Leading During Turbulence

I see you. And once again, I feel your pain. You didn’t ask for this disruption to what should have been your time to recharge and replenish. After all, your summer is when your creative juices flow, learning and reflection is your priority, and your innovative spirits are exercised more freely. Yet, here you are, inundated by TV, print, and social media rumblings about what’s happening within the walls of the administration building that houses the decisions affecting the people you care so deeply about.

The stress is real. I remember it well, and I feel for you. Right now you may be experiencing the effects of systemic vulnerability; your culture has been rocked and left with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. There’s been a big to-do in the community about holding leaders responsible for ethics and values. There’s a lot of power and influence at stake. The people with whom you work and lead need you to show up and be courageous even though you aren’t in control of the outcome.

The key to getting through the next several weeks, and possibly even months, is to be strong and focus on healing and trust. Trustful leaders care for and connect with the people they lead. As educators, we should be pretty good at this. We are ethically called to create spaces in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or class period, leave their baggage, and open their hearts and minds so true learning can take place. We can create those same spaces for the adults we lead; allowing them to breathe and be curious, and explore ideas (and the problems the workplace is facing) without suffocation or fear of retaliation.

However, when our workplace rewards behaviors like blaming, cynicism, perfectionism, or complicit silence, we can’t expect healing or connections to occur. Nor can we expect adults to be their best selves for students. We can do better by our kids, and morally, it is imperative we do so.

Restoring trust is attending to small moments and meaningful interactions. It’s earned through paying attention, listening, and through gestures of genuine care. During turbulent times like these, it can be helpful to allow folks to talk about their best hopes and worst fears; setting parameters such as a time frame so it doesn’t become an hour-long complaint session. Structures for discourse can help individuals productively process conflicting ideas so they can move on and leave feelings of frustration behind.

The reality is though, you’re going to need stamina in order to prevent that state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress that occurs when you feel overwhelmed and emotionally drained. You’ll need to stay resilient in order to be able to carry the weight of others who are struggling with the emotions and distractions caused by the media frenzy and constant barrage of negative sentiments.

As a system, you’ve been teaching your staff and students about the social and emotional learning competencies that enhance their capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges for the past several years. They actually provide a strong foundation for your own well-being as you face the leadership challenges ahead:

Self-awareness

Who we are is how we lead. The ability to accurately recognize our own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence our behaviors is really important; especially during difficult times like these. Many of us become fearful during turbulence; worried about how changes might affect us, or if the workplace environment can survive the upheaval. Feeling fear is not the problem. However, how we respond to fear can be problematic. The thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that we use to protect ourselves when we aren’t willing to demonstrate vulnerability can pose problems for our integrity or can surface as resistance to new and better ways of doing things. By reflecting on our emotions; naming them and at times, expressing vulnerability, we have a better chance of keeping our integrity intact and modeling acceptable behaviors for our followers. We have to remain self-aware of not only what our words express, but what our body language and facial expressions convey to others in times of stress.

Deeply connected to self-awareness is self-compassion. Being kind and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or barraging ourselves with self-deprecating remarks can be quite the challenge for many of us. We should be talking to ourselves the way we would talk to those that we love. Now here is where the pot calls the kettle black. I am the worst at positive self-talk. I constantly beat myself up when I feel inadequate. However, I know this about myself, and I am consciously working to break the cycle. We can all work at building up our arsenal of positive messages to share with ourselves. By repeating kind words to ourselves, we are helping to build our reserves so we can share kindness and compassion with others. Being kind to ourselves should not be an after-thought. Becoming self-aware of our self-talk is just the start.

Self-management

As leaders, it’s imperative we walk our talk: we are clear about what we believe and hold important, and we ensure that our intentions, words, thoughts, and behaviors align with our beliefs and values. To live our values is to live our lives with purpose. These are the ideals that help us find our way in times of darkness or disarray.

My three central values are courage, optimism, and integrity. When I worked for Washoe County, these values were the driving force of all I did as a leader. I often saw or heard things that were unsettling, but always did my best to cast a net of optimism so our principals, teachers, and students would be less likely to feel the effects of the disarray. When I saw people getting hurt by the action or inaction of certain leaders, I mustered up the courage to confront the situation with feedback that was sincere and driven by a sense of hope and concern. However, as things began to unravel, and decisions appeared to be driven by a desire for power, courageously coming forward and reporting what I saw and knew was no longer a choice. My integrity was at stake; and as a leader, I believe our integrity is everything.

When our values define our purpose, they call us to action. In times of upheaval, we can’t be paralyzed or choose silence over what is right. As leaders, we have to remember it’s not our job to be liked by everyone or to make others feel more comfortable. We all know what it feels like to stay silent and comfortable instead of voicing what we believe. But we can’t realize our potential if we are silent about the things that matter. Instead, in times like these, we have to dig deep to ensure a culture where everyone stays aligned and holds one another accountable for the values we know to be most important.

