional practices from the past had to be left behind in favor of what would work in a virtual context. As examples, teachers had to rely less on behavioral compliance and find ways to convince students to commit to learning. Educators faced the challenge of nurturing greater learning independence skills among students, since constant observation and supervision were not realistic. These shifts in practice are worth maintaining in post-pandemic classrooms. However, unless we establish expectations and find ways to close the door on these traditional practices, we can expect to see them return.
Sixth, set an ultimate benchmark for success that pins the success of everyone to the success of each one. The end of the pandemic is a time for optimism and vision. This is a good time to move beyond functioning as though success for some or even most students is good enough. Now is the time to commit to the success of all students and connect their success to ours. Unless we find a way for each student to be successful, we cannot consider ourselves to be completely successful.