Dr. Robert Hunt: Crisis, Growth & Leadership
Dr. Robert Hunt, Superintendent of Barrington 220 SD in Illinois, talks with us about managing crises, both at a professional and personal level, how to best communicate during difficult times, and how to grow and recover after.
In this episode, Dr. Robert Hunt, Superintendent of Barrington 220 SD in Illinois, talks with us about managing crises, both at a professional and personal level, how to best communicate during difficult times, and how to grow and recover after.
Few school leaders are trained to handle crises. And yet, at some point in their career they will be expected to lead during and after the unexpected strikes. Dr. Robert Hunt has experienced personal and professional crises as well as published research on how school leaders can effectively lead in the aftermath of a crisis. From that experience and his own work, he has a perspective that can help school leaders, especially superintendents better plan and prepare for something few are trained on.
In this conversation we discuss:
- How superintendents should communicate with their stakeholders amidst difficulty and sensitive information
- Preparing school administrators by talking about crisis before it happens
- Post Traumatic Growth and being able to acknowledge the things you are better at because you were present in a crisis and went through difficult times
- How communities can work together to become stronger after crisis—instead of trying to get back to “normal”
- How to handle difficult situations when there is a lack of control, uncertainty and urgency
Intro Quote: Dr. Robert Hunt (Guest): You. And I think most of us, if we were fair and we looked back and said, boy, that was a big mistake, I shouldn't have done X, Y and Z, but I now do this because of that. And I think making people aware of that is a little bit of strength in the moment of crisis. Like, we're going to get through this. And on the other side, we've said these words, on the other side of this, we're going to be better.
Well, really, research is starting a show that's true, like, you're going to be a better communicator, you can be a better leader, you're going to be, whatever it might be. I think that's a little bit of reassurance in those difficult times, for sure.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Hello and welcome. I'm Tyler Vawser, and this is another episode of SchoolCEO Conversations, a podcast that helps level the playing field for superintendents and other school leaders. You can learn more and stay up to date at schoolceo.com. Marketing your school district is critical to success, but we all know that there are challenges along the way.
In fact, school leaders are rarely trained for crisis, and at some point in their career, they'll be expected to face one, to respond, to react, and to recover. Today I speak with Dr. Bob Hunt, the superintendent at Barrington 220 Community Unit school district in Illinois. Together, we discuss his experiences and the advice that he has for leaders in their communities post crisis. Dr. Hunt also explores new concepts like holding and post traumatic growth. Let's join the conversation.
Tyler Vawser (Host): Thank you, Dr. Hunt, so much for joining me and having this conversation.
Dr. Robert Hunt (Guest): Absolutely. Thanks for the opportunity. I appreciate it.
Tyler Vawser: You've talked with SchoolCEO Magazine before and so I'm excited to have you on the podcast. One thing you've told us in the past is that we do almost nothing to prepare leaders for crises, and I'd love for you to dig into that a little bit more.
Dr. Robert Hunt: Yeah, I think there's so much out there about general leadership and change leadership. This is an area that there's just a huge void. And I think recently, if you go recently, the last five to ten years, it's starting to get more attention and traction. And with that, we can prepare administrators better than we currently do to get through these crises in an effect- more effective way. Obviously, crisis is thrust upon you and it's often emotional and there's no real clear path. But there are things we know now that we can do as leaders to help kind of guide us through that.
And there's also things that we know are likely going to happen, especially if it's a significant crisis with our staffs and our organizations that kind of knowing it ahead of time, you can think through and at least better understand what's going on rather than trying to figure it out as you go. So for me, getting this word out is really important and I'd love to see - from a preparation standpoint - programs across our country really put value in this and add it to their programs as they prepare future leaders.
Tyler Vawser: One of the things you've mentioned is that administrators, as they grow in their careers, they get better and better at handling tactical challenges, right? They get better at solving these issues that there's a tactical solution, there's a best way to handle it. But crises are more challenging in the sense that there's an adaptive problem. There's maybe not a right or a wrong way. There's a lot of different routes you can go to solve the crisis or to handle it.
And so I'm curious, how do you think about adaptive challenges? And if that's not something people are getting day to day in their work, how do you train or how do you prepare for something that requires adaptive ability?
Dr. Robert Hunt: It's interesting and I view crises and there's a lot of different definitions out there, but I look at it partially in that it's this disruption to the equilibrium, right? The equilibrium of the organization has been drastically shifted immediately. And what happens is all of these technical problems come up.
