Managing or Leading?

Photo by Pim Chu on Unsplash

“Visions and strategies are not formulated by individuals who have learned only to deal with plans and budgets,”

From Leading Change, by John Kotter

Through this time of global pandemic and lockdown I observed some really courageous acts of leadership among many of our school and system leaders. While some simply focused on managing the problem, these leaders stepped up and determined to lead their staff and communities through what was happening.

Don’t get me wrong – having both leaders and managers in our organisations is important. But equally important is that we don’t confuse management with leadership.

Addressing the urgent needs of the present is the work of management. However, in times of extreme uncertainty, management becomes overwhelmed. We get inaction. We hear a lot of people looking to others for precedence and direction. But that’s exactly what everyone else is doing. And as a result, we experience organisational paralysis – and even decay.

In contrast, leading involves guiding people to the best possible eventual outcome – even when there are no precedents or ‘guide-books’ to follow. A leader’s focus is on what is likely to come next and readying to meet it. That means seeing beyond the immediate to anticipate the next three, four, or five obstacles. It also means seeing the people involved and ensuring their needs are addressed.

This contrast in styles we particularly evident through the COVID response. The critical role of educational leaders was never more in the spotlight. At all levels, from the local school, EY centre or kura, through to the hallowed halls of central government, it was interesting to see so many leaders step up, make decisions and act decisively. Decisions that may previously have taken weeks (or even months) to make, were made in a matter of hours or days, ensuring that the needs of teachers and learners and their parents/whānau were adequately addressed.

That all seems to be changing in some areas now, however, as the immediate crisis has been addressed and we’re hearing calls for a ‘return to normal’ and the need to address ‘learning loss’. While some leaders remain vigilent and focused on the long game, others have returned to old ways of working, focusing on the tyranny of the urgent.

Here are some tips for ensuring you remain on top as a leader in a crisis…

Keep your eye on the horizon
While our natural response to an imminent threat is to focus on the ‘now’ and how to escape, leaders need to be able to rise above that and look to the horizon—to take a broad view, including near-term and long-term challenges. Of course the ‘now’ needs to be dealt with, and dealt with well, but if the leaders aren’t looking to the bigger picture the focus will remain on the problem and not the solution, on coping strategies rather than building a more hopeful future.  

Share the load
Managing a crisis can certainly get the adrenaline running and, for a short time at least, provide a ‘thrill’. But these surges are generally followed by a crash. Your job as leader is to take the long view. For all of those immediate, management responsibilities you need to delegate, support, and trust your team as they also make tough decisions. The danger with micro-managing is that you will lose the trust of those around you and become overwhelmed by the weight of having to do everything yourself.

Be transparent
Witholding information at a time like this can be a big mistake, leading to a dilution of trust. Honesty and transparency are key characteristics of leaders – particularly in times of extreme uncertainty.  The temptation in uncertain times is to try and control everything – but you can’t! Instead, seek order rather than control. Order means people know what’s expected of them and what they expect of others.

Remember you’re working with humans!
A crisis is a crisis precisely because it affects people—but that human factor too often can be eclipsed by numbers and spreadsheets and emergency measures. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, leaders in education have had to relay a lot of bad news—extensions of stay-at-home orders, large-scale furloughs and layoffs, sickness and death. In times of crisis your first thought must be for the people involved – productivity, meeting deadlines and other external demands simply have to take a back seat.

Take care of yourself
As a leader, you can provide your staff with a good example of looking after your own wellbeing. When you’re dealing with a crisis your personal wellbeing can be ignored as you focus on others, or on the demands of the circumstances before you. While the adrenaline may keep you running for a short time, you must be prepared for the long haul. It’s not a sprint, but a marathon. Some of the key things to be considered include: use these practical tips for looking after yourself:

  • give yourself space and quiet time – the best decisions will be made with a clear mind
  • communicate honestly to your team that there is a crisis so that you can approach it together – transparency builds trust
  • look after your body by keeping to healthy routines in eating, sleeping and exercising – make that time a priority in your day.

 We need less people worried about managing the problem and more ready to lead people through it. Which one do you want to be?

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