Leading Up While Managing the Unexpected?
By: Elvis Epps, Principal, Lake Worth Community High School
One of my favorite television shows was Star Trek as a child. No one on television was as cool and calm as Captain James T. Kirk. In every show, Captain Kirk would end up fighting an alien force. His primary duties as the captain of the USS Enterprise were to lead and protect his crew and his ship. If you were a fan of the show, you could probably finish this line from Captain Kirk. “Scotty, I need more ______! That’s right, and he always needed more power. Scotty would always respond, “Jim, I don’t have more power to give.” Captain Kirk would order him to find it wherever he could. Captain Kirk never accepted Scotty’s answers or excuses for not having extra power. Captain Kirk wanted more power, and that’s what Scotty usually came up with. Scotty never failed to deliver more power. The shows were exciting and memorable. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always hold when leading an organization or school these days. What do you do when you have given everything yet you are asked to provide more power? What do you do next?
Leading an organization or school has become more challenging, time-consuming, and stressful than ever before. Being placed in leadership is rewarding and yet stressful at times. Knowing what to do, who to turn to for support, and balancing your professional time is crucial to surviving in your position. The school administrators' roles and responsibilities have changed significantly over the last five years. According to research conducted by the National Association of Secondary Schools and the Learning Policy Institute, school principals are essential for providing substantial educational opportunities and improved outcomes for students.
I remember the first time I was thrust into a leadership position when I thought I was ready to lead. In my early 20s, I joined the US Navy after leaving college. I was young, eager, and prepared for the world. I believed I could do anything I set my mind to do. There weren’t too many things in life that I could not finish. Joining the Navy was another chapter in my life on the road to success.
The first night in boot camp, someone came into the barracks at 3 am yelling and making a loud noise with a trash can. I thought, “What in the world is going on here?” Well, that was my wake-up call (no pun intended) to the world of the US Navy. The overall aim of boot camp was to see how well recruits could handle a sudden shift in their culture. Speaking of a growth mindset, this was a shifting of the mind. Our drill commanders were tasked with weeding out the weak recruits, then training the stronger ones to achieve success. My drill commanders were leaders of the group, but they were managers in the bigger picture of Naval leadership.
My drill commanders saw me as one of the top recruits, and they asked me to lead the unit. I felt honored they saw me in that light. It did not take long before I realized that whatever happened among the ranks of the unit, my commanders would hold me accountable. As the days went by, my unit had more bad days than good ones. Our unit was known as the “I forgot Unit.” I remember the number of times I had to do pushups for members of my team that had messed up. I knew I wasn’t ready for the role of leader at that point. So, I asked to be relieved of that duty.
Preparing to Lead
I believe many of you could relate to the story I shared about my boot camp days. How do you define leadership? How do you define a manager? What are the similarities and differences between the two? During my thirty-plus years in leadership, coaching, and management training, I can honestly tell you they are different. However, you need both to be a successful leader in your organization. Leaders set the tone and give the vision and marching orders for what the organization is expected to achieve. Leaders should articulate, share, and present to stakeholders what they do and be known for, how they will achieve it, a timeframe for achieving it, what success will look like when you reach it, and most importantly, why they should follow you on this journey. Managers lead the way in making it happen with their teams.
Managing the Unexpected
Leaders take on many tasks that require them to be out front leading the charge. While this is very important, we must never forget about the small tasks that are also needed to manage the day-to-day operation. So, how do you effectively lead your school or organization while managing the unexpected? What do you do when unexpected items take up most of your time? How do you focus on the school’s goals if this is all you do? Please allow me to list a few of the unexpected issues school leaders faced during the pandemic:
1. School shut down at a moment's notice. Create a plan to teach students virtually.
2. Devise and implement a plan to distribute electronic devices to all students and teachers.
3. How are you going to feed the students? Food distribution to students and the community.
4. Dealing with the death of someone on your staff or school.
5. Budget cuts due to lack of student accountability.
6. Addressing an exodus of teachers from your school and district.
7. The sudden outbreak of racial tension in your community, school, or state.
8. Dealing with angry and political charged parents and community members.
9. New state mandates and policies force you to change your goals and objectives.
10. How the job stress profoundly affects your health and impacts how you lead the school. No time off to unwind.
11. Many faculty and staff members are taking mental health days off. Unfortunately, no substitute teachers were available to fill the voids.
The list might seem simple, but the weight of each item required a tremendous amount of time and stress to address. You cannot do it alone. Please allow me to share a few recommendations to manage your time and mental stability.