Are we going to return to school? How are we going to handle reentry? What should we do with the parent? Depending on the crisis, there's all of these technical decisions and in that people find solace or connection to leaders making those quick decisions and judge you but based on those things. But the reality is there's these adaptive issues that are happening around you.
I look at true crisis as something that immediately has impacted or threatened the culture of the organization. So we know about culture, right? It takes a ton of time to develop culture. So these are events that are so significant that they threaten or actually change the culture. And you can't modify or be strategic about developing culture in a technical environment.
It's adaptive and it's built on relationships and it's looking at the big problems or stepping back away from the technical and say, okay, what is going on right now that's impacting our long term culture? And what can I do or we do as an organization to kind of guide that in a way because you talk about some of these levels of dramatic significance.
Returning to normal is never going to happen. How can we lead through and get to a place where this is part of our history and essentially a little bit about our culture going forward, but it's not so debilitating to the organization that you can't move forward.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, it's interesting because I think when crisis hits a lot of people, their immediate reaction is to get back to normal, right. Solving the crisis means to return to the place that you were before anything bad or something went wrong. Do you think that holds people back from handling it well because they're trying to go back to an earlier state?
Dr. Robert Hunt: We talk about what should we be talking about? Future leaders and just that realization that the normal will never it will never go back there, right? If you have one of these significant crises along the way, my dissertation worked really focused on how the impact and the things that can occur will change things. And I think just being aware of that and not trying to kind of push back into normal, it's what is our new normal with this event?
Dr. Robert Hunt: And I hate the phrase new normal. I can't believe I used it. But who and what are we because of this event? And how do I bridge our organization, our school and our community to get there?
Tyler Vawser: I can't remember where I heard it, but it was something about that. There are always surprises happening. It's just that how ready are we for those things to happen? Right. So you think about the pandemic and everybody's caught on, caught by a surprise. But if you look historically right, of course these things happen, but it's just been so long that we kind of get lulled into a false sense of stability or normalcy. Right?
Dr. Robert Hunt: Right.
Tyler Vawser: I'd love for you to dig into a little bit more about what the different levels of crises are. How do you think about that? Because on the one hand, we have kind of global events, but a lot of times school district leaders are facing more like localized crises that may or may not make national or regional news, but to their community, it's still very significant.
Dr. Robert Hunt: Yeah. And again, there are people that will kind of put themselves in crisis all the time, right? It's like these manifested crises either by the media or within the organization; and to me, those aren't real crises. When I look at something - you've [mentioned] the pandemic, you take a school shooting, you take a major flood or natural disaster that just completely shifts the organization and puts you in places that are so far from the typical normal. That, to me is crisis and really requires a little bit of a different type of leadership in addressing those and trying to kind of move the organization forward.
Tyler Vawser: And you would say the difference between a real crisis and something that's significant or maybe manufactured, but isn't crisis material, is that threat to the culture, the organization, or the community?
Dr. Robert Hunt: Yeah, I think it's things that rise to that level that really deserve this. A lot of the other things that people would kind of wrap themselves around, I call more like incident management, like X happened. I can respond mostly technically with my response and decisions and communicate effectively and quickly. And within 24 or 48 hours, that moment has passed and is gone. When I think of crisis, I think of something that's totally threatening the organization and the community and the culture and will be with you for a long period of time. Certainly pandemic. And I know that's just one example but that's certainly one that is most kind of forefront right now.
Tyler Vawser: You've experienced crisis at a professional level but also at a personal level. And so I'm curious from your perspective, what's been the hardest part of those crises - and especially - after the initial impact of the event or whatever it was that took place?
Dr. Robert Hunt: So when you talk personal, that takes it to a whole nother level. I think one of the things in both personal and professional that you have to realize is we often take ownership as building and as district leaders, and to not let kind of guilt take you over, not let the moment freeze you and reflect upon how we got here. To me, is like, one of the first things that you need to overcome because it prevents you from kind of leaning into and addressing what needs to be addressed from a leadership perspective.
I think in a crisis that I have dealt with, I've come to understand that there is unavoidable pain and trauma involved in this and it will significantly impact people at various levels. And it's really important to listen, to, appreciate the place and time in which people are at and be able to work with them through that personally.
