Dr. Lindsay Whorton is president of The Holdsworth Center and has led the organization’s efforts to adapt to a remote context driven by the global pandemic.
Q: Holdsworth exists to help develop and grow educational leaders. Did that mission change when the pandemic hit? Did anything change in how you approached the work?
Lindsay: This crisis has only brought greater focus and urgency to the work we do. I think we’ve all seen how critical great leadership is in a time of significant disruption. What we’ve experienced in 2020 has only deepened my conviction that developing great leaders is critical to a successful public education system – that mission continues to be our guiding north star.
In terms of how we pursue the mission, we’ve obviously had to make some adjustments just like everybody else.
Our bread and butter prior to March 2020 were engaging, cohort-based, in-person sessions – basically, all the things COVID-19 means you’re not allowed to do. So, we’ve had to move to virtual programming and our team has embraced the opportunity to learn and experiment.
Pre-COVID, our sessions were designed to invite Leaders to step out of their day-to-day reality, to think more deeply and broadly about the work they were doing. We introduced them to new tools, frameworks, and strategies they could take back to their districts and apply to their work.
Now, the context—Leaders’ day-to-day work—is the teacher. The crisis is forcing teachers and principals and district leaders to think differently about what they do and how they do it. Our job is to lean into that, and to support Leaders to be reflective in unpacking what they’re learning as they navigate this new reality.
Pivoting is not a one-time deal – you can’t just change how you deliver your product once and then bank on stability from there on out.
Q: Seven months after the pandemic closed schools, what can you say about how Holdsworth has pivoted and adapted?
Lindsay: The core themes of our curriculum and what we believe to be important about leadership actually haven’t changed very much—great leaders develop personal leadership, grow and empower others, and create change whether they’re leading through a crisis or in ‘normal’ times. And several of our tactics have continued to be highly relevant. For example, coaching for Leaders has been extremely responsive to changing context. But we have adapted to the remote context in similar ways as other organizations, including schools.
I think the most important lesson we’ve learned is that pivoting is not just a one-time deal – you can’t change how you deliver your product or service once and then bank on stability from there on out. I think you have to be in a stance of constant adjustment. We changed how we did our work in the summer, but now that districts and campuses are back in school, we have to rethink.
For most of us this amount of constant change is unsettling. We like stability and predictability. But there are ways in which we could all be better off if we could be more open to continuous adaptation, even in times of relative stability.
Q: Have you done anything to specifically address or teach crisis leadership?
Lindsay: When COVID hit, we didn’t launch a new framework or set of ideas immediately. We decided to take a step back and spend some time evaluating and thinking through what – if anything – we needed to adjust around how we were approaching our work.
One of the things that’s distinctive about our work at Holdsworth is that we believe educational leadership can be enriched by ideas and strategies both within and beyond the education sector. So, we started interviewing a couple dozen people from various sectors and industries – academia, health care, government and business – to try to understand the demands leaders face during significant disruption and how they practice skillful leadership.
Three big themes came out of that work:
The core principles of leadership stay constant.
The things that make you a great leader in times of upheaval will also promote effectiveness virtually any other day of the week. So, we were encouraged to find a lot of resonance between what we heard from the leaders we were interviewing and the strands of our curriculum.
We’re in a period of such ongoing disruption that at a certain point, you have to ask, “What is normalcy?”
But some dimensions and habits of leadership take on outsized importance during a time of crisis. For example, communication. By communication, I mean both the structured ways that organizations communicate with people, but also the interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence required to be empathetic, inspiring and comforting. And also, the ability to listen in ways that allow you to weigh the important information people are sharing while also making them feel heard and valued. These skills and habits are always critical but become exceptionally important during a period of crisis or disruption when people are navigating uncertainty and seeking clear guidance, information, and direction.
Stamina and resilience are paramount.
We spend time in our curriculum talking about the skills leaders need to sustain themselves in the work by taking care of their bodies, their minds and their emotional energy.
