If you call yourself a leader, you likely put a lot of pride into the way you manage, develop, and guide teams. You’ve worked your way into your leadership position through a strong work ethic and skilled decision-making. You’ve avidly built your leadership skills over time, and most of all, experience alone has been the greatest teacher; you had to have been around the block a few times to earn trust and hone your instincts. Yet, when COVID-19 struck with seemingly impenetrable force, your experience was nowhere to be found. You were being called upon in a massive way, but it was and still is the most uncharted territory your leadership skills have ever roamed.
Our education team leads a network of 60 schools in 17 states across the country, and when COVID-19 reared its ugly head, we braced ourselves for a transition unlike anything we’d ever experienced. Education institutions were pushed to deliver a quality experience to students in a matter of days that rivaled the previous brick and mortar teaching. The waters were uncharted and, as we soon learned, the stakes were high—students and teachers were in this for the long haul.
In times like these, it’s incumbent upon leaders to gather their years of experience and produce a creative, strategic, accessible plan from start to finish. But how? Nothing had prepared us for this. We looked to our trusted resources and quickly realized that we needed to step into action from a place of instinct, not research.
In our situation, before we could blink an eye, our schools were jumping into action. They were exploring products, brainstorming ideas, and discovering solutions. They saw the circumstance as a challenge and were eager to accept. We worked hard over the past few years to grow a developmental organization where everyone’s creativity and innovation were honored, and COVID-19 was fertile soil for some serious application. They were on a roll, and our leadership instincts said we needed to shift our typical approach.
We identify with styles of leadership like servant and collaborative that paint a picture of our approach being adaptive, open, and shared. To truly embody these ways of being, leaders must hold the belief that their teams are highly capable, competent, and add a tremendous amount of benefit. We knew this about our teams, but the time hadn’t yet struck for them to show their colors. In a matter of days, then weeks, we watched our teams make lemonade out of lemons far faster than we could get our arms around the situation. With the help of collaborative tools like Flipgrid, Padlet, Microsoft Teams, and Slack, we moved from leaders to facilitators.
As leaders, we expected to solve the problems, monitor the operations, and control the situations. But these times presented experiences that we hadn’t navigated before and frankly didn’t have any more expertise than our teams. So instead, we were called to learn and listen; to leverage the creativity around us. We decided to be the leaders that created space for ideas to blossom while we offered structures for collaboration, eased the flow of information, and removed barriers so they could continue to ride this wave inventively. We created spaces for everyone’s ideas to emerge and, we hope, took a disempowering situation and helped bolster a more empowered organization.