1. Manage your emotions. Shift how you see problems when they come. Your mind reacts to how you perceive and process problems. Look for the brighter side of each problem. There is something to learn from each problem. Ask yourself, is there anything to learn from the experience? Who can help you resolve the problem? Is this a problem that needs your immediate attention? What would happen if you did nothing about the problem? That depends on the situation. You have to manage your emotions because without a plan, stress sets in. When stress sets in, anger develops if the issues are resolved fast enough. If you do not manage your anger, you could feel overwhelmed and depleted. Be careful and mindful of your emotions and how you handle them. Learn to vet each problem as they come. Relax and know you have options.
2. Coach others on your leadership team to handle problems on your radar. You do not have to address everything that comes your way. You might have teacher leaders who would love to help where they can. Give them a chance to prove themselves. You will be surprised by what they do.
3. Be intentional when walking your campus. Look for unusual things and for items that need repairing or replacing. Observe your staff’s behavior and mental health. Notice small changes in demeanor. Then, be prepared to provide support whenever the need arises.
4. There’s more to life than work. Where do you go to find happiness? Where is that place that brings you joy? What activities do you do that take your mind away from your work responsibilities? Who brings you the greatest joy? Find a good book to read. Watch a movie with your family and friends. Bake something that you love to eat. Take a vacation, and don’t feel guilty about it. There is no time like the present to enjoy your life. Don’t waste your time-fighting fires when you could be planting flowers and seeds of hope.
5. Leave your office at a reasonable time. When you practice this, you feel better about yourself and your time. Your family will get more time with you. You can go to the gym or on a walk while the sun is shining. Work cannot be your hobby.
Take Care of Yourself
Principal turnover is a grave issue across the country. A 2017 national survey of public-school principals found that, overall, 18 percent of principals had left their position since the year before. In high-poverty schools, the turnover rate was 21 percent. Research also reveals that school principals in high needs, high poverty schools experience higher turnover than schools not identified. In March and April 2021, the RAND Corporation surveyed 1686 secondary school principals. That survey revealed that 8 in 10 principals experienced job-related stress due to the many changes impacted by the pandemic. Author and assistant researcher of the study Ashley Woo, stated that the biggest trigger for principals was their teachers’ and students’ social-economic well-being.
I lead a high need, high poverty, high mobility urban high school. I have faced and handled my share of challenges and problems. There are no two days that are the same. I recommend you learn how to manage the unexpected while leading your school. You do not have to handle each problem that comes along. You can decide whether to do it, delegate it, or dump it. If you have a solid leadership team, they could help you address problems. They want to learn and grow as well. If you have a new team that lacks the experience in handling challenging situations, assign the task anyway but observe, monitor, and coach your administrators on ways to address the problem. This might not be the case with every issue, but it can be done.
You have what it takes to be a great leader. Leadership is what you need to chart the course. Managing is what you need to hoist the sails, maintain the engine, supervise and take care of the crew, and navigate the system. If you take care of your direct reports and empower them to lead, they will give you your best. We lead people and manage things.
Please allow me to bring this home. As the school leader, I set the tone, articulate the message to my stakeholders, share how we will get there, who is needed to help with the goal and mission, then explain why we need to go in that direction. I do this by listening to stakeholders about what worked and did not work within the organization. Leaders cannot accomplish the work without the efforts of the entire team. Be the leader that others love to follow. A weak leader can give an inspirational message but lacks the necessary skills, strategies, or understanding of how to get the job done. I hire leaders who are more intelligent than I am in a particular area. I look for leaders who are creative, innovative, calm under pressure, and eager to learn and grow. They help me carry the weight of running the school. Managing the unexpected is part of the job.
The following quote says it all “Your struggles are helping you grow in ways you can’t imagine. It might be hard to see right now, but one day you’ll look back and realize things had to happen the way they did to get you to where you are. Trust that today’s challenges will be responsible for your future growth.” - Unknown.
Take care of yourself and those you lead. Take time off when you need to, and enjoy the journey. You earned the time so enjoy the moment. We are all in this together. Knowing who to call when you feel overwhelmed is the difference between quitting or staying on the job. Remember your why and your what. Knowing your why helps you to understand what you do that makes a difference in the lives of your students, teachers, and families. If you are not well, then the rest means nothing. Seek help when needed. Manage your life to the best of your ability every day. Administrators, you are not alone. We stand as a united front when it comes to supporting each other. We are one team with one message, serving one mission.