If you have been following along the blog throughout the month of August, you know that up until this point, when discussing crisis leadership, we have emphasized the pre-crisis situation that school leaders face. What is the culture of your campus pre-crisis? How are you communicating with your stakeholders pre-crisis? How are you establishing relationships built on trust pre-crisis? In other words, what is your premeditated crisis leadership strategy? How intentional is your leadership before a crisis ever occurs?
While helpful, and potentially allowing leaders to mitigate the negative impact of a crisis, preemptive strategies can only take us so far. If we look at the list of potential crisis scenarios from our previous post, we can see that many of these crises are not a matter of if, but a matter of when. A student is going to pop up missing, even if only for a few minutes. A storm is going to tick across the local radar. There may be a bank robbery nearby causing a non-intruder lockdown to occur. There will be a fender bender on the bus, or a staff member may become terminally ill. What actually happens when that notification comes? Although each crisis is different, there are some response strategies we can consider to support us in the appropriate execution of our emergency response plans.
Our bodies during crisis
One of the first things that happens in a crisis situation is that our bodies, in a way that is outside of our human control, respond. When faced with a threat, our fear center, the amygdala (located in the brain), jumps into fight or flight mode. This stimulation reduces the amount of working memory available to us, which can lead to heightened reactions and mistakes. One of the best things a leader can do in a time of crisis is to take just a few seconds to breathe, and quickly assess the situation, taking deep belly breaths in an effort to counteract the overactive amygdala. Although one can't stay here for very long depending on the urgency of the situation, I resort to phrase that I know and so dearly believe. Nothing bad ever happened from taking a pause.
I will give one quick example before we continue. When I was met with a bomb threat on Day 4 of my principalship at our high school, I did not have a working memory that allowed me to quickly access bomb threat protocols in my brain. As I took a deep breath and evaluated the information I was handed, however, I did have muscle memory for a quick and logical evacuation plan. Our staff had been thoroughly prepared in fire drill protocols. We would pull the alarm and quickly evacuate our campus. We had attendance protocols, and no one would overreact as fire drills are common monthly occurrences for our school. I would work with our maintenance team to find waters to deliver (seeing that it was over 100 degrees in Arizona in August) and with our nurse to ensure that our very pregnant staff member received appropriate support. It only took about 20 seconds for my brain to put it all together, but it happened, 1) due to pre-existing muscle memory and 2) taking a quick, deep, reassuring breath.
As leaders, we often go into fight mode in this way when an emergency happens. Good leaders know that they have created a culture that fosters its greatest strength in a time of crisis - it's team. In the aforementioned scenario, I was confident that my staff knew our safety protocols, and that our veteran teachers would guide those new to our team. I knew my Assistant Principal could oversee attendance procedures while I created a tactical plan with our local PD. I trusted my people, which freed up my mental capacity to stay in problem-solving mode and respond appropriately to the uncertainties in our new circumstances. Team dynamics should not be underrated during a crisis. If you trust your team, they will serve you well.
In a moment, we will discuss further psychological and physiological effects of a crisis on the human body. For now, however, what happens when we get past fight or flight mode? When everyone is out of immediate harm and the eminent danger has passed, what happens next?
After Fight or Flight
After our initial response to an emergency, our primary responsibility as a school leader is to ensure the physical and psychological safety and well-being of our students and staff. Usually we have protocols that we can dig out from our muscle memory to ensure that safety is achieved in an efficient manner, even if the circumstances are undesirable (such as marching out the practice field in 100+ degree heat). The next steps for a leader are important here. Remember, in most circumstances, the majority of stakeholders who are being impacted by the leader's decisions may be uninformed as to the why behind an event. If we call a non-intruder lockdown, for example, because we have a missing child, most staff may not know that's why. In the previously outlined scenario, our staff believed I was simply cruel to have a PM fire drill on one of the hottest days of the year. This is where communication comes in, and it's important to consider what this might look like for everyone involved.
In a crisis, leaders must assume that, due to human nature, most human instincts are going to be counterproductive to what we are trying to accomplish. For example, if I had come over the intercom and said, "Bomb threat!" I can assure you that chaos would have ensued. My staff didn't have prior context for what to do during a bomb threat, although they would probably assume to evacuate the building and chaotically flee. What they did know and understand, however, was how to evacuate when the fire alarm went off. Thus. that seemed like a better, more strategic plan. Knowing what, how and when to communicate are essential for the most desirable outcome possible in a crisis situation. Psychology tells us why.
In the previous section, we talked about the psychological and physiological human response to a crisis situation when it first occurs. While the initial shock may dissipate a bit as the event unfolds, we still have stakeholders who are responsible for the well-being of their students who are making assumptions about a situation's facts. They may also be operating with tunnel vision, unable to see outside of the current experience they are living. They may demonstrate overconfidence bias, believing that they know more about the situation than they truly do, or can handle it better than they are currently equipped to do. Confirmation bias could also exist, providing a filter to the current reality that prohibits someone from processing information that doesn't align with their preconceived notions about an event. Clear and concise communication is an antidote to all of these scenarios, and should not be taken lightly by a school leader during an emergency event (as soon as it is safe to consider). As leaders, we can actually mitigate the psychological reactions of our staff.
Communication is just the first among the soft skills necessary for a leader to execute in a time of crisis. Stress management is a second soft skill that the best leaders will exhibit when a crisis occurs. With appropriate stress management, a leader can confidently navigate the chaos, creating a rhythm and pace to the events that meet the demands of the current situation. By continuing to breathe deeply and react with calmness, yet assertiveness throughout the bomb threat crisis, for example, I was able to not only quickly evacuate the building, but efficiently re-enter the building and guide our teachers through attendance protocols upon reunification. Once students were dismissed and released to parents, we were able to gather as a staff and conduct a swift briefing with instructions on how to report further information related to the event. Staff were dismissed for home as soon as possible and leadership gathered to draft a briefing to provide to the public with the support of our district leadership team. These soft skills allowed the school day to end almost in sync with the current bell schedule, and for staff to get home to their families and out of the heat in a timely manner. In a crisis, these soft skills can greatly influence the impact of an emergency event.
Now that we understand the types of crisis one might anticipate as a school leader, as well as the psychological and physiological responses one might experience both personally and with those in which we lead, we can better prepare ourselves for how we might respond when an emergency occurs. After the first sleepless post-crisis night, however, what happens next? It is often in the emotionally exhausting aftermath that one's leadership truly comes into play. Stick around with us tomorrow as we talk about the logistical aftermath of a crisis event.