You mentioned this and my son had cancer. For me, what was harsh, the harsh lesson for me in that time was it was - kind of this - I knew what we were dealing with and I worked hard to understand it and research and define the problem, all the things you should do in crisis, right? But I was having this struggle of my personal priority alignment.
That's kind of how I refer to it because it was the first time that I had to reflect and go, man, I used to take all of this so serious in my professional world and sometimes it bleeds over to my personal life. And in that moment when you could lose your son, all of that kind of goes away. And for me it was this time of like what I do is really important, but nothing should shift you away from the core of your family and your kids.
And so I think that time for me and it's almost selfish, right? It was like self reflective in that I was getting my priorities kind of realigned and I realized the fragileness, if you will, of the world we live in. And at any given moment you could be in that seat or faced with that and in that seat you tend to make very different decisions on how you'd spend your time going forward.
So I kind of made a commitment at that point that I was going to live a life with more purpose around family as well as totally committed to my profession. And it has really impacted me in a positive way. I always say my son's cancer diagnosis in that experience was the worst and best thing that ever happened to me, because it provided that for me.
Dr. Robert Hunt: I think when there is a crisis on the professional side, a lot of the things kind of carry over too perspective on what's important within the organization. And you want to help heal and be a part of helping and supporting your staff. I think one of the greatest challenges in a crisis for me, as I've reflected and thinking about today, was all of those moments where you have a lot of information and you're making decisions, but you can't share everything, right?
There's a lot of information that's private along the way, and that's really difficult. So you want to share more, but you're kind of limited to do that. And it could be legally limited on details or things of that nature. But that is one of the pieces that's hard and difficult and makes it more difficult, and then it's being able to not let it take the toll that it can take on you as a leader has been the hardest part.
And I've gotten to a point where I can reflect back and realize I was making very poor decisions with my life in terms of amount of work and how I approach things, because I wanted to just put everybody on my back and I wanted to do it, and I wanted to wear the Superman cape. But you can't in that time, you need to rely on others and support, and sometimes you need to step away and take some time to reconnect with the people that are close to you.
COVID was not a one week problem. It was a two year problem. And I think a lot of people experience burnout from a leadership perspective, from a teaching perspective, because they didn't kind of have their own internal warning signs of, I take a step back here. I need to take a little bit more care of myself, make that a priority so I can then be the leader that they need me to be. So those were a couple of things I thought when you asked the question.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, it's a really great response.
Tyler Vawser: There's a few things I want to dig in there. One of the things you said was both the worst and the best thing that's happened to you. And I think it's actually something you hear quite a bit from someone that goes through something traumatic or they go through a difficult moment, and from the outside, it kind of looks a bit crazy, like, how could you say that was the best thing? But I think people listening to this kind of understand that when we look at our own lives, there are moments that we don't really want to repeat it, but we can't imagine being who we are without those moments.
Dr. Robert Hunt: Right.
Tyler Vawser: So I'm curious, how do you think about that? Maybe at an institutional level or an organizational level, helping people see that while something terrible has happened, while we're handling this crisis and there's a threat here on the other side of that. It's going to shape our identity. And if we do it right, it can actually be something that we look back on as foundational to who we are in the present moment and going forward.
Dr. Robert Hunt: So we've had a lot of those conversations currently in our school district. Honestly, I've heard for a year and a half, if we don't take advantage of this situation or at least take the time to think about what did we learn from flipping the educational model kind of on its side, then we've missed probably the greatest opportunity from a change perspective in education.
So a lot of people have said that, but I always say, okay, well, what have you done? What have you done within your organization that helps play out those lessons learned and what are you doing to pull those things forward? And that's where you get a bunch of silence, right? So it's being able to realize that in these crises, you can't deal with it on day three. Day three is just management. At that point. You're still dealing with healing.
But there is a time and point, whereas a leader, you need to take the time to reflect upon what the crisis was, what we learned, and what we can do better going forward. I'll never forget that when I was young, I mean younger than I am now, but I think it was 91 or 92 when Columbine happened. So I think it was in high school around there. And I vividly remember the principal being interviewed on TV and he made the comment that this will not define us. We will be better on the other side of this as a school and a community.
Now, unfortunately, he was part of my dissertation study, so somewhat it did define him. But the reality is, regardless of that, there are things to look back on and go, we are stronger because of this. And being able to identify those things. I'm not sure the word celebrate is the right word, but to acknowledge that our relationships are stronger, our organization is stronger, and making sure people kind of take the time to appreciate where they had been and what they had been through together, it develops more of a strength in the foundation and the core of what the organization is.
