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Guiding Principles of Resilient Leadership

Updated: May 7, 2021

There is no playbook in times of crisis, but these guiding principles can help

With all that is uncertain these days, one thing is clear: there is no playbook for educational leadership right now. Our time-honored ways of leading didn’t account for the emotional challenges, the fast-moving nature, or the crippling ambiguity leaders face right now.

You’re likely inundated with all sorts of guidance on online curricula, remote learning advice, and more. Our goal is to pull up from all that, and help you build a new picture of what it means to show up as a leader. So many of you are doing this. Let’s give it a name.

Together with our friends at Catalyst:Ed, we put pen to paper to envision what Resilient Leadership looks like in these times. (You can see a full Leadership Roadmap as part of our COVID-19 Roadmap for Schools and Systems project.)

Resilient Leadership has Five Core Principles

At its simplest, resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back from hardship, shock or failure. We see resilient leadership as something even greater - it is a calling to create a more human, more vibrant and more equitable future through our response to crisis.

  • Principle 1: Put Humans at the Foundation. While you can make a number of smart strategic decisions, one of the most important parts of leadership right now is helping people feel seen and cared for. Staff say they see what kind of organization they truly work for in times of crisis. By pausing to put humans as the foundation of this work, it ensures you are all in a place to build a new future together.

  • Principle 2: Set Your Compass. In this time of overwhelm and fear, humans need more than ever to know that their work has purpose and meaning. Help people have equity-centered, mission-aligned and values-driven guiding principles. It helps them remember what still matters, trust your judgment, and make a myriad of micro decisions in alignment with your purpose. Define what matters and share it frequently.

  • Principle 3: Transform Ambiguity Into Clarity. Ambiguity can be crippling for teams. During times of high stress and changing priorities, teams rally best when they know where to focus their energy and what success looks like (even if just for this week). Help your teams understand your working assumptions and priorities. Convert the ideas from something in your head to operationalized projects that your team can own and drive forward.

  • Principle 4: Create New Agile Ways of Working Together. Our old collaboration structures don’t support the pace of decision-making and learning in the COVID-19 world. At times like this, it can help to take a cue from “agile” methodologies. These methods work when the end-product cannot yet be defined, when responding to change beats a perfect plan, and when collaboration is more important than documentation which turns stale as soon as it’s printed.

  • Principle 5: Pull Up and Place Your Bets. You can get a team in motion with short-term clarity and improvement cycles - but big unanswered questions still loom. Resilient leaders don’t get seduced by waiting for perfect clarity. Instead, they make informed bets on where to place their energy and create a schema for how they will pull up and navigate a changing landscape.


Resilient Leadership changes as the situation unfolds

For a number of leaders, they rose to the challenge in the first moments of crisis… and then they got stuck. They weren’t able to adjust as the sprint turned to a marathon - with a race course that is uncharted. Your leadership will be different during each of the different phases of the journey over the coming months.

The Resilient Leadership Roadmap illustrates how leadership evolves. This document is designed to work hand in hand with the other parts of the Roadmap for Schools and Systems, and shows how an organizational leader may set up during the initial crisis time, shift gears as school comes to a close, and evolve as the year begins in the fall.


Resilient Leadership is a team sport

We know that applying these principles in your context is challenging. It takes a lot of thinking to assess what the next move is and where to put your energy. Above all, we hope you won’t feel like you are alone as you undertake this journey. Let us know if we can be of help.


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