It’s budget time. Schools and districts throughout New York State enter another spring time of uncertainty. And from my desk overlooking the Capitol, I know from experience that, though voices are passionate and lobbying is intense, It will likely still be months before resolution of the state budget.
It’s a daunting time to be a leader in any field at any level. Leadership is difficult enough even in stable times; our current situation increases leaders’ challenges dramatically without absolving them of their responsibilities. I sense that educational leaders, coping daily as they are with nebulous circumstances in an atmosphere of high anxiety, could probably use a little pep talk and so I offer a few thoughts for consideration.
Be the grown-up. True leaders know there’s no such thing as a free lunch or a magic bullet. They recognize that government at all levels can use the equivalent of credit cards for a time but that eventually the bill will come due and we’ll be facing a structural deficit. Leaders seek to solve problems now rather than punting to the next generation. They face the sometimes brutal facts and help others to do the same. And they don’t pander to special interests but instead strive to maintain a sense of community as they deal fairly and honestly with all.
Bring hope. Twenty years ago this month, I was a school superintendent trying to cope with a mid-year cut in state aid while facing the prospect of creating the next district budget when state support would again decline. It was an anxious time, much like today. Though finances dominated my thoughts, I attended a regional conference with a national figure and found myself sitting at a table with two other superintendents and six relatively new administrators. Our leader set us to work on a group assignment but my superintendent colleagues and I chose not to engage in the activity. Instead, we spent our time complaining to each other about how unfair the state had been and how negative the impact was likely to be for our districts.
When the group activity concluded, our leader called the room back together and I anticipated the usual reporting out. Much to my surprise, he instead came to where we superintendents were seated and very publicly said, “You did not do the assignment. Instead you spent your time, within earshot of these young administrators, complaining and forecasting doom. Did you ever stop to think about how demoralizing and unnerving this would be for them?” He paused and then concluded, “The leader’s job is to bring hope. The day you cannot do that is the day you need to leave.” Chastened, I learned a powerful lesson that day. Obviously, I never forgot it.
Learn to live with ambiguity and help others to do the same. This is a key leadership skill anytime, but especially now. We all seek immediate resolution of our problems but often we cannot have it. Since the final outcome of state and local budget-making holds serious implications for everyone, we earnestly hope for clarity but it doesn’t always come on our schedule. This ambiguity is unnerving to many educators, distracting them and hindering their effectiveness.
Leaders need to respond in these situations to maintain a healthy school climate and culture. They do this by sharing what they know with others to diminish uncertainty. They take time with those who are struggling, demonstrating patience and empathy. They model balance and patience. And, leaders constantly remind themselves and others that, in good times and bad, educators first responsibility is to the children whose care is entrusted to them.