On My Mind: A Crisis at Our Door

Summer 2020

By Donna Orem

On-My-Mind-(1).JPGI have no doubt that anyone reading this magazine is still finding their way through some of the most difficult months ever faced. The coronavirus, which raced around the world taking lives, collapsing global markets, and shuttering schools and businesses, upended our lives personally and professionally.
School leaders deal with crises large and small every day, but this one was different. Few saw this coming, and its long-term effects are still unfolding. This was the black swan event we had been fearing.

In his 2007 book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines a black swan event as having these attributes:
  • “It is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.
  • It carries an extreme impact.
  • In spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”
We have seen a rise in black swan events in the past decade, from extreme weather to terrorist acts to epidemics. As a society, we must engage in a conversation about prevention, as many of these black swans are becoming too numerous to be categorized as such anymore. But what about the true black swan? Can we anticipate it to prevent it or minimize its impact? Taleb suggests that trying to identify potential black swan events is a pointless exercise; instead, our time is best spent preparing for the impact of negative events and positioning ourselves to exploit the positive ones.

Preparing for the Impact of a Black Swan Event

Risk management experts suggest that preparing for the impact of an unexpected crisis is a three-step process:
1. Map out your school as a system. To truly understand impact, you must first understand how your school operates as a system. This entails mapping out inputs, outputs, functions, outcomes, and the interrelationships between the different parts. By doing so, you will understand how stress on one part of your school will impact other parts. (Any systems-thinking book or course can demonstrate the process of system mapping. We also offer this exercise in our Strategy Lab program.)
2. Identify potential disruptors to your system. After mapping out the interrelationships in your system, cast a wide net to identify those scenarios that could create great disruption for your school or offer new opportunities. Start big and then narrow down so that you are focusing only on those events that will be most impactful for your school’s mission. A great framework to use in reflecting on potential disruptions is what futurists identify as the 11 macro sources of disruption.
3. Ask “what if” questions. After identifying risks or opportunities, the default position may be to go right to mitigation or creation strategies. But it is more important to first ask what-if questions. These questions will help uncover your greatest vulnerabilities and your most promising opportunities.
Once you have completed this three-step process, you are ready to begin scenario planning. For example, the effects of tax reform are already changing the philanthropic landscape. Because of the increased standard deduction, many smaller-dollar donors are disappearing, making schools more dependent on a few major donors. And, with the the stock market in free fall, the future of those dollars may be in jeopardy. What-if questions for this scenario could be:
  • What if philanthropic dollars were no longer part of the revenue picture?
  • What if parents were no longer our go-to major donors?
Scenario planning helps you identify your Plan B. How would you cut costs or raise additional revenues to make up for potential losses if either of the what-if questions became reality? The key here is not to come up with just one answer, but to seek multiple responses. Those who study catastrophic events say that this is one of the pitfalls of most scenario-planning work—if your Plan B fails, you are left with no alternative solutions while you are in the middle of the crisis.
As you engage in this process remember that, for a school, one impact is paramount to all others—a threat to your mission. In “Risk and Reward Often Arrive Simultaneously for Nonprofit Boards,” on the Nonprofit Information website, Linda Henman suggests that one of the most important roles of nonprofit boards is to understand which risks would provide the greatest threat to mission and an organization’s ability to thrive. Therefore, an essential element of scenario planning for any nonprofit is consideration of alternative ways to enact the mission. What’s tricky, Henman notes, is that “those options that promise the greatest rewards also involve greater risk.” For that reason, she underscores that nonprofit trustees must learn how to practice adaptive governance—a process through which boards “understand that they need to encourage innovation and learning, set ethical standards, and promote accountability.”

On Being Human

Finally, and probably most important in minimizing the impact of a black swan event, is the human dimension––after a crisis passes, the effects linger on people. One of the best articles I have read on this subject is “Leading Through Covid-19: Finding Hope and Opportunity in a Global Calamity” by Eric J. McNulty, associate director of Harvard’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. Writing in MIT Sloan Management Review, he describes research conducted on the impact of crises: There are two overarching takeaways from our work. The first is that while an initial crisis may not have been preventable, the secondary crisis of a bungled response is avoidable. The second is that every incident has narratives with victims, villains, and heroes.”

McNulty suggests that effective crisis leadership depends on three interdependent ways of leading:
Adaptive capacity. This is all about having the ability to pivot as facts on the ground change; we are experiencing this vividly right now. This requires more collaboration than normal and perhaps a flatter organization structure. And most importantly, McNulty says, “In the disruption of crisis, an unshakable commitment to core values and principles creates an island of certainty that facilitates more fluid action relating to strategy and tactics. If, for example, your organization proclaims that people come first, ensure that all of your decisions in this time reflect that.”
Resilience. In the school world, we know all too well how resilience benefits children. But do adults in the school community exhibit resilience in a crisis? McNulty suggests that, “While many play defense during a crisis, there is an opportunity to be aspirational as well. Imagine that the adversity of the situation coalesces your team to rise to its absolute best. Think about how you may all emerge from this incident stronger, more engaged, and more capable than you were before.”
Trust. Predictably, McNulty’s research underscores that trust is at the foundation of effective crisis leadership. He suggests that we should be asking, “How can we be fully trustworthy to each of our stakeholders during this difficult period?” And, he drives home the point that “Trust is built through dialogue, not proclamations and intentions.”
As I write this, I am hopeful that your community is emerging from the COVID-19 crisis. And that we can say the circumstances are trying us but not defeating us, that we are using the power of community and our foundational drive to help children and families get through the toughest parts as our North Star. I know that many are facing grief and loss, but I also hope that you are finding moments of hope and joy. There is so much that we can learn from this particular black swan event and use to build pathways to a stronger, more equitable tomorrow.

For me, perhaps the key learning is how much better we are when we work together as a community. Our independence is our gift, but our strength as a community is what will move us forward.


Crisis Leadership Learnings

As schools were just beginning to make difficult decisions amid COVID-19, NAIS President Donna Orem checked in with three heads of school. They shared their experiences and insights in a March 2020 Independent Ideas blog post, “A Conversation: 3 Heads Discuss Their Decision-Making Process Amid Coronavirus (COVID-19).” They also spoke about their key learnings so far:

“You can’t do this by yourself. It’s important to have a strong team—and if you don’t have an emergency team already, get one with key people in different areas who can help inform your decisions. And build strong relationships with the other heads in your area; they can really help inform your decisions.”
Veronica Codrington-Cazeau, The Evergreen School (WA)
“It is important to remember the humanity in our care, the personalities, the characters, the people who influence our decision-making. Children are depending on us to get through this in a way that is healthy and allows them to continue growing joyfully.”
Crissy Cáceres, Brooklyn Friends School (NY)
“I’ve found it really helpful to have someone outside of the education world as a sounding board—someone who is looking at this from maybe the perspective of a small business owner or a CEO or CFO of a corporation.”
—Brent Bell, Darlington School (GA)
For more perspectives and resources about crisis leadership, check out the March 2020 edition of Looking Ahead, “Leading in a Crisis.”

Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.