A SUPERINTENDENT'S RESPONSE TO CRISIS: AUTHENTICITY.
Updated: Nov 27
Savvy Public Relations Practitioners Fare Best in a Crisis Part I of a series on leading in the time of COVID.
An exceptionally large number of superintendents have left their positions since the pandemic struck. The role ineffective crisis response has played in those departures is unanswered. However, a failed response to a crisis lands squarely on the shoulders of an organization's chief executive officer. And in the case of school districts, that's the superintendent. Whether or not a superintendent left on her or his own accord, school boards who have agreed to part ways with their CEO in the midst of a pandemic begs the question of whether or not their superintendents (and/or governance teams) were prepared to lead their organization through a crisis.
Superintendents who have fared best value authenticity above all and are able to communicate effective messaging as savvy public relations practitioners.
Measuring successful crisis leadership is complex. Among the benchmarks is a leader's ability to motivate and subsequently influence key audiences toward a collective behavior or belief. Therein lies the importance of authenticity since bringing internal and external audiences together requires a high level of trust.
Forgiveness may be afforded to leaders who take swift action and respond authentically during the earliest phases of a crisis, even if the response effort falls short of its intended outcome. The crisis landscape is littered with landmines that even the most experienced and successful leaders step on. What's not forgiven is a delayed response. It results in the perception of indifference, regardless of whether or not indifference was responsible for the delay. If there are victims, indifference is deadly. It was in New Orleans in 2005, for example. And it is now.
The government and corporate worlds offer numerous examples of failure fallout in the aftermath of crisis, from FEMA post-Katrina to the $4.5B Exxon extraction over the Valdez oil spill rendered by the federal appeals court on the basis of retribution and justice. Crisis in education, however, has not historically crossed district boundaries. Until COVID-19, of course, and the emergence of a new paragon of ineffective crisis response...leaving no governmental entities behind.
COVID-19 is not to be confused with run-of-the-mill crises common in education, such as economic downturns, faltering standardized test scores, teacher shortages, or failed education policy. COVID-19 is boundless and is shared by entities of all kinds, among them public education. In its wake lies a divided nation with deepening socioeconomic inequities that continues to ravage our most vulnerable communities. Nowhere is this more evident than in public education, where the inequities have played out on a national and international stage, affecting 191 countries and 1.5 billion students, half of whom did not have internet access. About 7 million of those students reside in the United States.
Education has been exposed as a perpetrator, instead of the great equalizer it has masqueraded as while it's been preoccupied erecting false platforms to level the playing field for the past seventy years or so.
For more on America's attempts to the playing field, read my essay, Unmaterialized Promises, Damaged Psyches, & Stained Souls: Revisiting the Coleman Report on its 50th).
OK. Now back to how successful superintendents foster trust and lead their organizations through a crisis. There is no playbook, but there are models to follow. First and most importantly, superintendents must authentically articulate and communicate a clear understanding of the magnitude of the crisis (for more on authenticity read my essay, What Is Your Flavor of Leadership). Second, successful superintendents must suspend business-as-usual practices (education is fraught with institutional barriers and is among the slowest of slow-moving decision-making environments). Third, savvy superintendents understand the concept of decision velocity, which isn't as much about speed as it is agility (again, education as an institution is not renowned for its agility). Superintendents who already reserved, or were able to gain decision-making autonomy fared best given the rapidly shifting context of COVID-19 crisis management (for more on decision-making and how the organizational environment limits and shapes leader behavior, read my essay, Decision-Making: The Heart-of Leadership).
Superintendents and their districts that have labored through the decision-making process during COVID-19 have found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.
Public relations professionals understand how important authenticity and decisiveness are in times of uncertainty and chaos. Districts with a PR person or team have a distinct advantage over districts without them. PR professionals are well versed on the existing body of knowledge relative to crisis management and are trained to communicate with a variety of audiences. Many superintendents I work with who happen to be without a professionally trained team of PR professionals have sought professional advice elsewhere or have collaborated among themselves.
If it's true that the situation determines the leader, then it's also true that there is no one-size-fits-all leader anymore than there is a one-size-fits-all crisis. There isn't a standard response or set of leadership behaviors, though there are common ones. Leading in the context of a crisis calls for leaders to tap into their adaptive capacity as new information cascades their way.
If you believe careful consideration and decision velocity are incompatible, you are not alone.
But savvy superintendents can think on their feet and are able to process information at warp speeds. They are also able to reframe how audiences view the crisis in recognition that actions taken today create new sets of circumstances tomorrow. As President Kennedy once suggested, out of crises can emerge new and incredible opportunities. Anyone who has ever conducted a SWOT analysis know that threats lead to opportunities.
Crises typically results in loss. Furthermore, during a crisis our fundamental values of certainty and predictability are shaken to the core. In the case of the COVID-19 crisis, loss is measured in lives and the only thing that's certain is how unpredictable the pandemic continues to be. In education, it's also measured in learning as its impact becomes potentially generational. We may soon be adding the generation gap to the achievement gap as COVID-19 carnage extends to a generation of learners left hopelessly behind with each passing day.