Tyler Vawser: It is surprising and you know more about this because of your dissertation and your work, but communities really do rally together when there are crises, right? Especially natural disasters, right? Political divisions are set aside, class is set aside.
There's all sorts of things that normally are kind of dividing us, but for some reason when these difficult moments happen are just put to the side temporarily. And I think that's where a lot of those connections can come from because you're serving next to each other, you're filling sandbags next to each other, those types of moments. And so it sounds like you've experienced that in your own community as well.
Dr. Robert Hunt: Yeah. And I think leveraging the people that want to step forward and help, right. Not trying to put the cape on and do it all yourself, but allowing people to be a part of the process and a part of the healing really creates avenues for those relationships to develop moving forward.
Tyler Vawser: You mentioned earlier that one of the challenges is you have all the information as the leader, as a superintendent, you're privy to more things than others and you can't always share that information. How do you craft a narrative or a story that helps people make sense of what's happening and what's happened without being able to share all that information?
What are some practical advice or what's some practical guidelines and frameworks that you could share to maybe a new superintendent that hasn't experienced a crisis yet, but at some point in their career is likely to face one?
Dr. Robert Hunt: Yeah, so a couple of things here, and I just recently had an event in our high school that we had to shut down and lock the building down for a period of time. And I think attorneys are paid to protect you and manage and mitigate risk. Right? But what I have learned is to really push back on what can we actually share and not share. Because this world of social media now and I had this conversation last week when we were dealing with these kids.
Their phones are open and parents have at least their kids perspective on what's going on right now and they have pictures of events that are happening and it's well before you can get out and communicate. So the idea of being transparent and honest is obviously important, but being as forthcoming as you can, as soon as you can, and then acknowledging when we do have additional information, but I can't share it because of X privacy or student, right, whatever that is.
But making sure people feel like you're sharing everything that you can and you're acknowledging there's some things, additional information you have that you don't. And I guess that sounds simplistic, but in reality, I didn't do that early. Early. I was an English major, so I like to write. So I tried to flower things and gloss over the negative and it hurts you actually, people almost lack a little bit of trust in you, like, that's not true, or you're not giving us everything. Because I heard it from my 9th grader who just walked through the door, who saw it, or they text me during this crisis.
So I think for me, pushing back a little bit and making sure we're sharing everything we possibly can, being as transparent as quickly as possible, and then this idea of acknowledging there's additional information that can't be shared because of X is really important in that some of this crisis I watch and you never see the superintendent or you never see a principal messaging and sharing information. To me, you're missing a huge opportunity to help lead the organization and the community through the crisis.
Your job is to be the face at that time and try to get to a place where people have a sense of comfort in being able to survive, get through, and then move forward.
Tyler Vawser: Dr. Hunt one of the challenges that you know probably better than anyone is that schools don't just have one customer, right? You have all kinds of different stakeholders, right? Parents, teachers, students, of course. But then you have that broader community, and they want to know as well, but they're not maybe as invested.
The schools are part of the community, but to someone whose kids are growing and they're no longer active in the school community, they still want to know what's happening. So how do you think about those stakeholders when handling a crisis?
Dr. Robert Hunt: That's a great point, and I think that's not only during a crisis, but that's the ongoing conversation right now. What are those channels to reach people? We just had the conversation about actually a hard copy mail that lands in mailboxes, right. Is that a thing that is dead in the world or not? We make this assumption that everybody's on Facebook and everybody's acquiring their information that way. But the reality is, my dad, whatever's put in his mailbox is what he gets today as a senior citizen, and that's how he makes those judgments.
So it's balancing and having those lines in those pipelines early, thinking about a crisis situation and thinking about what avenues have I created where people can receive the communication from us? This isn't a first three days strategy, but also taking the communication to people where they are.
Rather than assuming that if I put an all blast email out or I'm going to put it out on our social platforms, it's going to get there. It's developing. I've heard various people describe this. We actually call them key communicators, and we're bringing those people together, but it's representatives from all of those groups. Right. And you basically tell them you're going to have access to information as soon as I can get it to you. But the exchange here is I need you to share that with your constituents. Right?