I think sometimes people laugh that off as “fluffy stuff.” But what our Leaders have been going through in the last six to seven months is exhausting and grueling. If people don’t have self-sustaining habits in place, they will run out of gas pretty quickly. Resilience and perseverance become really important in these periods. This is particularly true because one of a leader’s most important tasks in 2020 is to build resilience in their organization. You can’t do for others what you can’t do for yourself.
Disruption is the new normal.
Often, we talk about crises as if they are discrete events, like a tornado or a hurricane. There’s a period in which our life is majorly disrupted, a period of recovery, and then there’s a clear point where we get back to normal.
With COVID, we’re in a period of such ongoing disruption that at a certain point, you have to ask, “What is normalcy? And are we going back there?” The conditions of unpredictability and uncertainty revealed by COVID are actually increasingly normal in our globalized world.
The big question is, “How do we retool ourselves to be able to thrive in an environment that’s this challenging? How do we give up our old conceptions of what was normal?”
Q: This school year, district and school leaders are navigating what feels like unprecedented levels of conflicting ideas, beliefs and fears. How does a leader negotiate this turmoil with skill and grace?
Lindsay: I actually think that there’s more difference of opinion going on in all organizations, including schools, at any given moment than we suspect or acknowledge. When things are humming along in stability, we often just miss the opportunity to lift up these different ideas or viewpoints.
When the ‘old way of doing things’ doesn’t work in a period of disruption, it creates an opportunity for everybody’s ideas to come to the table, and that can be positive. Great leaders engage those voices as part of the solution-finding process instead of viewing the diversity of opinions as a problem.
Obviously, at a certain point, we have to move forward in a unified way, which will mean that we make decisions in the face of disagreement and move forward.
The art of leadership is to figure out how to identify and build shared meaning around the “majors” – the big, important things that are not negotiable. If the leader can inspire and mobilize people around those majors, everyone will work as a team to figure out the small stuff.
We’re seeing two “majors” being established by education leaders that are helping them navigate the opportunities and challenges of 2020. First, effective leaders are unifying their organization around the needs of students. Getting clear about promises to the students—to create safe learning environments; to see, honor, and value their uniqueness; to challenge and support them to achieve their full potential—these are things that all educators must get behind. Then we just have to debate the details of how to best get it done.
The second “major” that helps campuses and districts move forward together is ensuring that all staff know that they are valued and will be treated well. If a principal has created conditions in which teachers trust one another and feel cared for by the leader, they are a long way down the road to having these disagreements be productive instead of distracting.
Q: In any crisis, there is loss, but also hope and opportunity. What do you see as the opportunity here and how can we make sure we don’t let it pass us by?
Lindsay: I want to start with the loss. Though the pandemic is impacting all of us, the weight of the loss is not equally distributed. Students who have historically been least well-served by our national system of public education are being most impacted by the challenges of the pandemic – kids from low-income families and children of color – and I think we should be really concerned about that.
This crisis has only brought greater focus and urgency to the work we do.
I start there because I think our hope has to be connected to or rooted in our current reality—even when it is sobering and hard to face. Over the long-term, I hope the pandemic forces us to face the inequities that have been with us for so long—decades and decades—that they have become part of “normalcy.” I believe part of why our current reality is so challenging and uncomfortable is because 2020 is forcing us to see those inequities in a more direct way on a daily basis. We can’t—and shouldn’t—just flip the switch to get back to a comfortable state.
There’s an opportunity for teachers, for principals, for district leaders to really experiment and try new things that over time might create more and better opportunities for students.
My hope is that we will stay courageous enough to face what’s not working and to try new things, knowing that all of the things we try probably won’t succeed as quickly as we’d like.
I also think we should be very intentional about acknowledging all the different spaces where leadership is happening in schools. When we use the word ‘leader,’ we typically mean people who are in positions of authority. But leadership and authority are two different things. And in addition to the hard work of district and campus administrators, I see a lot of leadership being provided by teachers who are often on the front lines experimenting and solving problems for students.
Those innovations are small right now—thousands of shoots or blooms all over Texas—and it’s going to take hard work to cultivate and support each promising shoot that pops up. I view that as a critical domain of leadership.