Sunday, September 29, 2013

Leading in Times of Chaos #SAVMP

Leading in Times of Chaos

Today I woke up thinking.  On most days this is a good thing but this was one of those mornings where I feel that I was thinking all night long.   My family knows the cycle of my school administration life and the end of September often brings poor sleep and lots of work thoughts as we move into our student enrollment data collection time.  Staffing confirmations, funding applications for new student support, a pound of paper work due at the board office added to personal life concerns like getting the siding on the house and fixing the leaky sink are usually suspects for thoughtful nights.  This night my thoughts are about people.

Being the leader is often a hard task and it is never harder than when our team or one of the members is in chaos.  Chaos takes many forms:  new students enroll to the school who exhibit severe emotional behaviour needs; parents are not happy about a decision and have complained to the board; the personal life of a colleague is falling apart; someone dies.  As a leader in any system it is a myth to think one can control what happens in the day to day; true leadership shines in responses from the midst of chaos – when people who follow feel support, hear affirmation and see compassion.

When I started this career as a school administrator I had taken several courses in educational leadership.  None were as valuable as the times I spent on courses with experienced administrators who were at the end of their careers.  One ‘career VP’ was a renowned curmudgeon and source of all things ‘policy based’ in our school division.  However, because of his life long experiences, he was also an inspirational, real world source of knowledge.  To this day I quote the rule of ‘ODA’ – other duties as assigned – which he translated into any job that isn’t on someone’s job list falls into the leader’s.  While this may or may not be true for all leaders it fits nicely with a servant leadership practitioner and provides me a platform for responding to chaos.

When facing chaos ‘CODA’ is an acronym to describe elements of response: Compassion, Optimism, Dignity, and Action.  They are not always the easy things to do, but they are the right things to do.

Compassion for another person illustrates a commonality with them.  Looking at another person with appreciation (not necessarily an understanding) and respect that they are in the midst of chaos provides some semblance of peace of mind.  We aren’t able to rush in and fix things, but we can ask questions like “What do you need?”  We can expect that they may not have all ‘tasks’ accomplished or that their ‘performance’ might be different.  Which tasks can we assist with? Who can we add into their classroom/school to bring support? Which ‘task’ can we delete? Showing compassion illustrates our responsibility to them as a leader, a colleague, and a friend.
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.
Dalai Lama

Optimism is a powerful emotion at the best of times and the worst of times.  Being grateful for our daily walks, seeing positive elements around us, looking for the ‘silver linings’ are all undeniably positive ways of responding to chaos. Optimism should not be confused with denying the reality of a situation, or burying your head in the sand.  It is the power to recognize chaos elements and a choice to focus on strands of positivity and goodness.  As the leader in an organization showing a fresh perspective in the face of chaos is essential (although it can be incredibly hard!).
Optimism is not a trait that pops out when we are dropped into a crisis on its own it must be exercised in good times as well.  Saying, “I’ll think of you today.” when you know someone is in the midst of chaos shows that you are aware of their needs.
Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.   
Colin Powell

In times of chaos it is easy to lose self-esteem.  As the leader in a team maintaining the Dignity of others is an important task.  As a team member nothing is as powerful as having the leader say, “I’ve got your back.”  As a leader it is just as powerful to have someone say, “I know you’ve got my back.”  These are simple expressions of our respect for one another in both our professional and personal lives.  Expressions of commonality that illustrate our inability to cover all angles due to chaos and our willingness to step into that breach on behalf of our colleague.  In essence we are saying “You don’t need to worry about this part – I’ll take care of it for you.” 
Love your neighbor as yourself. 
Matthew 22:39

Taking Action is a concrete way of acknowledging that someone is in need of support.  Actions can be formal and informal – both have their places.  Formal actions in the face of chaos might be time off to write an incident report, contractual time off or even opportunities for counseling services.  These are all appropriate responses that the leader should be aware of.  Informal actions can also be supportive and encouraging: buying a coffee (knowing how they take it is even better); sending a card; covering a class.  By giving of yourself as the leader you are adding to the resiliency of the team.  It may seem like a small action but it will reap large benefits in the recipient.
Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lays.   
Mother Teresa

Chaos might be out of our control, inevitable in any system as life supplies a list of events that we cannot predict.  There are some practices we can apply to diminish the disruptions when they come.  While I write this post in reflection today I would add that I have had the opportunity to be on the giving end of these responses recently, being in a position of leadership provides insight into many individual struggles and opportunity to respond to needs.  I have also had the luxury of seeing other team members step up and offer supports to others.  This is a benefit of the position.  There is however another benefit that I will mention: I have also have recently been on the receiving end of each of these responses from staff I 'lead' and from those who 'lead' me.  I know personally the impact that comes from these responses and I appreciate all the supports and affirmations.

Leadership is continually shaped by the life lessons brought by both success and failure.  Nothing is more affirming than when your actions are valued and appreciated by others.




  1. Really strong post Rex. I could hear your voice speaking as I read it.

    Every school I've ever walked into, anywhere, has it's own character; you can feel it in the air within 5 minutes of walking into the building. The air in your school has the same character as what you've written here.

    1. Thanks Darren, I appreciate your comment! I am very fortunate to work with amazing people - at Brooklands as well as in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division.