Your Community Needs Leadership in this Anxious Time

It is by now obvious that we are living through one of those epochal moments that subsequently will be used to divide historical periods. Great wars serve as such markers for regions or individual countries (as in the use of “antebellum” and postbellum to describe the South before and after the American Civil War), and even calendar years can serve a similar purpose, as in “B.C.E.” and “C.E.” to denote the historical times before and after the Year One. Henceforth, the coronavirus will be such a divider, and, as with war, the actual event will stretch for a quite lengthy period. At some point, we will come to know a world after coronavirus, but when that moment arrives will vary by location and just what it will look like is, at best, now just a guess.

The uncertainty of the current moment leads to an avalanche of daily missives from consultants and publishers trying to describe what the post-COVID world will look like and when it will arrive. Almost all of them (this from McKinsey is a good example) describe multiple scenarios ranging from optimistic to darkly dystopian. In our practice, we hear more and more from leaders grappling with the anxiety such uncertainty engenders, both in their communities and in themselves.

Modern humans (“modern” and “pre-modern” denote another albeit imprecise division in time) are not wired to deal well with ambiguity and uncertainty. One could argue that the essence of modern life is a relentless drive to understand and control nature and events. What remains of uncertainty is why the insurance industry exists—what outcomes we cannot control we can insure. The last 150 years lulled homo sapiens into believing that we can “see it coming” and either bend the story arc to suit us or find ways to blunt the impact when it cannot be bent.

That said, the coronavirus is not a “black swan,” an unforeseen, highly unlikely event. We have known that a pandemic was possible, even likely, for some time. What makes the COVID-19 story arc defy both bending to suit humans and standard monetary means of mitigation is the sheer extent of its reach. It is truly a global event, affecting every country and, eventually, locality in the world. Management through social distancing—the only tool we have at our disposal—slows but does not stop the spread. And the economic devastation it creates as countries scramble to adapt is both deep and pervasive.

A highly effective vaccine would bend the story arc in humanity’s favor, but that is a year away under the best of conditions. What, and more importantly who, will be left by then to care or care about?

That the uncertainty of all of this makes many (most?) of us anxious is no surprise. Homo sapiens is used to being able to imagine a future. Not only can we no longer imagine what that future will be like, we also can’t be as sure we will be there when it arrives. This existential fear brings out the best and worst in people—and we have seen plenty of both in recent days.

Leadership steps into this anxious void. School heads no less than political leaders set the tone for their communities. We used to end our leadership development programs by saying that leadership is what happens in a moment of chance opportunity when someone steps up. Heads, this is your moment. Your school’s survival may well depend on what you do.

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Assessing the Impact

The novel coronavirus is devastating multiple industries and organizations from local restaurants to global airlines and hotel chains. Avasant, a California-based consultancy, and its subsidiary company Computer Economics, created this graphic to illustrate the scope of impact expected in 11 industries.

Higher education and non-profits are the two sectors closest to private, independent and international schools, and the COVID-19 effect is expected to be “major.” Much of the impact will be on personnel and revenue. While online platforms such as Coursera and Zoom are enjoying rapid adoption throughout education, schools themselves are or will be under increasing pressure. Just one stressor: “…universities are preparing for substantial economic fallout, both from less revenue from student tuition and the risk that there will be fewer international—and higher fee-paying—students in their next intake.” This will hit boarding schools especially hard.

For nonprofit organizations in general, particular those dependent in some measure on philanthropy, Avasant expects that “…a worldwide recession will most likely cause grants and donations to decline.”

The good news, if one can call it such, is that most schools have already received 2019-20 revenue, and most of the COVID-19 impact on revenue will happen in the 2020-21 school year. This means that the window for gauging the impact on your school’s operations is open and closing fast–best to act now to form contingency plans.

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What Is Normal in Light of the Coronavirus?

One of the persistent questions we read in online forums and hear during Zoom meetings with clients is about when things will get back to “normal;” e.g., when will life revert to 2019 conditions, as opposed to the 2020 coronavirus reality? The idea within the question is that this is an interregnum of sorts, a traumatic interlude before a reversion to something familiar and, well, less viral.

This cartoon in the New Yorker illustrates how we are thinking about “normal” at Triangle Associates. Normal will be shifting almost continuously for an unknown time. That is the next normal.

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Killed by Good Intentions

Even as every aspect of life seems overwhelmed by the coronavirus, our work with boards continues via Zoom and synchronous and asynchronous webinars. A current round of board member video interviews brings me back to an insight from a few years ago:

The most dysfunctional independent school boards are rarely so because of malevolent actors with malicious intentions; rather, the dysfunction lies in the behavior of members who deeply love the school and believe they are acting in its best interest.

Almost invariably, the boards in question are made up of smart, successful people who, by acting out their “good intentions” end up creating bigger problems for the school. The pathway to trouble comes when one or more board members assumes that conditions are such that accepted good practices in the field no longer apply. For example, dwindling enrollment (and resulting financial strain) prompts a trustee to begin interviewing fellow parents and even staff to ferret out what is going wrong. Enrollment and money problems are serious, but adding to them by committing the dual mistake of freelancing and crossing boundaries only makes things worse.

There is an old saying that “schools are killed by good intentions.” As we make our way through extraordinary times when it seems that no wisdom from the past applies, it is important to remember that good practices are “good” for a reason.

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Why We Need Better Statistic and Economic Education

As I watch the relentless movement of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 around the world and listen to the many simply inaccurate (some dangerously so) remarks by political leaders, I am beginning to think this situation underscores a serious hole in our educational system. Too many people lack the basic grasp of economics and statistics necessary to gauge for themselves what is factual and not. Among the missing bits are:

  • The difference between linear and exponential functions;
  • How linear and logarithmic scales show the same data in different ways leading to different conclusions (see for an illustration).
  • Why today’s case day reflect what happened two weeks ago rather than yesterday; and
  • Why demand-side economic interventions are useless when stores and restaurants are closed.

Extra credit would come in the form of an analysis of why reports of deaths per diagnosed case from a particular disease may not be a true reflection of the pandemic’s reach. For more on this, see this item in the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis “On the Economy” blog.

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Follow TA’s Twitter Feed for Tools & Resources

Like you, we are getting a steady stream of potentially useful tools and tips for leading during the tough times induced by COVID-19 and the threat to public health. We will curate what we see and share those that seem most useful via our Twitter feed.


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