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Leadership in Times of Chaos

by Dr. Bruce Ellis

Maybe you, like me, have thought multiple times, “Oh, if we could just go back to the way things were before COVID-19.” Even that thought itself could end with an exclamation mark at times. But things have changed and continue to change. And, for many folks, this change may feel like chaos. Regardless of what aspect of life you consider, there seems to be some level of chaos. But is all chaos bad? It probably depends on how we define chaos and how we as leaders respond to it. 

A Quick Look at Chaos

Interesting to note, as I Google the word “chaos,” I’m given assistance from a variety of resources. One, interestingly enough, is from Google Books Ngram Viewer. This is a dangerous site for logophiles (lovers of words) in that you can easily spend an hour going down different rabbit holes exploring a string of words.

Nerdy? Yes. Fun? I think so … but I’ve been isolated for longer than I prefer. Anyway, from the 1910s forward, there is a general increase in the use of the word “chaos.” And, as of 1980 onward, the trend greatly increases. If you explore the word in other languages, you’ll find they all hold true to this increased use of the word.

So what does that mean for leaders? Or, a possibly better question, “What is one feasible, beneficial application that leaders can take away from this?”

Well, if you think about it, we had the Age of Mechanical Production that led into the Age of Science and Mass Production that led into the Digital Revolution that has led us to this Fourth Industrial Revolution. With each phase, I would imagine that there were folk who used the term “chaos” to describe the shift.

Though COVID-19 isn’t a technology breakthrough, it is causing us to rethink how we do pretty much everything. It’s spurning new innovation and even removing some bureaucracy that has probably slowed down innovation. As an optimist, I am inclined to think that education will have improvements because of this “chaos.” And you have the opportunity to help others through this chaotic time whether you have the title of leader, changemaker, influencer, maker, designer, entrepreneur, or no title at all. So here are some ideas to help you lead through chaos.

Be Calm

One of the things your team needs from you is for you to be calm. Nothing is worse than having one of the Three Stooges at the helm frantically giving instructions. Being calm doesn’t mean that you have all the answers, but it does mean that you are aware of the chaos and you choose to be methodical, ask questions, and make decisions based on sound thought. If you are calm, your team will find it easier to be calm. Even if you have to fake it, be calm. In order to do so, you may need to find someone that can be your anchor amidst the storm.

Help Your Team Process

Different people like to process events, changes, and anxieties in different ways. Some folks become very chatty and need to verbalize and hear themselves think aloud. Other folks prefer to observe and quietly think. And, unfortunately, some folks may feel paralyzed by the uncertainty of the times.

Hopefully you’ve studied your team before now to know how each one processes. Consider how you can provide a variety of ways for your team to process – either in a safe, group setting or individually. You may need to set norms during these times so that it doesn’t become a gripe session and spiral down. Encourage and practice empathy among your team.

Ask your HR department if an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is available. According to the Office of Personnel Management, EAP is “a voluntary, work-based program that offers free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals, and follow-up services to employees who have personal and/or work-related problems.” Many districts provide some level of assistance. This may be a very relevant resource for particular employees who may need to process, but do it with a professional that isn’t a coworker or supervisor.

Be a Good Listener

Regardless of the makeup of your team, be sure to listen to them. Each one is communicating during this time of chaos…some are just easier to hear than others. Practice good listening skills – whether you are listening to the person who is over-the-top verbose or whether you are listening to your team member who is taciturn. It may help to parrot back what you believe they are saying in order for them to feel heard and for you to better understand them. Consider asking open ended questions.

And for some, you may need to clarify that if they want advice, it would be helpful if they start the conversation with something like, “I’d like to share something with you and get your advice.” Nothing says you are a poor listener more than giving unsolicited advice.

Create Small Wins and Celebrate Successes

Production and output may be different for your team right now compared to “normal” times. If so, consider how you can create small wins that your team can accomplish that work towards the larger goal. Are there new benchmarks you can identify or goals you can set which are appropriate for this time that will help your team focus on their job? You may need to involve your team in identifying those. Look for opportunities to celebrate successes, achievements, improvements, milestones, and minor accomplishments. 

Communicate Openly

As with any leadership role, there are things that you cannot tell your staff, but that doesn’t mean you cannot communicate openly. While it’s probably not the best idea to tell them, “I have no clue what we are doing,” you can let them know that leading through this time is different than anything you’ve done before and you are committed to the task at hand and the team’s well-being.

There may be times that you need to let them know what you don’t know; this isn’t to alarm them, but to let them know you are aware of the question and looking for answers. You may need to update an old-school technique of soliciting anonymous suggestions, questions, and concerns by creating an online form for your team to use. This allows them to submit what they are thinking and allows you to address it with the larger group. Chances are, if one person is concerned about something, then others may feel the same thing. Use it as a means for growth and community.

These are just a few suggestions and by no means an exhaustive list. We would like to hear what you would add to our list. It could be something you do with your team or staff to help in chaotic times or maybe something you’ve read and thought about using to help them.

Drop your idea in the comments and let us know.

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