I served as Governor of West Virginia during 9/11 as well as multiple natural disasters. The chaos of instantly uprooted lives, economic devastation, and panic necessitates real-time action to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable people who find themselves displaced, lacking basic necessities, and suddenly questioning their very future.

All education leaders now face the COVID-19 crisis which requires the same leadership as addressing a major disaster rarely experienced in education. They must address the immediate needs of students, families, staff, faculty, and communities while trying to prepare for the ways in which the world of teaching and learning will change. Below are suggestions and personal observations about what leaders can and should do now and in the short-term to help mitigate the crisis.

  • Accept that these first several weeks will be chaos. In terms of mindset, it is critical to accept the current reality. You face chaos on a macro, institutional level, and chaos on an individual level for your campus and community members. During great uncertainty, we look for one thing to hang onto as a means to restore order. You are it.
  • Take action. True leadership is not symbolic. In order to achieve success out of chaos, people need to see positive steps being taken.
    • Establish your crisis team and the affirmative steps that you will take: an emergency housing plan for vulnerable students, a daily social media update, a listening tour, and so on. Know who owns what and move on it.
    • While student safety, housing, and outcomes are top priorities, do not forget to check in with the rest of your faculty, staff and administrators. Understand what additional resources they need and prioritize them.
    • Encourage faculty, and do everything you can to provide as many resources as possible to support their success. If you’re asking faculty to teach remotely, you may be calling on them to teach in ways they haven’t before. Many institutions have created a resource center to help instructors develop their online skills. Consider jumping in and teaching if additional support is needed.
    • Include your broader community in your daily updates. Make sure you check in with community entities, including businesses that both employ and rely on students. They have a great stake in your institution’s outcome.
    • Take the actions you need now; worry about paying later. This is an emergency that requires immediate action and results. Legislature and donors are usually there to fill in the shortfall.
  • Communicate with your constituents, even if you only have partial information. The biggest mistake you can make is to try and wait to have the full picture. Use every digital and social media tool to share what you know today, what your team is doing, what you’re working to find out, and when you will update them again (for now, that should be daily). Doing this gives your campus community a sign that there is a positive through-line on this.
    • While establishing yourself in command is important, it’s essential to have a team of three or four who are also able to handle major responsibilities, provide updates, and take questions.
    • Do not hesitate to say “We do not know right now, but we will get you the answer as soon as we do.”
    • Be in regular contact with your Board, policy makers, and legislators. Decision-makers, particularly those who have the power to provide emergency funding and resources, need to be made aware of your needs and how they can support you. Ask donors to step up.
    • Communicate with the press and take the time to do a local tv briefing to bring awareness to your institutional needs, what resources you are making available, and how others can help.
  • Take time to listen. Create opportunities for you and your team to hear and address immediate needs. Whether through a digital town meeting, online Q&A, or phone calls, it is important to listen and let people know you’re listening, especially when the news is not good.
    • Listen to differing opinions and give yourself time outside meetings to evaluate their merit. (“I appreciate that. You’ve given me a point to consider, and I’m going to get back to you with a decision at tomorrow’s meeting.”) Then be clear about the direction you’re heading and why you came to that decision.
    • Be aware that every word you say will be parsed for meaning. Attempting to defuse tension by making a humorous aside made on camera will not come across the same way in print. Say exactly what you mean and no more.

All of these aspects feed into each other, and should be part of an iterative cycle: take action, communicate, listen, and improve.

For the next few weeks, you are in the “secure and stabilize” phase, where you are identifying the immediate needs and mobilizing resources to take care of immediate financial, health, and emotional needs. But always be aware that you will soon move into the longer term “restore and rebuild” phase where you will be instituting changes that reflect the new conditions and world. Your leadership in the short term will largely determine your effectiveness in the long run.