Leadership in a Pandemic

Dr. Jessie Barrie
One of the most common things I have heard over the past nine months, often expressed with a tinge of sympathy, is some version of “WOW, what a challenging time to be a leader!” Having spent decades in leadership roles and teaching leadership in a variety of settings, I never could have imagined the new challenges that would arise from leading through a global pandemic. Some lessons I have learned: 

Self-leadership is a priority.
Self-leadership is a critical skill for every individual, regardless of role, and built on self-awareness, self-control, and clarity of goals and purpose. There has never been a more critical time to thoughtfully and reflectively identify what we each need to navigate challenges, find joy, and build resiliency. Our old defaults and patterns have been disrupted, forcing us to rethink and reestablish our toolbox. My self-leadership in recent months has involved the gifts of mindlessly watching TV to decompress after long days, creatively rebuilding my exercise routine with gyms closed, having work-free Saturdays, and allowing a block in my schedule to drive my five-year-old to school two mornings a week. Each of these things comes with a “consequence” to my endless to-do list, but they help me maintain a sense of balance in such intense times. 

Proactively plan (for a variety of scenarios).
I was at the National Association of Independent Schools conference in Philadelphia in late February—hearing first-hand about the experiences of schools in China that were dealing with COVID—when I realized we had to assume that COVID would arrive in the US. I spent the plane ride home coordinating task forces to start planning our response should that scenario manifest. Shortly thereafter, the first cases were reported in the States. Weeks later, when the governor announced schools would be shut down, we were ready to pivot into a remote teaching and learning model. Our model wasn’t flawless, and we made (and continue to make) adjustments to our plans, but we were ready to respond because we proactively planned. Over the summer, instead of following the path of many schools and committing to one model for the year, we took the time to design and build out three distinct models of teaching, learning, and community that we could deploy throughout the year, depending on different COVID realties. The significant amount of initial work has paid off considerably this semester and has allowed us to efficiently and effectively transition between models as needed.

You can’t wait for “right” answers. They don’t exist.
Decision making (especially during a global pandemic) is a constant balance of polarities—every decision will have its supporters and detractors. I have never been faced with the need to make so many significant decisions in such an intense time period of shifting variables that can as quickly make an earlier decision irrelevant. One of the most helpful things our COVID task force did at the start of the summer was to clarify our core goals to guide our decision-making. These goals included minimizing risk through adherence to COVID safe practices; maximizing in-person teaching, learning, and community; being prepared to pivot; working in partnership with our community in support of our community. Grounding ourselves in these goals has helped facilitate consistent decision-making time and again. Equally important is the concept of “disagree and commit,” shared by Jeff Bezos in his letter to Amazon shareholders in 2017. As a leader, it is important to make space to hear opposing viewpoints, but it is also necessary to make hard decisions and to build a culture in which your team is willing to ultimately trust those decisions and productively contribute to their success. 

Identify your support team.
Over the summer we had three different COVID task forces working simultaneously on educational programming, risk management, and financial modeling. These task forces came together every three weeks to “connect important dots” and receive feedback from a broader group of stakeholders. This process built expertise and understanding among a diverse group of individuals who facilitated and supported decision-making and implementation of our plans. Shared leadership was critical to this process—imagining making these kinds of decisions alone is inconceivable. The trust and community built with these individuals through the shared purpose of this work has been an unanticipated benefit of COVID. Another unanticipated benefit has come from the increased connection and collaboration of the New Mexico Association of Independent School Heads. Once COVID hit, we realized we all needed each other more than ever before so we shifted from bi-annual meetings to a standing weekly Zoom meeting. This has completely changed the dynamic, closeness, trust, and idea-sharing within our small community. I have made new friends and trusted allies, and we have all become critical members of each other’s support teams. 

Risk management is a critical leadership tool.
My past experience as an outdoor educator and as a school crisis management coordinator has provided me with essential skills to lead through the pandemic. These roles taught me to understand perceived vs. real risks, navigate complex situations thoughtfully and rationally, proactively mitigate risk, design and execute crisis management plans, manage diverse levels of risk tolerance, and communicate calmly and clearly regardless of the surrounding chaos. These have been some of the most utilized and important skills in my leadership toolbox in recent months. 

In times of crisis, you cannot communicate too much.
When we shifted into remote teaching and learning in March, I started a routine of sending a weekly Friday email to parents and guardians, and launched weekly virtual parent/guardian meetings.  Our Board of Trustees adjusted from monthly to weekly meetings. As we navigated such an unprecedented Spring semester, with rapidly changing conditions, having a dedicated time to communicate reassured our community, built trust, provided timely information, proactively answered questions, and also ensured a thoughtful and consistent communication channel. While the frequency of these communications has been reduced as we have settled into more familiar rhythms, I have maintained monthly emails and virtual meetings.  An unexpected benefit has been the huge growth of parent/guardian involvement in virtual meetings that never would have been possible due to the logistics and limitations of in-person meetings. Post-COVID, the benefits of virtual meetings will continue as a way to more efficiently engage and connect with parents/guardians. 

Stay grounded in WHY you lead.
COVID has tested leadership strength and resolve in novel and unprecedented ways over the past nine months: the stress of constant and seemingly impossible decisions, the endlessly long workdays, the seemingly “evaporated” weekends and vacations, the emotional exhaustion of trying to meet everyone’s needs and anxieties, the frustration of thoughtful decisions being deemed irrelevant by new data… Every leader I know has experienced significant soul-searching about the sustainability of the pace and intensity of their role in recent months. I was at my lowest point in late April when I realized we wouldn’t be able to bring our students back to campus to properly end the year. The hardest thing for me was the loss of connection to our students, who are core to my joy as an educator; although difficult,  it reminded me how critical “why” it is for me. When I was removed from the tangible connection to students, I found myself becoming depleted and demoralized. I sought new ways to find those connections, even remotely, through creating electronic morning meeting content, including my first foray into TikTok. The initiatives we designed in the spring to celebrate our seniors, including our drive-by “goody box” drop-offs and our amazing “drive-thru” graduation ceremony were hugely rejuvenating to me as a leader. Nothing has been better than having our students back on campus the past nine weeks in the hybrid model. Experiencing their joy and gratitude to be back in community and observing their laughter and learning throughout the campus, makes all the hard work so worth it. As long as I stay grounded in “the why” of my leadership, I welcome and can sustain the challenges. 

Allow yourself to be human.
I cried a few times yesterday as we made the very heartbreaking decision to shift, one week earlier than planned, to remote teaching and learning. I feel deeply sad to lose four days on campus with our students next week, even knowing it is the right decision in light of the surge of COVID cases in our state.  I am profoundly proud and grateful for every member of our community for contributing to the success of the past nine weeks of hybrid. This is a gift we have given each other that will carry us through the challenges to come.

Thank you for the lessons, Bosque. I am a stronger and more sustained leader because of you. 

Stay healthy. Stay Connected. 

With gratitude,

Jessie Barrie, PhD
Head of School