So it's developing those things in advance. You can leverage them in that time and need and then also having the relationships and churches and different avenues that, hey, I need to get out in front of people. Please do an all call. I'm going to come and I'm going to sit down and I'm going to talk. I think the art of the face to face communication, especially after what we've been through with all of this zoom, has gone away a little bit. I had a coffee and conversation, and we're a pretty divided community right now in this healing process, to be honest with you.
But it was literally one of the best meetings I had. I had about 2025 people show up. And we talked about an incident that we just recently went through, we talked about some of the things that they had concerns about, but everybody was appropriate. It wasn't political, no one was raising voices. So what are your avenues to accomplish that and are they established so in crisis you can leverage all of those things?
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, establishing them before there is one. The meeting you were just describing, is that something that was initiated by them or by you? And I'm curious too, was there a particular reason for the meeting or was it sort of just touch base?
Dr. Robert Hunt: No, it's part of our ongoing conversation about how to best communicate. So we just decided we're going to schedule these. I think we've got six or eight coffee and conversations or Java with the superintendent. Really creative taglines.
People don't have to come to our space. We'll go to them. And I tell everybody in the first, I'm going to take 15 minutes of our 1 hour together and I'm just going to give you a few quick district updates. But you control the last 45 minutes, and this may only be 15 minutes if you have nothing to talk about. But I'm not going to control this agenda because we always control the port agenda. We control the message that goes out. This is for you to ask me and us to dialogue about the district. And so far, pretty powerful.
Tyler Vawser: I want to dig into support for superintendents. You mentioned the personal crisis you faced have kind of made you rethink both personal and professional work and needing that support system. So I'm curious, on a good day right. What should that support system look like and how do you think about a healthy support system for a superintendent?
Dr. Robert Hunt: So are you talking kind of individually, personally?
Tyler Vawser: Yeah. At a personal level, what does a healthy support system look like for a superintendent? Yeah.
Dr. Robert Hunt: So I could give you I've been in education for 25 years, so I can talk about maybe the last five in which I've done a good job of this. Right. But I'll just tell you the things for me that work, and I would assume people could put these things in place fairly easy. So I have two or three mentors that I trust with anything I say. There are three of them. Okay.
Two of them are superintendents, either currently superintendents or a former superintendent. And I know if I pick up the phone and I just need to vent, I can vent and I don't have to worry about what is shared. I know if I pick up the phone and say, here's what I'm dealing with, they'll always start with, I don't know, the uniqueness of your community and eventually you got to make this decision. But have you thought through this? Have you thought about this situation? Or here's what I did and here are the lessons learned.
And I always say I'm a really good mentor because I've screwed most things up so I can tell you what not to do. But I know these people care about me as a person and I develop relationships with them and I know that they want me to be successful, so I feel really good about being able to call them.
The other one is an individual that I met through and while my son was going through his health scare. And he is more private sector oriented, he's a big time CEO in a large organization, the kind of guy that most people don't have his cell phone number. But I happened to be able to develop a relationship and what I love about him is we can talk about leadership, right?
Leadership transcends education. You got to lead in the private sector as well and we can talk about how we are currently leading and managing. And there's a concept of holding in managing a crisis. It's a psychological concept, maybe we'll talk about that.
But he's the one who kind of introduced that to me. So it just gives me a different perspective from someone totally outside of education and sometimes the reality of my world and the reality of his world don't mix. So the advice doesn't often make sense and he'll tell you, well you're crazy, why can't you do that? But he's also brought some very unique perspective to my thinking and challenged me to bring things that maybe traditionally haven't landed in education to the organization. So I think really quality mentors is really important.
And the other thing that I would say is, obviously family is important, but the relationship either with your significant other - and when I say relationship, I mean someone who truly understands the realities in which you deal with and understands. When I say that I'm likely not going to be able to call you the rest of the day, and I will not be home until very late, because we are dealing with something who can be okay with that, because we've talked about it in advance, that it's the reality of my world. And then knowing when to talk about work or not talk about work.
So my wife has kind of figured and found that balance as well and she's just a huge support system for me. So those are the two things that came to my mind, kind of the mentor side and the personal side and then the personal side truly having the conversation in advance about the reality of.
Tyler Vawser: What this world looks like for me at a personal level. When I get home, I don't really want to talk about work with my wife, I want to kind of forget it, move on, right, spend time with kids.
Dr. Robert Hunt: Except for today. You're going to talk about this podcast, right?
Tyler Vawser: That's right. I'll tell her. I had the best podcast I've ever had.
