HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Leadership Lessons in the Time of Corona: Practice and Theory
The heroic stories of Jewish school leaders who transformed their schools in the face of a pandemic of daunting scale are legion. Principals and curriculum coordinators spearheaded and supported their faculties in overnight transitions from in-person learning to remote learning and in subsequent refinements of online teaching practices. Board leaders and directors of finance responded to parents’ financial distress with creativity and compassion and scrambled to access newly available financial and material resources. Heads of school formed task forces, advisory groups, and response teams, collected and analyzed survey data, and expanded their communication with various constituencies, constructing web pages, convening town hall meetings, and increasing the frequency of their email and social media blasts.
Participation spiked in school leader discussion groups and listservs (many sponsored by Prizmah), as well as in webinars with experts in fields that had previously been peripheral to school operations, such as public health, remote learning and architectural design. Schools were not paralyzed by the magnitude of the challenge; on the contrary, they sprang into action and engaged in high- quality leadership activities of nearly every imaginable kind.
One notable exception comes to mind: the flurry of activity tended not to be grounded—at least not explicitly—in theories of leadership and change in schools and organizations, theories that might have served as obvious go-to resources for school leaders during a challenge of this scope and complexity, such as adaptive leadership (Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky), systems thinking (Peter Senge) and good-to-greatness (Jim Collins).
In keeping with the classical rabbinic tradition of publicly confessing one’s shortcomings before the congregation, the next part of this article is written in the first person singular. As I sought to respond to an emergency that challenged nearly every one of my operational assumptions, from teaching and learning to school finance to community and connection to mental and physical health, it never occurred to me to revisit or mine the literature on leadership and change that I had studied and taught extensively in graduate education courses and in day school leadership training programs.
This lack of appeal to theory flies in the face of one of the maxims of social science: “There is nothing as practical as a good theory” (Kurt Lewin). How are we to make sense of this disconnect? What can explain my seemingly counterintuitive flight from theory at precisely the moment when it might have proven most useful?
HYPOTHESIS #1: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF CRISIS RESPONSE
In the throes of a crisis, theory may be an unaffordable luxury. An individual faced with a life-or-death threat casts about for solutions, finds none, and is therefore at a loss as to how to cope with it. As Abraham Maslow wrote,
For the man who is extremely and dangerously hungry, no other interests exist but food. He dreams food, he remembers food, he thinks about food, he emotes only about food, he perceives only food and he wants only food… Anything else will be defined as unimportant. Freedom, love, community feeling, respect, philosophy, may all be waved aside as fripperies which are useless since they fail to fill the stomach.
For Jewish day schools, the onset of Covid-19 produced a series of existential crises: how to remain a school without a physical space called school; how to conduct classes without classrooms; how to respond with compassion and pragmatism to the distress, economic and otherwise, of families; how to survive a massive loss of tuition and fundraising income; how to meet the learning needs of children when nearly every strategy known to educators was unavailable. Overnight, I found myself in an epic struggle for my school’s continuing relevance, if not its very survival. In such circumstances, perhaps expecting myself to contemplate theories of leadership and derive lessons for my practice is tantamount to expecting a starving person to write poetry.
HYPOTHESIS #2: THE LIMITS OF LEADERSHIP THEORY
The leadership literature may not be well suited to moments of crisis. Though the various theories purport to provide ways of thinking and acting that make organizations more nimble and better able to withstand threats and transform themselves in crises, the strategies that they delineate purport to develop the capacity in advance that will enable the organization to thrive later, when crisis strikes.
For example, Collins’ timeless prescriptions are all preconditions to achieving greatness. Cultivating Level 5 leadership (the CEO combining humility and will), getting the right people on the bus, and rethinking the organization’s hedgehog concept (an understanding of what the organization can be the best in the world at) are critical factors in the organization’s ability to weather a crisis and come through it stronger than ever. They are not concepts to first explore when the crisis hits.
