Today’s school leaders are dealing with more bureaucracy and political pressure than ever before.
For example, during the COVID-19 outbreak, school leaders were asked to interpret rulings and make decisions while politicians argued over how to handle the pandemic. Whether it was virtual learning, student masking, contact tracing, or staff vaccinations ... something "urgent" was always being asked of schools.
Clearly, these were (and continue to be) important topics. Leaders must be careful to understand the social and political landscape to ensure they avoid legal trouble. However, some school leaders get so consumed with the actions of local and federal legislators that they lose focus of what really matters: the employees they serve.
On November 5, 2021, OSHA published an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) mandating that companies with 100 or more staff “require all employees get fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or be required to wear a face covering and undergo weekly testing.”
When this “mandate” was announced, many school leaders dropped everything and immediately began enforcing new policies and procedures. Just like Michael Scott yelling “Oh my God – it’s happening!” in the classic Fire Drill scene, many school leaders sprang from their offices and quickly alarmed staff of forthcoming changes.
While leaders thought an immediate response was necessary, this knee-jerk reaction backfired in many districts. Rather than put staff at ease, their actions did nothing but raise questions and create tension.
On November 12th, 2021, the US Court of Appeals ordered that OSHA "take no steps to implement or enforce" the ETS "until further court order." A short time later, OSHA “suspended activities related to the implementation and enforcement of the ETS pending future developments in the litigation.”
Only a few days removed from telling staff “Get vaccinated … or else!” administrators had to reverse course and inform employees that the mandate was overturned. While some leaders apologized to staff, most brushed it off as “politics” and moved on with their week, as if to say “No harm, no foul.”
I beg to differ.
This leadership behavior is incredibly harmful to staff and is a primary reason why stress levels in schools are at all-time highs.
Far too many school leaders believe they have to immediately react to everything that the “state” and “feds” say. Rather than take a wait-and-see approach, many leaders emphatically tell staff a mandate must be followed. "Making sure we stay out of legal trouble is our top priority," these leaders proclaim.
But should it be their top priority?
If school leaders asked employees, "What should be our top priority?", themes such as staff burnout and teacher shortage would likely top the list. If fact, I doubt "following legislative mandates" would even register.
Ironically, school leaders who stress enforcement of legislative mandates do nothing but compound staff burnout and teacher shortage issues.
In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker suggests the following:
(Managers must) identify time-wasters by looking for the recurrent "crisis". This is a crisis that comes back year after year. A crisis that recurs a second time is a crisis that must not occur again. A recurrent crisis should have always been foreseen. The recurrent crisis is simply a symptom of sloppiness and laziness.
Rather than treat every political “mandate” as a crisis, school leaders should remain calm and follow a series of steps when new legislation is announced. The following are seven ideas to consider:
Gather Input from Leaders: When new mandates are announced, school leaders should discuss those decisions with their leadership team. But rather than tell what will be done, school leaders must ask their lieutenants for feedback by asking questions such as “How might this impact your building and the employees you supervise?” “Do you believe this mandate is feasible?” and “What blind spots do I have when looking at this mandate?”
Informal Conversations: School leaders cannot make informed decisions from the comforts of their office. Informed decisions only happen when school leaders visit the trenches of their organization. Prior to enforcing state mandates, empathetic leaders listen to employee perspectives by asking “What are your thoughts about this mandate?” and “How could this mandate affect your job?”
Connect with Other Districts: When new mandates are announced, administrators should reach out to their professional network to understand how rulings are playing out in other districts. Asking “Is my school in line with what other districts are doing? Or, are we an outlier?” can serve as valuable data when school leaders are asked to make difficult decisions.
I sent this Google Sheet to all Superintendents in my conference for feedback.
Summarize Data: Once conversations with leaders, employees, and other districts have occurred, administrators should interpret the data. If the feedback to a particular mandate is generally supportive, leaders should be good to move forward. But if the feedback to a particular mandate is strongly opposed, the school leader must consider alternative options.
Remove Feelings: Rather than base decisions on personal opinions or political allegiances, administrators must make decisions that reflect the true feelings of their stakeholders. While their actions may be commendable, countless school leaders have lost their jobs as a result of making decisions based on their world view as opposed to genuinely listening to the views of the school community.
School Board: In many cases, mandates must go before the board. When this happens, district leaders should always err on the side of advocating for employees. Even if the board goes against your wishes (which has happened to me multiple times), word of your actions will spread and you will gain a groundswell of support and loyalty from employees.
Reassure Staff: Once a decision is made, school leaders must provide updates to employees. Far too often, school leaders shy away from sending all-staff communications for fear of spamming employee inboxes. Instead, leaders must remember there is no such thing as over-communication. Furthermore, administrators should view these messages as opportunities to explain how their leadership philosophy plays a role in decision making.
I have sometimes been criticized for being too laid back when it comes to “mandates.”
However, I’m willing to shoulder this criticism if it means employees are sheilded from bureaucratic drama.
School leaders: please stop treating every political “mandate” as a crisis. Rather than worry about lawmakers in a faraway city, focus on the employees you serve.
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