Leading Out of the Storm: Taking Schools Forward (Not ‘Back to Normal’) | Joshua Freedman | 6 Min Read

Trust is the missing link; it’s a call for safety in an era where students, parents, faculty, board members and administrators feel overwhelmed and buffeted by volatility. While “return to normal” might sound appealing, it’s a myth that’s actually contributing to the conundrum. The only path is forward, which means that braver is safer.

School leaders are grappling with pressures that combine into a painful mess:

  • The emotional and financial burdens of the pandemic, including exhausted educators
  • Students who are, in record numbers, experiencing painful anxiety and loss of stamina
  • Parents and board members who are filled with their own complex emotions
  • Deep uncertainty about the emerging economic conditions
  • Social polarization including deep divisions about if and how to address racism and other areas of inequity
  • A growing recognition that the foundational structures of independent school design (from curriculum to exclusivity to grading to governance) are not working well
  • People who are more stressed, isolated, and volatile than ever before

Is it possible to lead in this context? What does it take to move forward? In the face of all this uncertainty, it’s easy to understand a wish to “go back to normal” or to retreat toward the past. Here’s why that won’t work — and how bravery is the real path to safety.

“Normal” isn’t coming back

In addition to the brutal costs to physical health, the pandemic affected millions, maybe billions of people’s mental health. Will these burdens “go away by themselves” once schools, businesses, and communities re-open?

Sadly, it’s more likely the opposite. In times of deep stress, people often put their heads down and muddle through. It’s only once they can take a breath and realize they’ve survived that they’re able to confront the psychological burden. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, nearly half of the cases of post-traumatic stress didn’t start until more than six months after the event.

Meanwhile, volatility and isolation are increasing, especially among young people. The 2021 State of the Heart report shows major declines in the ability to regulate emotions. The pandemic of anxiety for GenZ is exacerbated by large losses in their sense of community (see the graph) — which leads to what author Brit Wray calls, “Generation Dread.”

“Back” is the wrong direction

The “great resignation” is also affecting schools and heads; in 2021 NAIS reported 21.6% of independent schools experienced a head transition in 2019-2020, almost double the rate of 10 years ago. Why? New research from 2021 found purpose is, by far, the most important motivator for Heads — and a sense of moral support from the board is one of the strongest predictors of Heads’ job satisfaction.

In the last few years, the ground shook, and now leaders are asking: Can I fulfill my purpose here? Do I have the support to lead with purpose? Many schools were on a path of change pre-pandemic — can school leaders re-engage their communities to move forward? 

While “back to normal” has a certain appeal, was the old “normal” all that great? It’s possible that personal pain has become so acute that the quest to “return to normal” is an attempt to reduce the pain of destruction, inequities, and abuses. Yet globally, as Sara Pantuliano, CEO of the global strategy firm ODI, points out, the recent past was rife with devastating climate destruction, massive global inequity, and horrific human rights abuses. If we want highly engaged educators who feel the pull of purpose, we need leaders who engage in vision. Purpose is connected to the future. 

Distrust is a cry for safety

As one Head of School told me, “I earned a lot of trust from my Board by the way we navigated the pandemic, but they’ve become more uncertain about everything.” In the face of widespread anxiety, and an increase in global volatility tied to declining emotional intelligence, it’s easy to see why uncertainty is endemic.   

As David Brooks explained in a must-read piece about America’s next stage, “Social trust is a measure of the moral quality of a society — of whether the people and institutions in it are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good.”

The widespread uncertainty may be one reason trust declined in 2021 — in institutions, companies, and especially in governments. It’s not just institutions. According to Pew, 71% of respondents see trust has dropped significantly in the last 20 years, and “49% of Americans say they think citizens’ trust in each other has fallen because people are not as reliable as they used to be.”

Based on this data, the people walking or zooming into your school are more afraid than they were in the past. Distrust is a signal of a lack of safety. Fear means, “Something I care about is at risk.” While the distrust and fear can be painful, they’re only there because of the desire for safety — because there’s something worth protecting.

Braver is safer

In a world of distrust, anxiety, and volatility, what’s at stake is safety. So what will make school leaders and their followers feel safer?

One option is stasis. All these pressures might make leaders want to retreat — don’t rock the boat. At the same time, the status quo is not going to survive. We’re in a time of upheaval, and our constituents are demanding change. 

Another option is bravery. We don’t need to and shouldn’t eliminate the valuable messages of fear. And, emotional intelligence doesn’t mean “obey all your feelings.” We need to listen and move forward. That’s courage.

As Sanje Ratnavale said at the 2021 OESIS Boston Conference, referencing the path ahead for independent schools: “you’re safer if you’re braver.” We’ve weathered multiple storms in recent years, the landscape has shifted, and the building blocks are scattered. This chaos is painful, and there’s a lot to grieve. It’s also an invitation to build.

What does brave leadership look like?

One way of assessing the effectiveness of leadership is in the response of followership. Some styles of leadership create more passivity by disempowering. Some create chaos by breaking bonds of social balance. Will your people experience your bravery as enlarging their own?

While conventional definitions of leadership talk about “setting direction” and “decisiveness,” these lead to an unfortunate set of assumptions about how leaders should show up. There’s a mythos around “strength” that’s embedded in white male elitist systems of power. This John Wayne Leader looks good on screen, and while he might seem to engender a kind of trust, it’s trust in himself or his quick shooting; how does that shape trust in others and the larger community?

One of the pioneers in trust is neuroeconomist Paul Zak; his work is on oxytocin (which is part of the neurobiological basis of trust) and the organizational effects of trust. Even “way back” in 2017, he said we’re in a trust revolution where the old pillars of trust are crumbling — and authentic relationships are the new frontier.

In this quest for authenticity, rather than decisiveness that accrues points to the leader, in a relational context the goal is mutuality. To move beyond the volatility of the current storm, we need people to feel seen, heard, and valued. That means going beneath the surface. Safety, then, requires us to engage our own and one another’s emotions. 

This is why, ultimately, the tool for trust-centered leadership is emotional intelligence (the learnable skills to be smarter with feelings). If we’re going to step into this arena of authentic connection, we need to know and trust ourselves and have the tools to know and trust one another. Social-emotional learning, then, is for adults at least as much as for students. It’s for all of us learning to navigate new territory, and cultivating the skills to step forward together.

Joshua Freedman

Joshua Freedman, CEO, Six Seconds, is one of the pioneers in the field of emotional intelligence; he cofounded Six Seconds in 1997, is the bestselling author of At the Heart of Leadership and five other books and six validated psychometric assessments on EQ, and contributor to many EQ programs including Coaching Equity Essentials. He’s also an instructor at Columbia Teachers College SPA administrative credential program; he is cocreator of the world’s largest social emotional learning program, POP-UP Festival ­— in partnership with UNICEF World Children’s Day, bringing skills for emotional wellbeing to millions of children & adults in 200+ countries.

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