By Rosa Perez-Isiah, EdD

Leading through a crisis is one of the most difficult things a leader will do in her career. Leading successfully through a crisis is an even greater challenge. Nothing has prepared us for the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic and school closures, the complexity of crisis leadership, and the devastating impact on our students. The impact goes beyond teaching and learning, and into the wellness and mental health of students, staff and families. This impact inspires us to lead to the best of our abilities. And for many, it keeps us up at night.

These past few weeks have made something abundantly clear to me: Leadership matters.

Yes, we’ve talked about the impact of great leadership for years. We’ve read and written about it, and perhaps shared (1 or 100) inspirational quotes about how much it matters. I thought I understood what it takes to be a great leader, but nothing, NOTHING prepared me for crisis leadership.

Crisis leadership commands that I lead in a different way. It forces me into a state of constant learning, seeking ways to modify and improve my leadership practices, sometimes second guessing my decisions and worrying about missed opportunities to lead well. I am mentally exhausted and physically drained, but at the end of the day, I’m more determined than ever to lead successfully. Through it all I’ve learned a few things that are helping me become a wiser and stronger crisis leader for my district team, my staff, and my school communities:

1. People First
People are the heart and greatest resource of an organization. There is nothing more important during a crisis than human connection. When people feel emotionally connected, valued, heard and supported, they will rally toward a common goal.

2. Lead with Data
People are dealing with the unknown, an avalanche of misinformation and fear. Our role is to gather information and base our decisions on facts and data. We have to trust that we’ve made the best possible decision for students and staff at that moment in time.

3. Transparency and Clear Communication
People seek honesty and transparency in a leader. Frequent and honest communication is reassuring. When we communicate in an honest and clear manner, we alleviate fears and provide hope.

4. Truly Listen
Listening leaders listen with their hearts and minds. They give their full attention and they listen with empathy and understanding. People need to feel heard, more than ever.

5. Lead with Compassion
Our staff and school communities are dealing with isolation and physical distancing, economic hardship and a deadly virus. They are stressed and in need of compassion and empathy. Lead with grace, give it and receive it. Remember self-compassion and self-care.

6. Lead for Equity
We knew that vulnerable communities and many of our students faced inequity, but school closures and distance learning have truly brought the needs of our most marginalized communities to the surface. Maintain a focus on equity and socially just practices—this is our opportunity to truly transform education.

7. Be Flexible, Things Change
Things are changing by the minute, literally. I find myself planning and developing things that have to be revamped the next day. Flexibility is key. Lead with flexibility and extend it to others.

8. Be Present, Stay Calm
Focus on “what is” and not “what if.” Make decisions based on what you know TODAY. Stay calm, as this will calm others. Stay positive, as negativity is contagious.

9. Dedicate Resources
This crisis is requiring us to be more creative about providing staff and students with the resources needed to navigate school closures. Parents are losing jobs and many are in need of meals and mental health supports. Invest your human and fiscal resources in new and creative ways that may alleviate the pandemic’s negative impact on our students and staff.

10. See #1
People first. Always.
Despite my years as an educational leader, I struggle with feeling prepared for the demands of crisis leadership. What I do know is that we won’t succeed without the guidance of leaders who listen and lead with humanity, an equity standpoint, a people-first mindset, and facts. I hope that my sharing of these 10 learnings will help you lead through the uncertainty, fear, and complexities of crisis leadership as much as they’re helping me. We can do this, Leaders!

“This difficult, turbulent time will surely someday be seen, in part, as a fertile, living laboratory in which courageous leaders were made, not born.”  – Nancy Koehn

Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2020 Rosa Perez-Isiah. All rights reserved.

Addendum: Crisis Leadership for Social Change

The last few weeks have been extremely difficult for our nation. The tragic death of George Floyd and injustices faced by the Black community have broken our hearts, but not our spirits or determination for change. This tragedy, paired with years of inequity and injustice, started a movement in our own communities. This movement for justice forces us to move beyond our roles as Crisis Leaders for COVID-19 and into the roles of Crisis Leaders for social justice, antiracism and social change.

Creating social change begins with the first guiding principle, People First. When people feel understood, heard and supported, they will embrace and engage in the complexities of change. Crisis leadership requires that we embrace this discomfort with open dialogue and an open heart and mind. THIS is the time to focus on dismantling and recreating the systems that have historically underserved communities of color. The work of dismantling oppressive systems requires strong and compassionate leadership that unites and guides an organization through the journey.

Our school communities seek leaders who embody the 10 principles of Crisis Leadership, but we must also lead beyond those skills and that role. If we truly want to create equitable systems of learning for all in our communities, we must be able to lead the charge for social justice and change with clarity and urgency. Our teams need us to listen, learn and unlearn, act, and they need to be part of this process.

We are in the middle of a monumental crisis and lives literally depend on society’s ability to acknowledge and combat injustice and inequity. It’s time to declare our solidarity and determination for change, and to invest the time and resources to do so. This requires leadership. Begin and end this process with the most important Crisis Leadership principle…People First.

Dr. Rosa Perez-Isiah has served students in her community for 26 years. She is Director of Elementary in the Norwalk La Mirada Unified School District in California. A Solution Tree Culture and Equity professional development associate, she is founder of #WeLeadEd Twitter chat and the WeleadED BAMradio radio podcast focused on Ed Leadership and Social Justice. She’s coauthored three books on the whole child, equity and the power of relationships, and contributes her voice to blogs, podcasts, and books on social justice, diversity, equity, access, and women in leadership.

TEPSA Leader, Summer 2020, Vol 33, No. 3

Copyright © 2020 by the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association. No part of articles in TEPSA publications or on the website may be reproduced in any medium without the permission of the Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association.

The Texas Elementary Principals and Supervisors Association (TEPSA), whose hallmark is educational leaders learning with and from each other, has served Texas PK-8 school leaders since 1917. Member owned and member governed, TEPSA has more than 5,900 members who direct the activities of 3 million PK-8 school children. TEPSA is an affiliate of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

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