Tyler Vawser: So I am curious though, if you're comfortable sharing and do you talk about kind of your regular day when there's not a crisis with your spouse or is it sort of like leave that stuff at the door and just enjoy being together?
Dr. Robert Hunt: Yeah, so you can understand the interesting dynamics that exist with being a superintendent, where your kids go to school and your wife is a [...] consumer of the information, so she has a whole perspective on things. But I rarely talk about my day. I kind of fall in the - it was long enough and some things that were challenging enough during the day.
Now if there's something that really excites me, that typically is something I would bring home and then if there's something really bad going on that she needs to be aware of that is going to impact either my time away or just my general mood and stress level. For a long time I kept all of that in and in those situations I learned if I just communicate like, hey, here's what's really going on behind the scenes and she will understand and that just makes for a better place for us both.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, thanks for answering that. Yeah, I'm always curious about that. My wife and I were some friends a few weeks ago and this came up and I was like, I never talk about my work. And everyone's like, really? All the other couples did. And I was like, why would you do that? Why would you relive your whole day in another hour when you're supposed to be watching TV or reading or just relaxing? Why would you relive every moment?
But that's funny, but you mentioned that one of your mentors is in the private sector and what you said was really interesting that he doesn't always understand exactly what you can or cannot do because you live in slightly different realities. But I'd love to hear what else have you learned from him that's been helpful and it could be about crisis, but it could be about something else as well. I'm just curious, what are those things that you and he dialogue about that is interesting or helpful because it comes from outside of education?
Dr. Robert Hunt: I'll give you two specific crises that he brought to me that changed my view. One from a leadership side and the other from maybe the experience of managing crisis leadership. So one of them there's a psychological concept called holding. And really the concept of holding is taking and understanding the emotions of where people are at at a given time and being able to help put whatever the event was into some type of context.
Actually help them to interpret what happened, but do it at a very personal level and understanding what they need to know and create the sense of helping them interpret these events. But also the concept of holding them as you start to talk about the future and bridge them to moving the organization forward. Really for me was very interesting because I felt like early in my career, crisis was about what is what is the mass communication and, you know, strategy there when really it's through that communication, how are you talking to individual people, right?
And I never thought about communication that way as I'm a receiver of it. Am I coming off in a way that I feel like if you're in that math classroom down over in our hallways, I'm talking to you? That was really for me, a significant moment in my leadership and how I approached it and also how I work with my staff on creating those, being that calming force and creating that sense of holding that makes a lot of sense.
Dr. Robert Hunt: The other piece that we talked about or that he brought to me was we always think about post traumatic stress syndrome and there's a lot of that in crisis research. But it's this concept of post traumatic growth and being able to acknowledge the things that you are now better at because you were there. Whether it be communication, ability to manage, how you manage your own stress. There are a lot of things that as you reflect upon a crisis, actually - growth happens - as this goes back to what we talked about earlier.
I'm a better person because of what I went through with my son. I'm better in a lot of ways and I'm not there yet, but I'll continue to try to get there. But there are things that we grow on and there's this whole field of now post traumatic growth, what are those things that you have improved upon after reflection of being in that really dark place that you're going to push forward for the rest of your life?
And that whole concept shattered my mind because I was in the darkness of crisis. Right. These are terrible times and critical leadership moments and I never thought like, oh wow. And for me and you go back to where we started, how to prepare administrators, like letting them talking about this concept of post traumatic growth and thinking and planting that seed that you're in that dark time. But thinking back, we talked about this.
As I work through this, as we improve, I will be better. I'll be a better principal or district leader or a better parent because of this experience. Now that to me kind of shattered everything that I was thinking of in terms of crisis. Right?
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, that's really interesting. I have not heard of that term before, but I can see how it's helpful. Do you think it's most helpful kind of after the storm has passed or is it something that is helpful to know going into the storm?
Dr. Robert Hunt: Because I think we all - I mean - no matter what, we've all had crises along our way in life. That's how we personally define them. And I think most of us, if we were fair and we looked back and said, boy, that was a big mistake. I shouldn't have done X, Y and Z, but I now do this because of that. Like I said, I think making people aware of that is a little bit of strength in the moment of crisis. Like, we're going to get through this. And on the other side, we've said these words, on the other side of this, we're going to be better. Well, really, research is starting to show that's true. Like, you're going to be a better communicator, you can be a better leader, whatever it might be. I think that's a little bit of reassurance in those difficult times, for sure.
