In the spring of 2020, leaders across the globe were suddenly faced with a word that not many had experienced in their lifetime. With the onslaught of COVID-19, an illness caused by a virus easily spread from person to person, we suddenly found the world shutting down around us. We first heard of a lockdown in Wuhan, where the virus originated, and we lightly scrolled through our social feeds, clicking links more out of curiosity than out of fear. It became a bit more unsettling when we saw photos from South Korea with long lines of people waiting for temperature checks in hazmat suits. Before long, we were hearing of entire countries shutting down, starting with Italy, Spain and quickly spreading throughout the European Union and soon thereafter, the U.K. (where we happened to be in Ireland). The terms "global pandemic," "lockdown," "quarantine," and "essential workers" became common every day terms. In just days, it seemed as if our world had been completely turned upside down.
As the world shut down, leaders at all levels from top CEO's and government officials to church pastors and school principals, were called upon to make difficult decisions in the face of the unknown. Despite hours of diligent training, emergency handbooks, procedures and drills, there wasn't anything that had quite equipped the world for what to do when a nation had to completely shut down. Or a state. Or a city. Or a church. Or a school. Suddenly, we were "safer at home" and not out in public. Even going to the grocery store was a risk. What we didn't have, however, was manual to guide us. Suddenly, there were no longer common social rules or norms.
So, how do leaders respond in the face of such a crisis? Over the course of the next 30 days, we will explore just that, focusing on crisis leadership specifically through the lens of a school leader. First, however, it is important to know just what a crisis is, and what crisis leadership truly is.
Definition of a crisis
Crisis is a noun. It is the Latin form of the Greek word krisis, defined as, "turning point, a critical moment." Various practitioners and fields of work define crisis in different ways. Here are some examples:
A specific, unexpected, and non-routine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and threat or perceived threat to an organization's high priority goals. (Seeger et al. 1998, p233)
A crisis is change - either sudden or evolving - that results in an urgent problem that must be addressed immediately. For a business, a crisis is anything with the potential to cause sudden and serious damage to its employees, reputation, or bottom line. (Harvard Business Essentials 2004, p. xvi).
And, perhaps the most empowering of the three:
A crisis is an unstable time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending - either one with the distinct possibility of a highly undesirable outcome or one with the distinct possibility of a highly desirable and extremely positive outcome. It is usually a 50-50 proposition, but you can improve the odds. (Fink, 1986, p. 15)
You can see by the dates of these definitions that crises are not new. In fact, they happen in small and larger scales around us as leaders every day. When a crisis hits on a global scale, however, new demands are put on leaders to navigate the unanticipated change with competence and clarity where, perhaps there is none. An emergency manual no longer serves a purpose when you are venturing into a crisis of the unknown.
Based on the aforementioned definitions, let's further develop a working definition of crisis leadership.
Defining Crisis Leadership
In general, most of know and understand the differences between leaders and managers based on our own personal experiences in the world. Managers concentrate more on direct steps that need to be taken to respond to a situation, exhibiting a tendency to communicate response plans, react when a crisis occurs, and then drive the necessary response. Leaders, however, tend to have the "long view". They are proactive in developing a vision and mission for their constituents, focusing on organizational culture, and thus on the enduring issues that come from a crisis rather than executing a by-the-books response. Both types of leadership can be necessary in an organization, however, for the sake of our dialogue this month, we will focus on the crisis leader rather than the crisis manager.
Now that we have considered multiple definitions for the term crisis and have identified characteristics of a leader versus a manager, let's create our working definition of crisis leadership. I decided to play upon the original definition of the word and the last definition we examined by Fink. For the purpose of our work moving forward, crisis leadership will be:
The ability of a leader to proactively respond to a sudden and/or evolving situation outside of the normal scope of one's expertise.
I could play around with this forever; however, for the scope of our work this month, this will do. Now, let's adopt a quick lens of reference to further set the stage for the content we will explore this month.
Crisis Leadership as a School leader
If we use our definition of crisis leadership from above, in a school setting, when faced with a crisis, a school leader would need to examine his/her ability to proactively respond to a sudden and/or evolving situation outside of the normal scope of one's expertise. Boom! This is what we have been living since March, folks! I think a global pandemic and the sudden closing of schools is pretty much the definition of being outside of the normal scope of one's expertise as a general school leader, don't you? I'm not a doctor. I'm not a nurse. And I certainly am not a professional from the CDC. Further, I have most certainly had to examine my ability to respond to the pandemic as it has evolved. I have had to consider the climate and culture of my school, the way we communicate, and my leadership capacity in various realms (spiritual, intellectual, physical, and emotional). And, shockingly enough, I didn't learn any of this in school. You know, the one they make you take to get that fancy piece of paper that is framed above your desk? Yeah, not on a course on crisis leadership on my transcript, friends.
As we move forward this month, we will explore crisis leadership in the school setting, starting with the preliminary work that should occur before a crisis ever begins. We will discuss the importance of building a culture of transparency and trust, and how to formulate a premeditated crisis leadership plan. We will discuss strategies for transparent communication in the face of the unknown and pre-crisis relationships on campus. Then, we will move into what happens when a crisis occurs, when a crisis continues, and how we can cope through a crisis when it just doesn't seem to end.
It is my hope that by the end of this month, we will have a deeper, richer of understanding of crisis leadership as a school community, and that we can engage together in formulating strategies that increase our leadership capacity during a time when many feel depleted, discouraged and lost. Together, as a community of educators, I know that we will come out on the other side of this crisis stronger, more empathetic, more sensitive and aware. We simply need to dig into the work and lean into each other in the face of sudden and unanticipated change.
Fink, S. Crisis management: Planning for the inevitable. New York: Amacom; 1986. [Google Scholar]
Harvard Business Essentials. Crisis management. Boston: Harvard Business School Press; 2004. [Google Scholar]
Seeger, M.W., Sellnow, T.L., Ulmer, R.R. (1998). Communication, organization and crisis. In M.E. Roloff (Ed.), Communication yearbook (21, pp. 231-275). Thousand Oak, CA: Sage.
Linger a Little Longer:
1. What is something that you found interesting among the three definitions of crisis above?
2. Which definition most resonates with you? Why?
3. How have you had to become a crisis leader in your own line of work or in your own household throughout this pandemic?