Leading in Crisis

Leading in Crisis

We are living in unprecedented times.  Due to COVID-19, virtually all school buildings in America are closed.  School leaders are called upon to sort out untold new ways of doing school.  School lunches.  Distance learning. Day care. Special Education.  Union rules.  New technology platforms.  And at the same time, district leaders are expected to remain calm, communicate clearly and answer the unanswerable: When will school begin again?

Competing Priorities

In the midst of COVID-19, superintendents, like the president and our governors, come face-to-face with multiple problems daily. How to re-invent everything – instantly – and communicate it perfectly.  Two of the most pressing problems are What to do and How to communicate.

What to do when you don’t know what to do.

  1. Reach out to any and all who can help.

    Board members. Principals. Teachers. Union Leaders. PTSA leaders.  Mayor. Service clubs. Use your on-line platform. Ask for input.  Fill in the blanks.  List what you know and what you need to know.  Hold an electronic meeting and use the white board function to collect brainstormed ideas.  Record the session for those who connect later.

  2. Clarify the problem(s).

    Start roughing out the problem statement immediately leaving blanks (within brackets showing who to ask). Identify the competing values: health and welfare of students, cost, timing. Start listing best options with pros and cons for each.

  3. Test the solutions.

    Circulate the best options with pros and cons and a deadline for input. Communicate 360 degrees.  Ask who else needs to be involved? Let people know who will make the decision and when and how it will be shared.  Keep everyone in the loop.

  4. Take action.

    Start with small actions that are immediate and less controversial. For example: Lunches are now available daily. Teachers are preparing online learning packets.  We don’t have all the details just right yet but we will keep working on it until we get it right.

Communicate now, when you feel like it least:

  1. Communicate immediately.

    No, you don’t have all the answers. This is the time to assure students, parents and teachers that we will get through this.  Acknowledge that this is a hard time.  Let your heart shine through.  Share what you know.  Admit what you don’t know.

  2. Communicate intent.

    Let others know what you will do and what they can do. Your commitment (and assurance) is that we are doing our very best to care for those we serve.  Ask parents and staff to check websites for updates.  Let them know when you are likely to have another announcement about upcoming changes.

  3. Communicate often.

    Let the public know you are there for them.  Your presence says, “We see you. we care.” Set up a daily routine.  Invite questions and respond with answers.  Post information on the website.  Use Twitter.  Communicate what you know and what you are doing.  Signal what parents can expect in the coming days.

  4. Check in often.

    No plan survives first impact. Check in with teachers and union leaders.  What is working well and what is not?  Then share back what you heard and what you can do about it.  Check in with principals daily.  Ask them, “What is working and what is not?  What support do you need?”

Leadership Hacks:

Yellow buses.  I am impressed with how creative districts have been with their buses.  North Mason School District, a mixed suburban/rural district of 2500 students in Western Washington is delivering lunches, and homework packets, to remote areas of the district.  Issaquah, serving 21,000 students east of Seattle, is using buses to get lunches directly to apartments where many of their free and reduced lunch students live.

Three final thoughts: 

  • Be the voice of clarity and courage.

Stay on message.  Remember your mission.  Remind everyone of your higher purpose.  In times of crisis, pressures mount. In times of change and crisis, we all fear for the future. Stay close to your team: board members, principals, teachers, union leaders, PTSA.  Call them frequently. Answer their questions. Affirm your messaging. Call on your leadership team to model positive comments and work together to share good information.

  • Take care of yourself.

You serve best when you are at your best.  Take time to re-charge your batteries. Check in (virtually of course) with colleagues, family and friends who fuel and support you. Rest when you can, eat well and take steps to protect your health.

  • Plant seeds of hope.

Remind others often that better times are coming: “We will find a way through this.  We will continue to do good things for our kids.  We must and we will. Our kids are counting on us.”

Better yet, communicate directly to students as superintendent Michelle Whitney (Pasco, WA) did.  When school was cancelled, statewide for the rest of the year, she went on twitter to tell the Class of 2020 … “You are on the top of mind and my heart!”  She conveyed so well two key messages: “Keep up the hard work and I know you can do it!”


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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: Larry@Larrynyland.com | 425-418-4398 | LarryNyland.com