July/August 2021

Born from Crisis: An Emerging Framework for Effective Leadership

By Victor Simon III
It has long been understood that crisis doesn’t build character, it reveals it. While it is true that every challenge brings an opportunity to learn, adjust, develop, and grow, individuals typically reveal who they are — and what they are made of — in the face of adversity.
The same is true at the organi­zational level. Under great stress, organizations will show their strengths and weaknesses. This was especially true throughout the 2020-21 school year, as demon­strated by Gower SD 62, one of few public school districts to provide a full, in-person learning program from August 21, 2020 through May 28, 2021.
The important takeaway for any organization managing through crisis is whether or not there is a commitment to learn from the experience and become stronger. After distilling hundreds of hours of observational, expe­riential, and direct interview and coaching data, a framework for effective leadership is beginning to emerge from the COVID-19 emergency to shine new light on the elements of leadership called upon in turbulent times. The difference between success and failure — particularly as perceived through the effective management of an organizational crisis — can be attributed to one or more of the following elements:

  • Relationships or Bust

  • Communication or Bust

  • Political Frame or Bust

  • Deep Roots or Bust

  • Stay Humble and Hungry or Bust

Attaching “or bust” to each element of the framework links a sense of urgency and consequence to key leadership functions. Success and failure are relative terms; what it means for an effort to “bust” may have a number of definitions. With the stakes high, this leader­ship framework is meant to bring attention to key leadership func­tions in which school leaders can take deliberate steps to develop at the individual, group, and organi­zational levels. View this leadership framework through a lens of con­tinuous improvement and ongoing learning and development, both for effective leadership and impli­cations for leadership selection and development.
What can I do to develop capacity in each of these areas? What are some of the attributes I should be looking for in a leader?
As part of this framework, the “Three Cs,” are expected for lead­ers to demonstrate prior to being measured against this framework. High degrees of “competence, commitment, and cultural respon­siveness” are necessary to operate effectively as a leader in any con­text. Highly competent leaders have the capacity to complete the work assigned and the ability to be a quick study to reach mastery of new skills. Highly committed leaders understand that the role of a school leader is a lifestyle and they are constant advocates for those served. And leaders who demonstrate a high degree of cul­tural responsiveness are proactive in identifying and addressing the needs of students, parents, and community. With the “Three Cs” in place, we are able to take a closer look at each element of the leader­ship framework.
Relationships or Bust — Success in education comes from relationships; plain and simple. Without trusting and genuine relationships in place, a leader will face a point where progress and productivity suffer, and bust. Relationships with and between students, parents, members of the community, the board of edu­cation, staff, and administrators are all important and have to be initiated, developed, and tended. Attempting to do so only during a crisis is not going to bring about success.
Communication or Bust — Without clear, accurate, timely, and consistent communication, a leader will face a point where progress and productivity suffer, and bust. A wide variety of com­munication strategies exist; use what works for you and your com­munity. It’s your message. Own it! Don’t limit yourself to a keyboard and social media platforms. Get out there and talk to people. A sig­nificant portion of our communi­cation is non-verbal. Don’t just tell me; show me.
Political Frame or Bust — If unable to combine strong relationships with effective communication, progress and pro­ductivity suffer, and bust. Effective leaders make connections between groups and build consensus. They compromise and form coalitions. Making the most of relationships and communication is a skill that involves managing different inter­ests — wants, needs, perspectives — competing for limited resourc­es. Effective leaders understand the value of building political capital and, in times of crisis, demonstrate a willingness to risk or spend the capital they have built.
Deep Roots or Bust — To borrow an African proverb, “When the root is deep … there is no reason to fear the wind.” Effec­tive leaders are principled, resil­ient, resolved, focused on the core mission, and able to withstand the stiffest challenges. “Advocate” is both a noun and a verb. There is a sense of action and urgen­cy. Grit and resilience are not store-bought or developed in a workshop. They are hard-earned and experience-based. Leaders with deep roots choose courage over comfort and understand that leadership is not always about tak­ing giant leaps forward. It is often about being able to hold your ground and remain true to your core principles and beliefs when times get tough. The inability to do so results in getting blown back a few steps and facing a point where progress and productivity suffer, and bust.
Stay Humble and Hungry or Bust — Two characteristics, humility and will, describe the most effective leaders and are used together in this framework to emphasize this pairing. Humble leaders are ambitious; they tie that ambition to the organiza­tion and community they serve and to the cause, not themselves. Effective leaders are grateful to serve, understand their role, com­mit to continuous improvement, and understand the power in the adage, “change is inevitable, growth is optional.” Leaders with a fixed mindset and a sense of “arriving” and being beyond reproach will face a point where progress and productivity suffer, or bust.
Taken together, the prerequi­sites and the leadership framework have implications for gap analysis, recruiting and hiring, and pro­fessional learning and coaching. There is an urgency to our work. And we know, especially this year, that educational leaders matter. If we’re not working to challenging or changing the system, we have to acknowledge our acceptance of it and the responsibilities that come with preserving the status quo. What are the implications and next steps for you and your board of education?
Victor Simon III, Ed.D., is Superintendent of Gower SD 62 in Willowbrook and Assistant/Adjunct Professor at the University of Illinois Chicago and Concordia University Chicago.