Social awareness

As leaders, we see the world through a set of unique lenses that include many identity factors such as race, ethnicity, age, work experience, knowledge, and spiritual beliefs. Our view on the things that happen in our world is completely unique because our perspective is a product of our historical context and experiences. We can never take our lenses off and look through the lenses of someone else. This is impossible to do. But what we can do, is honor the perspectives of others as truth even when they’re different from ours. This perspective taking is critical during times of turbulence. It’s only when diverse perspectives are included, respected, and valued that we can start to get an accurate picture of our organization, the people we serve, what they need, and how to effectively meet people where they are in order to help them move forward.

Social awareness is about empathy, and empathy is about connection. It is also about practice. As leaders, we have to be willing to take chances, mess up, circle back, clean it up, and try again. It means a lot to an individual when we circle back and say, “You shared some hard feelings with me, and I wish I had handled it differently. I care about you and what you shared. I hope you’ll let me try again”. I have personally been to this mountain a few times, and can tell you it isn’t a fun mountain to climb, but the views as you begin to summit make it worth the time, energy, and sacrifice.

Also important to consider in this space are our blind spots, and calling them into consciousness. We all have blind spots or hidden biases, and its times like these where we are more likely to push through and fall back on our old behaviors and beliefs that bring these hidden biases to surface. After all, we’re operating with different parts of our brain during times of high stress.  The reality is, we cannot practice empathy if we are not mindful of our hang-ups about certain people. We have to work hard to refrain from judging those we lead. We have to push through our blind spots and embrace all in order to truly move forward.

Relationship Skills

Leadership is about serving other people, not ourselves. That’s why it’s important to attend to relationships; not just our relationships with the individuals we lead, but their relationships with one another. We are the chief climate makers or breakers of our organization, and paying attention to relationships is a critical part of the healing process that needs to take place during and after the upheaval.

In times of upheaval, it’s even more important for us to practice the courage to say what we mean and mean what we say. This is not the time for sarcasm or cynicism. We need to catch ourselves when we slip into the sarcastic or cynical communication mode, and lean more heavily into cultivating hope. Even though we may be feeling like tomorrow will be just like today (or perhaps worse), we have to make sure we acknowledge the turbulence, while using caution to not make it worse.

Probably one of the most important things we can do during tumultuous times is to be visible and available. It’s good for us to be around to fact-check the stories our employees might be hearing and talking about. We need to remember there are people who are looking to us for leadership. We can acknowledge the uncertainty by sending messages of optimism. Something like, “Yes, we are in a messy predicament, but we have the right people to get through this together. It will be hard, and we will have to lean in and support one another; I know we can do it”.

Responsible Decision-Making

In times of upheaval, our decisions become even more important. When something has gone wrong, it’s often easier to rush into solutions rather than staying with problem identification and problem-solving. The issue here is that easy solutions, while seductive, are often ineffective or unsustainable. When we fix the wrong thing for the wrong reason, the same problems continue to surface. This can be costly and demoralizing.

It takes strong leadership to create a climate and culture conducive to responsible shared decisions; especially during turbulent times. As leaders, we must actively promote the behaviors we expect people throughout our organization to adopt. For example, we need to demonstrate that it’s OK to ask tough questions and express dissenting views. We should also model an expectation for our employees to speak frankly to us about signs of potential trouble. Most importantly though, we need to ensure transparency in our decision-making process. Nothing makes our followers more upset than thinking a decision will be made by a group, only to have the decision overturned by the leader.

By letting folks know up-front how certain decisions will be made, we prevent additional hard feelings. For example, “I’d like your input before I make this decision”, is very different than, “This decision will be made by group consensus”. Leaders who attempt to communicate clearly about their decisions will be better able to ensure that the decisions they make are sound and that the recommendations proposed by the groups they empower are reliable and make sense for the organization; especially during rough and patchy times.


Uncertainty is uncomfortable for everyone. Whether it’s political turmoil or a media frenzy of negativity, employees who are concerned about their future are likely to be distracted and unproductive. In times of uncertainty and turbulence, nothing is more important than our integrity. Folks are looking to us as leaders to be clear, open, honest, and direct. It pays off in the long run. And if we are in a situation where we can’t tell what we know, we have an obligation to say just that. We can tell our employees and followers that we can’t discuss details at this time, but as soon as we are legally permitted to do so, we’ll let them know as much as we can. In rough and patchy times, when all else is called to question, at least we know we have our integrity.

As you navigate the seas of discord and all the tensions that lie in your path ahead, know you’ve got lots of folks in your corner. Rely on us for strength, and fall back on your values. Take care of yourself first, ask people what they need, and focus on what you can control. These things along with the competencies described above will help you remain grounded and able to attend to the important matters – like getting back to the plans you were making for the year ahead. We’re pulling for you!

Author: leadershipsoup

I am a learning leader, educator, and equity advocate. I am also the proud Superintendent of the Casa Grande Elementary School District located in Central Arizona. I believe we need to empower students and families by dismantling deficit ideologies and embracing practices that are truly inclusive in nature. I look forward to learning with others as we embark on this journey together.

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