Similarly, Senge’s key disciplines are ways of transforming organizations into learning organizations; they are not guidelines for how to respond to profound crises. Personal mastery, building shared vision, team learning and systems thinking are elements of a framework for preparing to deal with the dynamic complexity of situations and forecasting the effects of interventions. With the possible exception of the concept of leverage (a small, non-obvious “change which—with a minimum of effort—would lead to lasting, significant improvement” systemwide), they are not strategies for survival in an existential crisis.
Heifetz and Linsky offer a framework that is directed inward at organizational challenges, and less toward external existential risks that are much larger than the organization. Alternating between the dance floor and the balcony (being both a participant and an observer), cooking the conflict (applying moderate pressure for change) and creating productive disequilibrium (motivating people by focusing on tough issues while reducing anxiety and turmoil) make sense as strategies to awaken an organization to the need for wrenching transformation. They are not well suited to crises that are so threatening that they eclipse all other activities or challenges.
Why, in the turbulence of a once- in-a-century pandemic, did I not consciously step back, take perspective and contemplate the relevant lessons learned from leadership theory and their immediate implications for my daily practice? On the one hand, the leadership lessons were mismatched to the rhythms of a dynamic, fast-paced crisis. On the other hand, it was too late. If I had not yet learned the lessons, synthesized them into my practice and begun seamlessly applying them to the issues and decisions at hand, first developing plans to roll them out in the midst of the pandemic would likely have proven counterproductive.
HYPOTHESIS #3: THEORY IN PRACTICE
Perhaps many of the actions that Jewish day school leaders took in response to the Covid crisis did benefit from a theoretical framework, just not explicitly so. Chris Argyris and Donald Schon explain that professionals have what they call theories of practice, which are often not clearly articulated, but rather become visible through the actions they adopt and the explanations or predictions they have in mind to justify their choices of actions. The measure of effective professional practice, they claim, is the extent to which these theories of practice can subsequently be publicly espoused, challenged and tested.
For example, when heads of school recruited medical advisory groups, legal advisers and human relations consultants to support them in their planning and decision making, many of them were acting on one of Collins’ key findings: the importance of getting the right people on the bus. By preparing for multiple scenarios and implementing them as conditions dictated, they were following Heifetz and Linsky’s advice to observe, interpret, intervene and repeat. The feedback loops that they established with their schools’ varied constituencies— faculty, staff, parents, students, donors—reflected the understandings about shared vision, team learning and transparency that they may have derived from Senge. Whether intentionally or not, many of their actions, if not most, reflected key insights drawn from the leadership theories that they had studied at earlier stages of their careers, without which their actions might well have proven less effective.
TACHEL SHANAH UVIRCHOTEHA — COUNTING OUR BLESSINGS
Another school year, and a new Jewish year, 5781, have begun in the shadow of corona. After the strangest, most disorienting half year school leaders have ever lived through, they are prepared for the worst and hoping for the best.
Among the blessings we should count are the lessons our leaders have learned that raise their sights, inspire them to meet new challenges resourcefully, and embolden them to take courageous and incisive action. May our blessings this year be as plentiful as the seeds of a pomegranate.
Argyris, C. and D. Schon. Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness.
Collins, J. Good to Great and the Social Sectors.
Heifetz, R. and M. Linsky. “A Survival Guide for Leaders.” Harvard Business Review, June 2002.
Maslow, A. H. “A Theory of Human Motivation.” Psychology Review, 1943.
Senge, P. M. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.
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Back when the word “corona” evoked an image of an ice-cold beer, the concept of adaptive leadership was not on......
This issue examines how schools are adapting to the challenging circumstances of conducting business during the Covid-19 pandemic. Articles explore ways that school leaders are managing to organize stakeholders in a crisis; that schools are collaborating with each other and internally as a community to strengthen all systems; that educators are reinventing Jewish education through these exigencies by using online tools and shifting their pedagogies. Authors seek to find changes in the present that may have lasting value for a future, post-Covid reality.
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