How To Be a Responsive Leader in Troubling Times: 3 Lessons

Diana Baker Freeman
You know you'll face challenges when you take on an executive leadership role. Perhaps you've joined an organization that has struggled historically or is going through a transition period. Or perhaps interpersonal conflicts are preventing the organization's vision from being achieved, and those conflicts have to be resolved diplomatically.

Whether you've stepped into the role from outside or inside an organization, your experience likely gives you insight into the hurdles you'll face in guiding your district, or organization to a better future. (You're also probably the kind of person who enjoys clearing those hurdles.)

But what happens when the troubles come not from within the organization, but from external factors? From current events? What happens when you ' when almost anyone ' couldn't have predicted them?

As 2020 draws to a close after a firehose of events from COVID-19 shutdowns to natural disasters to political and cultural turmoil not experienced in decades, executive leaders are assessing how they performed at handling the effects on their schools and organizations. Their lessons learned are a blueprint for being a responsive leader in troubling times.

Dr. Romules Durant, superintendent of Toledo Public Schools in Ohio, spoke to Modern Governance Summit 2020 attendees about maintaining effective leadership during the pandemic and the resulting effects on his schools. Toledo is an urban district with almost 23,000 students, 87% of whom are categorized as economically disadvantaged. Durant counted on strong decision-making, relationships, and reliance on staff and the right tools to lead his schools and support his community. Here are Durant's insights for leaders who want to be responsive in a crisis.

Lesson 1: Prepare for a Shift in Responsibility

In normal circumstances, the role of the superintendent is strictly defined, especially when he or she shares leadership with a school board and is also required to adhere to laws and regulations determined by local, state and national governments.

When circumstances change quickly, superintendents can find themselves at the nexus of shifting responsibilities. Decisions that might traditionally be made by federal or state governments, such as response strategies to COVID-19, can be punted, leaving superintendents responsible for deciding, for example, mask requirements.

Durant experienced this shift quickly as states transitioned from the model of across-the-board mandates to a more hands-off approach. “Leaders have to step up in the moment of a pandemic,” Durant began. “Even the communication from the state to the district is totally different. It’s been so political, governors are taking a step back and saying, ‘Superintendents, you make a decision.’ You’re seeing 611 school districts in the state of Ohio all coming up with various plans, taking on the public scrutiny as well as public perception.”

Durant continued: “Leading in today’s moment means you take the burden. You take the scrutiny, so the others who are there to serve don’t have to worry about those things.”

Lesson 2: Leverage Your Connections

The superintendent of schools is at the heart of a local community. Even if he or she arrived from another district or state, the superintendent quickly comes to know the families, businesses, and leaders in the region. Those connections are invaluable when dealing with a crisis.

Durant noted that his relationship with nonprofit organizations in the area made providing services to students, staff and the community more successful. 'Many of those relationships had to preexist,' he said. 'If you're an executive director or CEO, you need to make sure you are establishing relationships in the event that you run into a situation such as this.'

Durant referenced leveraging his relationship with a nonprofit to establish ready access for the community to health and human services. 'Because we have a relationship with United Way ' I sit on their board ' I'm saying, 'Hey, we need 2-1-1 [a telephone hotline]. We need to channel meals to families, how we get information out to families, and 2-1-1 is that pipeline.''

Durant's position on the YMCA board also facilitated a solution for childcare. He reflected that being on that board allows him to say, 'Hey, United Way or YMCA, we need to be able to provide opportunities for our staff as well as families in our community, and here is how we're going to open up our schools to allow these things to happen.'

Lesson 3: Depend on Your People, and Maximize Online Tools

A leadership team depends on the support of administrators to function as effectively as possible. A good board clerk can provide the continuity necessary to onboard new trustees quickly and facilitate the board's activities.

Durant spoke on the value of administrators: “If you have someone who is a great administrative assistant or clerk, meetings go smoothly. Making a clerk part of your orientation when you have a new board member is essential. They have an understanding of all the things you need, but they provide comfort for that person to understand: ‘I’m here to make you look good.’ They have all the background information, all the attachments listed that you would see in BoardDocs: presentations, scripted details about calling for a motion and voting. All those things come together.”

Having the right people and tools in place empowers others to become leaders too. “I have people saying, ‘Dr. Durant, I don’t know if I want to run for school board. I don’t know all the aspects,’” Durant said. “Guess what — you have this clerk over here who does. And you have a program called BoardDocs that literally scripts everything a board president or chair would state within their meetings.”

Durant added, “BoardDocs has been essential in our operations and how we go about district board meetings, committee structure meetings, communicating transparency to the community — how our meetings go so smoothly.”

Executive leaders roll up their sleeves during difficult times, and 2020 certainly offered numerous opportunities to leverage existing skills and learn new approaches to effective leadership. However, no one can do it alone. When faced with new responsibilities, leaders must be prepared to think creatively and count on staff and connections to help carry the district or organization through. Evaluating the organizational response to a crisis can help better prepare for any incident in the future. Using a board platform like BoardDocs enables leaders to be prepared for crisis management while continuing the business of the board.
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Diana Baker Freeman

Diana Baker Freeman is a Senior Customer Success Manager for Diligent Mission-Driven Organizations. She holds an MS in Education Leadership and has taught in public schools and at the university level. After being elected as a school board member she developed a deep understanding of board members' roles, and how they drive improved educational outcomes.

As a public school trustee, Diana was nominated and accepted to Leadership TASB, through the Texas Association of School Boards, and graduated as a Master Trustee. Diana became a Board Development Consultant for the TASB and has led boards through strategic planning, goal setting, ethics training and the examination of roles and responsibilities of board members. She has presented at various state-wide, regional and national conferences and developed online training for TASB as well as the Southern Regional Training Consortium.