Leadership is difficult in good times. In times of crisis, this difficulty grows exponentially. This notion has become even more clear through my work supporting a Chief-level leader through the restructuring of a network of schools. This leader’s plate was full before the COVID crisis hit, and their responsibility and leadership scope has essentially doubled as a result of COVID: becoming responsible for orchestrating the network’s response to the abrupt closure of schools, and most significantly designing and implementing virtual instruction. Daily they are responding to questions and concerns from families, teachers, staff, and principals, and are looked to by staff to both assuage fears and set a concrete vision and plan for next steps.
My client reflected on having to spend all of their time being “on.” Conference call after call, zoom meeting after meeting, this leader has to be the one with all the answers, or the plan to find the answers. Staff call them for advice and support, or to complain about the way other team members are responding. And my client has to be there to listen, console and plan. All day, every day.
Yes, great leaders provide security and vision to their teams to manage through crises, but fulfilling that role is incredibly draining. Last week, my client and I reflected on how nice it is for them to have a chance to “take off the cape” during our check-ins: to not have to have all the answers, to be able to complain about how difficult all of this is, and to express disappointment, fear and anger honestly. I was honored that my client saw our check-in as the time for them to take that guard down and to be able to react to and reflect on how the work was weighing on them. It also provided an opportunity for us to brainstorm ways that we can handle the burden of leadership to meet the needs of staff without burning out.
I also saw this as a reflection of what we at Hendy pride ourselves on: walking arm-in-arm with our clients as they design solutions and create programs to better serve teachers and kids. Sometimes that relationship means gently pushing our clients to do something differently; other times it means accelerating full speed ahead on executing a plan. In these crazy times, it has sometimes meant simply providing a space for our clients to “take off their capes”, to reflect honestly about the difficulties of being a leader in crisis, and to know that leading others requires us to take care of ourselves.