Crisis Leadership: Building Stronger Communities During Times of Chaos

Insights   16 September 2020
By Alex Bell, Leadership Lemonade


Many past crises have served to build stronger communities and we wanted to use this one to do the same with the cohort of leaders we were supporting. We didn’t have all the answers, but we knew if we all faced this reality together, it could be enough.

Alex Bell
Co-Founder, Leadership Lemonade

As a former school principal in the UK, I’m all too familiar with the urge to escape when crises hit. Time and time again, when it all got to be too much, the bathroom was my sanctuary. It was the only place I could be alone with myself and my thoughts, pause to read something uplifting or supportive, or just breath for a minute or two.

I knew staff would find the frequency of my disappearances unusual, but it’s how I found the space to really make sense of what was happening around me. At the time, it was also the only way I knew how to empower them to make operational decisions without me, if necessary—an opportunity they might thank (or deride) me for later.

After leaving my position as a principal in South East London and working as a leadership coach, I have discovered my “strategy” to hide isn’t all that uncommon. In fact, my colleagues Karine George (a schools advisor) and Mike Bond (an education strategist) have seen similar behavior in their work. And, when mid-March 2020 arrived, it became clear that hiding was the top strategy most school leaders were using at various points throughout their days. 

At the very least, they were far too overwhelmed to talk to us about vision or strategy. Facing anything beyond the triage of class closures or the health and safety of their community was agonising. No one was returning our calls or replying to our emails. We felt useless.

The worst thing you can feel in a global pandemic is useless

Witnessing healthcare workers being stretched to the limit and almost everyone, everywhere searching for the best way to respond, Karine, Mike, and I summoned the will to leverage our resources to make an impact. 

Being useful to school leaders at the onset of the school shutdowns required us to pivot to a more intentional learning mode, to uncover how best to guide leaders through this abrupt transitional space. 

We decided that being useful meant we needed to slow down and really feel how they were experiencing the moment. We wanted to give the right help, at the right time, and in the right way. So, we listened (and kept listening)—absorbing their feedback along the way. 

We heard and felt the frustrations of school leaders on social media, in the tone of their text messages, and in the tiredness of their voices when they finally returned our calls. 

By listening to their concerns and frustrations, we noticed five general themes about what it meant to be a leader—no matter where you were in the world—during the first weeks of the pandemic:

  • It’s genuinely lonely at the top, and sometimes there’s no one who has your back.
  • Your school community looks to you for clarity and reassurance when it’s not coming from anywhere else.
  • It’s really hard to find clarity and reassurance yourself if you’re not plugged into the right networks or support groups.
  • Every vision and goal for school has been bulldozed by COVID-19, and it is soul destroying.
  • If you’re going to give advice, it better be quick, and it better not waste anyone’s time.

The leaders we heard from had been dealt an unfortunate, tangled, and (often) lonely hand. But, we also knew they were eager to find a way to navigate through this situation from a place of strength. We were compelled to provide a beacon to follow. 

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade

The long, leisurely approach of weekly hour-long coaching sessions, whole day ideation workshops, and three-month consultations were all tools that might have served school leaders yesterday. But, in this complex moment, none of our tried and true approaches were going to fly.

We needed to create opportunities that were short, sharp, and so clear in their presentation that participants could act immediately. And, we had to address the five issues school leaders were voicing concern over. 

By May 2020, we had built an instructional foundation that, if introduced effectively, could really help. We dug in right away. 

Over the course of two weeks, we held five one-hour sessions with small groups of school leaders. We began by asking what concerns and challenges were keeping them up at night. Then, within 48 hours, we brought them together with world-class experts and peers who could provide some answers.

Next, we built out a toolkit of easy-to-understand, up-to-the-minute resources that could be immediately applied with their students, staff, and school community. We designed the toolkit around leaders’ top priorities: The mental health of children and staff and communicating clearly to their communities when there were no clear messages coming from outside sources.

Once the group was able to effectively manage the day-to-day chaos in their communities and move beyond a permanent state of triage, we were able to begin conversations about longer term strategies. We introduced a variety of ideas, people, and provocations to lift their heads and spirits and return a belief that a better tomorrow could be created today.

Many past crises have served to build stronger communities, and we wanted to use this one to do the same with the cohort of leaders we were supporting. We didn’t have all the answers, but we knew if we all faced this reality together, it could be enough. From across three continents and dozens of contexts, we knew we weren’t helming the same boat, but it was reassuring to know we were maneuvering through the same rough waters.

Once the two weeks concluded, Karine, Mike, and I knew we had made ourselves useful. We had formed a community of 35 school leaders who had each other’s backs and who, together, could discover answers to the deeply unsettling problems keeping them up at night. 

And, perhaps most importantly, we provided each other the opportunity to reconnect to the dreams that inspired all of us to enter education. No one we know came into education to be constantly weighed down by challenges. We came to build cathedrals of hope and guide children towards following their own dreams and realizing their full potential.

Built into the final hours of our time together, we enabled each person to name the big dreams they held for their school community, education, and the world. Our hope is that they hold onto and harness those dreams to make it through this crisis, to lead with less uncertainty, and to make more confident choices. 

And (hopefully), never again find themselves escaping to the bathroom.

Leadership Lemonade was such a success for the 35 participants and its co-leaders that they are kicking off a second cohort on September 23rd, 2020. You can learn more about the program and read testimonials on their website, if interested.

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