One of my mentors begins each interrogative problem-solving conversation with the same question, “Who knew what, when, and what did you do about it?” The question pushes us to think and rely on our morals, integrity, judgment and common sense in order to act, and ultimately to lead.
Amidst the Trump era and current Coronavirus pandemic, organizations, school districts and citizens at large are looking for solid leadership. We are searching for leadership that offers honesty, hope, guidance, direction and motivation as we all rally to get through the next several months. Many leaders are unsuited and ill-equipped to deal with the level of challenge we are facing as a country. The current health crisis has disrupted everything about our way of existing. For some, the adjustments have been inconvenient, but for others, the adjustments have been life-altering.
We could list a series of cliché terms and attributes that help define solid leadership, but that wouldn’t be helpful. Instead, we need to discuss the ways in which we operationalize those skills and attributes to execute the kind of leadership necessary to save lives.
Below, I offer a non-exhaustive list of thought-points that offer leaders a place to begin, and most importantly, ideas for each of us to reflect upon no matter where we find ourselves in the leadership structure.
Be antiracist: At all times. Not just now.
First, we need school leaders who are actively and aggressively working to be antiracist. Dr. Ibram Kendi defines an antiracist as one who is supporting an antiracist policy through actions or expressing an antiracist idea. Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity, and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.
School leaders must have deep knowledge, or be committed to developing an awareness and understanding of the history of race and racism in order to disrupt racist leadership practices that further disenfranchise Blacks and other groups of color that are treated unjustly.
Coronavirus, coupled with these inherent and systemic disparities, are causing the Black community to suffer and die at alarming and disproportionate rates. Many of these same social determinants are shining a light on gaps that exacerbate inequities in schools. All leaders must be antiracist, or at least be deeply committing to becoming antiracist.
Be clear bout your core values: Articulate and live them out each day.
School leaders must place humanity above all else. Get clear on your core values. What centers you? What drives your decisions? For this to happen, we must know and name our core values. Far too often leaders don’t do the hard work to identify and live in their core values. If leaders are unaware of their core values, they will be easily blinded by competing distractions, noise and insurmountable criticism that, in many ways, can be debilitating.
While there are several values and value statements, it is the clear communication of these values that inspire others to follow, support and work alongside you—or not.
It is also important to note that we only have a single set of values and that these values ultimately shape how we show up to this work. You don’t have a personal set and professional set. As Brene Brown argues, “We don’t shift our values based on context.” Further, Brown argues that we only have two core values.
When selecting your values, continue pruning your list until you have two. For example, my core values are courage and justice. I believe in trying to be brave and vulnerable at all costs and telling the entire story of inequity in schools and in this country. I also value justice. If I am asked to participate in an inherently unjust policy that will lead to inequitable outcomes for any group, I assert myself and offer an alternate solution.
School leaders can’t fake their values, and they will be challenged and often in conflict with those of friends, family members and colleagues in the workplace. You’ll know you’ve selected the right core values when behavior and decisions are very closely aligned to the values you have selected. If your behavior and decisions are not consistent, then your core values are aspirational. If you keep working and keep them top of mind, and you will eventually live them out. We cannot hide what drives us.
Be an effective communicator: Clear, compassionate, empathic communication is the key.
Communication is successful when the message the speaker sends is the same message the listener hears. Exceptional school leaders are clear communicators. Communication is both an art and a science, and the balance is delicate and complex. It is necessary for leaders to craft a complete message that includes all relevant information. Additionally, the messaging should be clear and brief, conveying information that is plainly understood and concise.
Lastly, the information needs to be timely and valid. This can be done by offering and requesting information in an appropriate timeframe, verifying authenticity and validating information. We are in the era of mistruths, omissions and outright lies. Leaders must communicate effectively, early and often, and above all, truthfully.
The ability to communicate is one of the most valuable skills we could acquire. On April 9, 2020, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic, former President Barack Obama argued that “the biggest mistake any of us can make in these situations is to misinform.” He went on to say, “Speak it clearly, speak it with compassion, speak it with empathy…” During this time of uncertainty, confusion, and conflation of reality and rumor, it is paramount to serve as leaders who are clear in their communication, compassionate in their words and candid at all costs.
Be data-driven and learning-focused: Facts and data matter now more than ever.
School improvement efforts should include a problem of practice and data. Two catchy slogans guide my thinking when I support school teams: “The data made me do it” and “In God we trust. All others? Bring data.” In the face of the current pandemic and leading through crisis in general, leaders must work aggressively to scrub data and commit to deep learning about the challenge to safely respond to and ultimately eradicate the pandemic.
Examining data, both historical and current, helps to ensure leaders work to understand causes, trends and possible outcomes. For example, from a critical race perspective, every current inequity in education and society writ large can be illuminated by historicization, or historical contextualization. COVID-19 has uncovered disparities in access to technology, internet access, food, healthcare, affordable childcare, and myriad resources that many middle-class educators take for granted.
Even a cursory study of the history of African American and Latinx achievement reveals longstanding struggles for equity in education and access to basic needs. Further, a commitment to data triangulation and study guides leaders away from repeating mistakes and closer to solutions. Leaders must do the hard work of daily study to get smart about the context and complexities of the multitude of scenarios their stakeholders bring. Lest we not forget, the opportunity gap remains a major crisis.
Be about the big “Cs”: Don’t just talk about them. Be about them.
Collaboration is better than competition. School leaders must resist the temptation to compete against other leaders and members of their teams. This sense of collaboration must be fostered and baked into the fabric of the organization or institution. Collaboration makes space for kindness, critical thinking, problem-solving and collective efficacy.
We also know from a wide swath of research that diverse, collaborative teams with ample perspectives and expertise, life experiences, racial and gender identities reach solutions to complex problems more effectively. Therefore, crisis leadership not only calls for additional collaboration, but inclusive collaboration if possible.
This list is a place to start as we seek sound leadership.
Dr. Heidi Oliver-O’Gilvie is the Director of Leadership Development at Anne Arundel County Public Schools. A lifelong literacy enthusiast, Dr. Oliver-O’Gilvie is also a consultant and expert on leadership for diversity and equity. She holds a bachelor's degree in social work from Virginia State University, a master’s degree in education, supervision and instruction from Howard University and a ...