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Preparing for uncertainty

In the School Leadership Mastermind that I facilitate, the top-of-mind participant focus has repeatedly been how to properly prepare for the new school year in an age of COVID-19. And for good reason. Never in the postwar era have so many school leaders -- and the teachers they support -- faced this level of uncertainty and confusion as we currently do. We don’t know what school will really look like until we start up again, and who knows how long that “new normal” will last before another sizable pivot is required?

Uncertain times demand flexibility, growth mindset and industriousness from all parties. Leaders must set expectations and create a nurturing, supportive environment that lets people do their best work. Particularly in times of ambiguity, leaders are looked to for strength, clarity, guidance and direction. Even when they, too, are unclear about how best to proceed and perhaps even scared, school leaders need to project feelings of confidence and calm and find ways to communicate them with others.

Begin by controlling your own fear. Your people first need to believe that you’re in control of yourself if they're to have confidence that you can make smart decisions in tough times that affect others. One independent school headmaster I know made a calculated move back in March (just before the lockdown) that he quickly came to regret. Apparently, some teachers had acted in a lackadaisical manner early on with their student supervision as the scope and severity of COVID was still being understood. The headmaster responded by raising his voice at a teacher meeting as a way of impressing upon his staff that COVID was serious and that children’s lives were at stake. The result was a fearful staff and an admonition from the school’s lay leadership.

Keep your emotions in check. It’s okay to feel scared, overwhelmed and unsure. Label those feelings and determine what you can do -- such as exercise, meditation or counseling -- to help restore you to a calmer, happier, more stable place. Remind yourself of the worst-case scenario and play it out. Most likely, you’ll be far from that with the actual challenges in front of you.

Demonstrate vulnerability. People need to see you as human if they are to relate to you and follow your lead. Find ways to acknowledge your own feelings and uncertainties. Someone who becomes visibly disconnected from their emotions and goes “shields up” will fail to inspire others, let alone motivate them to follow their lead.

Words, of course, are not enough. Strong leaders consistently prioritize others and keep them safe. They make clear that their decisions are about those they serve and will do their utmost to keep them healthy, physically and otherwise. Of course, this can be particularly challenging with the many health-challenges associated with COVID, but there are protocols that, if followed, are likely to keep people safe and content.

Another thing that leaders can do to lead effectively during the pandemic is to double down on trust building. People in high-trust relationships communicate well, don’t second guess one another, understand why they are doing things, and are willing to go the extra mile to ensure that goals are met. In the words of Stephen R. Covey, “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.”

But what exactly is trust? For many of us, it’s one of those “feel” terms that are hard to define. Of course, if we lack a common definition of the term, we can’t really come to discuss it, let alone seek to create it in our workplaces. 

In essence, trust is a feeling of security that you have, based on the belief that someone or something is knowledgeable, reliable, good, honest, and effective. At the least, they / it possess(es) a meaningful combination of some of these attributes. When applied to human relationships, trust develops when people interact and like the results, in terms of the quality of what they get (information, service, companionship, etc.) and the way in which it is presented and / or delivered. 

Think, for example, about someone who advises you, such as your financial planner. They may get your business initially because of a strong reference or a solid interview. But they will begin to earn your trust if you are consistently satisfied with the quality of their advice and decisions and you feel that they are acting in your best interests. 

Let’s explore this a bit further. In her book, which she co-authored with Ken Blanchard and Martha Lawrence, Olmstead speaks of four core aspects of trust, which she labeled “ABCD,” or able, believable, connected, and dependable.  

  1. Able refers to your capacity for the task. Do you know your stuff and get results? Can and do you use your skills to support others’ work? And do you demonstrate a growth mindset to learn things that you presently don’t know so well?
  2. Believable people know how to keep confidences. They don’t talk behind people’s backs and act with sincerity and integrity. When they err, they willingly admit it. They also do not hide their lack of knowledge.
  3. Connected people work well with others. They listen well and solicit input into their decision making. Such people demonstrate care and empathy and express praise to others for a job well done.
  4. Dependability reflects the fact that you do what you say that you will do. This means keeping promises and commitments. It also includes being punctual, consistent, and responsive. 

James Davis, professor of strategic management and the chairman of the Management Department at Utah State University, speaks about 3 drivers of trust, two of which differ in some way from Olmstead. 

  1. Ability. Can they do what they say they can do? This is similar to Olmstead’s first trust element above.
  2. Benevolence. Do they care about me? Trusted leaders are not ego driven, but want to do good for others. (This is also called “low self-orientation.”)  People who are capable but lack benevolence may do all sorts of incredible things, but only if it serves their benefit. 
  3. Integrity. Davis’ definition of integrity focuses on shared values. Are the other person’s values those that I can agree with? Can I relate to that person because they believe what I believe? 

One way that school leaders can help increase trust and reduce defensive posturing is to create a culture that encourages risk-taking. Risks are easier to take when there is less at stake. If I err in good faith and am encouraged to try again, odds are that I will. If I offer my opinion at a meeting and my views are respected regardless of their ultimate acceptance, then I will likely pipe up the next time. If, however, I learn that I am not really valued, then I begin to think less about trying something new and different and instead focus on self-preservation. 

Blaine Lee, an original founder of the Covey Leadership Center, expressed this dynamic as follows: “When people honor each other, there is a trust established that leads to synergy, interdependence, and deep respect. Both parties make decisions and choices based on what is right, what is best, what is valued most highly.” This, in turn, leads to a happy, productive school community that is sure to handle all obstacles in ways that continually move them forward.  

Naphtali Hoff, PsyD, (@impactfulcoach) is president of Impactful Coaching & Consulting. Check out his leadership book, "Becoming the New Boss." Read his blog and listen to his leadership podcast. Download his free new productivity blueprint and his e-books, "Core Essentials of Leadership," "An E.P.I.C. Solution to Understaffing" and "How to Boost Your Leadership Impact."

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