At its simplest, resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back from hardship, shock or failure. We see resilient leadership as something even greater - it is a calling to create a more human, more vibrant and more equitable future through our response to crisis.
In these coming weeks and months, we will be called to solve big challenges with a sense of urgency and lead with values and with equity at the center; to provide our students and families with instructional resources and show them we care; to ask more of our teams than ever before and give them grace and space. Given the magnitude of our tasks, we may not always achieve all that we set out to do. But when we do succeed, we may find that we have accomplished something that we never thought was possible, created new ways of doing things, and found hidden capabilities in ourselves and our teams. And, as a result, when we emerge from this moment in history, we may see the world in a new way and take paths that are markedly different than the ones we took in the past.
Guidance for Resilient Leaders
Principle 1: Put Humans at the Foundation
Prioritize Care and Connection: In these unprecedented times, leaders are working tirelessly on behalf of their students and teachers. It can be easy for our leadership to become transactional as we focus on the many problems to solve. Set your intention - above all else - to ensure that humans feel connected and cared for. It takes conscious effort to put ourselves in the shoes of a confused parent, an overwhelmed teacher or a staff member fearing for their future - and to show that in the way we relate, communicate, and prioritize in our work every day.
Make Self-Care a Norm: Remember that an empty vessel cannot provide nourishment for the masses. As we shift from the initial sprint of laptop distribution to the marathon of solving for lost learning, make self-care a norm for all - including yourself - and allow others a window into your self-care practices so they are encouraged to find their own.
Principle 2: Set Your Compass
Now more than ever, humans need to know that their work has purpose and meaning. At these times, you have four roles:
Start with Equity: When moving quickly, it takes intentionality to interrogate our biases or see who may be disproportionately impacted by a decision. See our Equity Call to Action for ways to keep equity centered.
Define Your True North: Remind people what you always stood for and why it matters now more than ever. At KIPP Texas, Daphane Carter reminds her team that “our promise to stand alongside our families is a promise that we hold sacred.” Use this template to start drafting your True North.
Set Values-Based Guidance: Expect tough choices with no easy answers. How will we remediate learning for an entire generation of students without overwhelming our teachers? How do we provide security and stability for our people while facing huge gaps in state budgets? Spend time as a leadership team articulating how your values will guide you in your decisions and your day to day interactions.
Say It Over and Over, Early and Often: Communicate what’s important. Create a shared, inspiring narrative. Set up easy ways to frame your compass in emails, start Zoom calls with a relevant aspect and refer to your compass when sharing decisions.
Principle 3: Transform Ambiguity Into Clarity
Ambiguity can be crippling for teams. During times of high stress and changing priorities, teams rally best when they know where to focus their energy and what success looks like. To create clarity for your teams:
Articulate working assumptions and resulting priorities as a leadership team: Your next few months will be shaped by ever-evolving conditions for your students and teachers. This will inform your planning. Be sure to clarify how these conditions serve as the foundations for your planning and priorities. E.g., “With such big gaps in access, we are shifting May to focus mostly on fall remediation plans,” or “Let’s assume July professional development will be online. That means for the next two weeks we will ...”
Operationalize priorities and provide guardrails: Work with your direct reports to have a regular rhythm of translating evolving priorities into projects, tasks and roles. Your goal is to create enough definition and clear rationale so you can distribute the leadership and tap the creativity of your people. This dance between creating a sense of stability while enabling agility is key to leading through crisis.
Get it out of your head: In times of crisis, an absence of information leaves people anxious and reactive. Agree with your leadership team on a regular cadence of communication with all your key stakeholders - from families to Board members. Identify ways to make the lift of communication light for you, while still ensuring that the experience is warm for whoever is the receiver of your message.
Principle 4: Create New Agile Ways of Working Together
Old collaboration structures don’t support the pace of decision-making and learning in the COVID-19 world. At times like this, it can help to take a cue from “agile” methodologies. These methods work when the end-product cannot yet be defined, being responsive to change matters more than a perfect plan, and collaboration is more important than documentation. Here are a few lessons for agile leadership:
Shift to an innovation, iterative mindset: In this context, rapid iteration is the healthy new normal and change is a sign you are getting closer to the right answer for kids. Narrate this new definition of success. Staff who have thrived on planning and structures may need support adapting to the needed flexibility.
Work in short-term sprints: Leadership can seem chaotic when some people are shifting course daily and others have their attention on big questions for the fall. Take the haphazardness out of change by defining short-term improvement cycles where you execute, reflect and update. Help people see what to expect.
Re-organize to work “hand in hand”: With the external reality shifting almost daily, it can be hard to see the forest for the trees (or at least the same forest as your colleague). Many teams met daily in March - and few see themselves returning to old schedules any time soon. Don’t forget to bring diverse voices to the table to expand your perspective and help you see blind spots.
Principle 5: Pull Up and Place Your Bets
You can get a team in motion with short-term clarity and improvement cycles - but big unanswered questions still loom. Resilient leaders don’t get seduced by waiting for perfect clarity. Instead, they make informed bets on where to place their energy and create a schema for how they will navigate a changing landscape:
For the big unknowns, create working hypotheses and name how you will refine them: Doing so helps you be prepared to move on new data when ready, and focus on what is in your locus of control now. For example: “We’re guessing that state budgets will be down 5-10% next year” (keep an eye on state guidance), Remember transparency builds trust. Telling people what you know, don’t know and when you’ll know more helps staff, boards and families believe leaders have their eye on the big picture and will keep them informed.
Do your strategic homework: Wise leaders also assess their biggest risks and get creative with capturing data to inform their thinking. They test “what ifs,” do contingency planning and run scenarios to make clear bets and be ready to shift if needed.
Look for opportunities and challenge old assumptions: The ways we have led, worked, or taught are shifting, and with that brings opportunities to revisit what is possible. As you navigate this unprecedented time, be bold in questioning your old ways of working. Look for new opportunities for approaching the work, and use this as a chance to say: “What have we learned about our students, our families and ourselves?” “What do we see more clearly now that requires our attention?” “Where have evolving constraints changed what is possible?” And most importantly, “What is the future we now want to create together?”