Our Head of School Chris Hancock contributed his educational leadership insights in the recently published book, Flux Leadership: Real-Time Inquiry for Humanizing Educational Change with Sharon M. Ravitch, Ph.D.
Flux Leadership introduces "a generative framework for agile, responsive, anti-racist, trauma-informed, healing-centered leadership for times of crisis and beyond." Here, Mr. Hancock shares his thoughts on the urgent need for such a book, and the perspective he brought to the work.
My interest in flux leadership, specifically crisis leadership literacies, began decades ago. Working in schools the last 20 years made it impossible to avoid the upheaval from financial crises, terrorism, and even the tragedy of sudden deaths within some school communities. However, the spring of 2020 brought a new global reality that piqued my interest even more and accelerated my pursuit to understand what school leaders were relying on or leaning into as they charted a course through the pandemic. In the early months of the pandemic, many conversations were happening in independent school leadership circles about how best to solve for the unknown. In many respects, that remains the case in 2022. Naturally, I and two of my UPenn doctoral colleagues, Jessica Flaxman (Dean of Faculty and Employees, Rye Country Day) and Dave Weiner (Interim Head of Middle and Upper School, Barrie School), were curious, perhaps even desperate, to understand the literacies school heads were applying to help their communities, and themselves, endure.
While COVID-19 was touching every community around the globe, causing economies to shut down, institutions to halt operations, and supply chains and transportation routes to stall, we were seeing post offices, grocery stores, and gas stations—deemed “essential” to sustain a bare-bones economy and social nexus—remain open. This, obviously, included schools, who initially moved their operations online in an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19. In this context, school leaders had to adjust and adapt their leadership modes, methods, and goals to lead effectively in a time of tremendous flux. Still today, long after we concluded our research in 2020, similar circumstances remain and the demand for flux leadership has heightened.
Flux leadership, like flux pedagogy, brings radical compassion for students, staff, and self with “high-yet-humanely-calibrated expectations for their learning, behavior, and performance” (Eren & Ravitch, 2021). Flux leadership is challenging, so we set out to interview a collection of sitting heads of school to better understand their own discomforts during the pandemic and the leadership literacies they were leveraging, whether analytically or reflexively.
The interviews revealed, which we go into depth in our chapter, that the common themes for heads during crises were to leverage collaboration, caretaking, and/or communication literacies while also privileging candor over charisma. It appeared that leaders were obliged to think creatively about how clearly and how often they share information. This has certainly dominated leadership level conversations at Benchmark as well. The priority has been finding a balance between transparency, efficiency of communication, and the need to tend to the pastoral elements of guiding a community that is working hard through exhaustion, anxiety, and the unknown in an effort to maintain high standards for themselves and expectations for their young learners. One head cemented that notion for us when they referred to their feelings about their regular communications needing to be “homilies.”
There is a particular quote from Gianpiero Petriglieri (2020) about leadership that has sat with me throughout the research and during my early time at Benchmark. He states, “Crises always test visions, and most don’t survive. Because when there’s a fire in a factory, a sudden drop in revenues, a natural disaster, we don’t need a call to action. We are already motivated to move, but we often flail. What we need is a holding so that we can move purposefully” (p. 1). This concept of holding interested us as researchers because the heads of school we interviewed all described their work along a continuum of containment—primarily of other people’s emotions, but also of information—along with their need to maintain a sense of calm in the face of chaos and to communicate with clarity, care, and predictability. Reflecting on my own practice, as I imagine most heads would admit in a quiet moment, there is always room for improvement on this front. Still, the agile and healing-centered nature of the work I uncovered has been transformational. I can only hope that pieces of that live through to the Benchmark faculty who continue to excel despite feeling justifiably depleted and deserving so much more than any one person can give them and to the students who simply continue to show up every day.