Tyler Vawser: What else from your research do you think we should talk about here?
Dr. Robert Hunt: I guess for me, and looking at my research and why well, not why I did it, but why I'm proud of it is there are things that are articulated in there that you can almost guarantee are going to happen if you go through a significant crisis and have to lead it in a school setting. And some of them should have been very obvious to me. Right. I look back and go, really? But I had to go through all this time and energy and coding to realize this idea of a lot of people in leadership, like control. Right. And one of the hardest things to process and deal with is you've lost complete control just out the door. Right. And being able to process and work through that, trying to think of what other one that should have been obvious. Oh, us versus them.
So if you have a significant crisis that happens, you're not going to recover in a week. It's going to be months and likely years in the recovery process. And there's different phases of that. And we talked about that being not a direct line. There's going to be days or wins and losses along the way. But I never thought through the districts or buildings that are dealing with this over years, the turnover that happens within the organization.
And if you're not thoughtful about the new people coming in and onboarding them in a way that acknowledges that the event occurred and you do nothing, you sit back and watch. There's this us versus them mentality. Well, they weren't here for that, so they can't understand it. We can't do that program, we can't add that class, we can't move forward because this happened and they don't appreciate it. So knowing that that will emerge, if you're not more thoughtful, likely it's going to emerge anyways to some extent, but you can do things as a leader to be ready and prepared for that, right?
So I think within my research, that is a big one. I did a piece on post traumatic growth as well, and then we haven't really talked about. I think the only other thing that I would talk about is the reality of the impact of carrying the load as a leader of crises. And if you went into this business for the right reasons, your sense of purpose is really tied to the culture, the organization being effective. So we're developing kids at all levels, right? And when you're put in this time and place, you have this sense like, I got to carry the load, I got to serve others, I got to get us through so I can continue to help kids because that's what we're about. And that's so true.
But there's a toll that can happen along the way if that becomes the only thing you do and the only purpose you have. I interviewed folks that alcoholism, drug issues, marital issues significantly impacted their personal life forever because they didn't think about trying to attain some kind of balance during that time. And I think being aware of that is really, really important.
Tyler Vawser: Coming back for more. But first, if you're enjoying this conversation, sign up for SchoolCEO's free newsletter. Easy to sign up and easy to cancel. You'll get an email twice a month that includes a short letter from our team, a few ideas that will get you thinking, a school that will inspire you, and a little extra info. It's also a great way to stay up to date on new podcast episodes from SchoolCEO conversations. Visit schoolceo.com subscribe to sign up for free.
Tyler Vawser: Now back to the conversation. We've gone in depth with you about the topic of healing and crisis in the magazine. And one of the things that really stood out to me in the article and we'll put this in the podcast notes, is that some of the research that you found about healing and you specifically talk about sometimes we do things that we think are going to help, but it actually hurts.
And one of the examples you shared was about pulling an administrator off of their job to help give them time and space to heal. But that can actually have just the opposite effect, which is taking away their work identity, taking them away from something that they feel pride in and really kind of upsetting what little stability they still had left. So I'd love for you to talk a little bit more about that and what are those other things that we're doing when crisis hits that we think help but actually hurt?
Dr. Robert Hunt: Yeah. So I think how it starts, I guess the judgmental side. I cannot tie into the logic of the craziness that we're going to take the people that are most knowledgeable, that have the foundational relationships, that understand the dynamics of the organization, the school, the building in the most vulnerable moment in time, and we're going to pull them away as a solution. I can't wrap myself around that, right? And to me, a lot of things play into that.
Now don't get me wrong, there's situations where there's really good people in these places where really bad things happen. And that's one of the solutions. And everything I know about successfully leading about crisis is about relationships and people and connection and communication and all of those things and to bring in someone completely new, I just question the logic of that.
And I think it's not only detrimental for the organization and risk on the recovery side, it's certainly detrimental to those folks who are in that position who most likely want more than anything or one regret more than anything that something bad happened, right. And can empathize, but also are the ones I'm going to do everything in my humanly possible. And I've interviewed people that are willing to - they've put their life - just put everything on hold and sacrifice greatly to help to try to overcome it. I can't make the connection there and I think there's a lot of reasons. Sometimes politics plays into that.
Often the anger within the community or within the organization needs a place to we need a place to put it. So we're going to put all of that blame on X. And I'm not sure that it's always fair, but I do think sometimes we can become our own worst enemy. This whole conversation about getting back to normal, right? I think those words hurt people. It minimizes the impact of an event. So if I tell you, listen, by next week we'll be back to normal and you are significantly traumatized, trying to process, just trying to get your legs underneath you and you say we're going to be back to normal, it's very insulting.
So that is one of the things. Now that doesn't mean I don't believe you need to get kids back in the building after some traumatic event. It's not that, but it's using those words and then trying to recreate that when your culture has totally shifted and been impacted because you come off as you don't appreciate the pain and the suffering that has happened around the crisis. So I think that balance of returning to the things that make school operate versus we're going to get back to the day before this incident, we're going to look that way, we're going to behave that way. You're destined for failure and likely going to be looking for another job at some point, if that's your approach to this.
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, there seems to be a rush to fix things. Right? And at a personal level, we sort of know that doesn't work. If someone comes to you and talking about a difficulty and you start trying to fix it, it rarely is heard or goes very well with them. They're probably not going to come back for advice. And yet I think in crisis and big moments there's still a sense of like, how do we fix this at a macro level and then at a micro level, hasn't it been long enough you hear comments like that about, again, going back to normal.
Dr. Robert Hunt: This is one of the themes that emerged for me is this recovery is not a straight line. Like you don't have this straight line towards, quote unquote, we're recovered, we're back to normal. It's this jagged line where some days are better than others and there's the anniversary of events and there's just all of these things that where you realize this thing is jagged and painful and difficult and challenging and there's going to be winds along the way and it just doesn't go from A to B like that. It's much more nuanced and much more based on relationships and where people are at a given day and time.
Tyler Vawser: One of my last questions for you is about those people supporting leaders. So I know you have a really amazing I think her title is Assistant or Executive Assistant janine, she's been great to work with. So I'm curious for those people that are supporting leaders like a communications director or an executive assistant, they're dealing with a lot of the crisis, but they also don't have the title or the recognition or maybe the responsibility that the leader does have. And yet they're kind of tied up into all of it.
What advice do you give to those people or to the leaders leading those people for helping them heal and get through a crisis?
Dr. Robert Hunt: Well, I think you hit on it a little bit. They experience your highs and lows with you and again, if they're in it for the right reasons, they care about your success and the school district's success. So just realizing acknowledging their people too, and that they're experiencing this and they need to be thought of during these times.
The other piece of this is you're so focused on the communication that goes out, you sometimes can plow right through the people that are sitting right outside your door and making sure that you're communicating with them so they understand what's going on and have enough of the information, helps them do their job effectively. Because the worst thing I can imagine sitting out there wanting to help, but being given no path to help. So bringing them on board and using people in a way where you know you can't do it all. So making people feel like they understand what the issues are and what the direction is and involving in them as well. And then I think I'm more cognizant now than I was about taking time to think through how is this impacting those folks and what can I do or what can I provide to give them a little more space?
Tyler Vawser: Yeah, I think that's really important. I think when we see crises, especially from a distance, we look at the headlines and whose name is there? But from my own experience, right there are people that are being impacted heavily their day to day, their job has just changed dramatically, but you're not going to hear their name or you're not going to see it in the headline at least for sure. Well, good. Well, thank you Dr. Hunt. This has been a great conversation. Really excited to share this out with our SchoolCEO community and really take this advice and help people as they continue doing their work and continue leading their communities. Really appreciate it.
Dr. Robert Hunt: Well, I appreciate the opportunity as well and trying to get some of this information out. I think if it can help people better prepare, then I feel like the work has been worth it all. So thank you for doing this as well.
Tyler Vawser: SchoolCEO Magazine publishes original research, interviews and more in our quarterly magazine that's read by more than 15,000 school leaders. If you work in K-12 Leadership Administration or in Communications, we'd love to start mailing the magazine to you. Go to schoolceo.com, click subscribe now and check the box to receive the print edition of the magazine. SchoolCEO Conversations is produced by the SchoolCEO magazine team and is powered by Apptegy. I'd love to get your advice to make sure this is the most actionable and insightful podcast you listen to. Email me at email@example.com with thoughts and advice. And can you do me a small favor? Go online and share this episode with one friend or a colleague that you think would enjoy it. Thanks for joining the conversation and take care until the next one.
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