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Leading with Calm When the Seas Are Rough

Mary T. Ortiz, Ph.D.
Head of Oakcrest School

Parents and educators have been sent into unstable, high seas due to the Covid-19 quarantine.  However, in order for us to be effective leaders in this situation, maintaining calm is essential.

We need to cultivate good habits which allow us to work with calm and depth, to take stock, and evaluate options from a serene stance. We don't want to be bailing water desperately when we should be sailing purposefully toward our long term goals. We want to keep stress down to a level that is healthy and not let it rise to the level in which it begins to pull us and others down. We want to establish and maintain a happy environment in which people can thrive. It’s not easy to do this, but it’s not impossible either!

I realize that calm is not a typical goal.  You don’t give people awards for being calm. However,  it is a difficult and worthwhile goal because it is so important for creating an environment in which people can be their best. Learning to lead with calm is key for our own happiness and effectiveness as leaders.

How can we lead with calm?  

I would like to share a few thoughts from a talk I gave on this topic at a National Coalition of Girls Schools (NCGS) conference last year, along with Virginia Boles, one of our faculty members.  These points will give you a glimpse of how we try to lead with calm at Oakcrest as we run a school for middle and high school girls.  I hope they give you some ideas for leading in your workplace and in your family with calm as well.  

First, three basic principles for leading with calm:

  1. Look at difficulties through the lens of faith—most importantly see that God has a plan, and He will see us through no matter what. Problems are an opportunity to pray better, deeper, to learn to live unconditional trust, through the crucible of suffering.  This is very easy to say, but not easy to live;  but any step in this direction is certainly going to be immensely fruitful. 

  1. Look at difficulties as opportunities to give young women good example—to live what we are asking them to live. We want to be those shepherds who walk in front of the sheep, not the ones who walk behind and throw stones. We don’t want to ask of others what we don’t ask of ourselves. This is a fundamental principle of character education. They don’t need us to succeed all the time, but they need to see us make a sincere effort to do so. 

  1. Look at difficulties as opportunities to grow in virtue. This, too, is at the heart of educating young people of character. The harder something is, the greater the opportunity for growth.

Our goal is to show young women that you can be a leader, dealing with hard things, and still be happy, optimistic, and have a fulfilled life. If we want to form young women who will lead in many aspects of their lives, we need to be witnesses of good, strong, serene, faith-filled leadership.  

Our attitude towards difficulties overflows into our environment.  Here at Oakcrest, people often walk into the school and say, “Wow, it is really joyful. There’s a sense of peace here.”  

In our 43-year history and especially in the recent weeks, our school has seen many challenges. With each experience we have reflected on how our team has managed the situation, what we did well, and mistakes we made. This experience has given us essential tools to lead with calm even in difficult times.  I will now share with you ten best practices that we have found effective.

The first five are questions that help you determine how to respond.  There is a temptation to react when a problem comes at you.  What do you have to do instead is to assess calmly what is needed.  

1) Is it really a problem?  What we have found helpful is creating a culture of reflection. We try to prevent emotional reactions from taking over.  This creates an environment of peace. It means setting up boundaries. One principle that has helped us is: If it is really an urgent or important problem, we need to slow down, take a deep breath, and approach it carefully. 

2) What is the real problem? Get the facts and get both sides. Know who is telling the story. This takes time. Don’t let yourself be rushed in this process. 

3) Does it need to be “fixed” by you?  Is it better solved by others who are actually responsible for the issue? Delegate. Invite others to be generous. 

4) Does it need to be “fixed” now? Cultivate an attitude of prayerful vigilance.  Part of a culture of calm is not jumping on everything, following every lead.  Once the path seems clear, then intervene.

5) Does this need to be “fixed” at all?   Many problems in life cannot actually be fixed. Is this simply a life lesson to be learned?  If so, we accompany people, we pray, and we know they’re going to grow.

Once you have determined that you have a real problem that needs to be solved by you, now, here are five helpful practices that help us deal with these situations with optimism and a hopeful, calm attitude.

1) Collegiality. Working as a united team. We sift everything through the team. Leave your pride at the door, be ready to listen to everyone, and be open to changing your mind completely. The result is that we own the decision, and we own the victories and the defeats together. This is a huge source of peace.

2) Take a personal approach. Have a face-to-face dialogue or pick up the phone.  Real problems deserve a conversation.  Great families and schools have cultures that facilitate building trusting relationships. 

3) Take the initiative and deal with things quickly when it really is a problem. Important things need to be dealt with swiftly.  Honesty and transparency show the other person you think it’s important. 

4) Close gaps between parties. Go the extra mile. Even if you don’t win or agree, you can look back and have peace that you’ve kept the doors open and have tried to maintain a relationship.  For example, write a personal note or send flowers after a difficult conversation to show you truly care about that person despite the difficulties you have had. 

5) Take care of people, especially the people carrying heavy burdens.  Be generous in thanking and supporting them. Bring humor and perspective, especially to those caring in a special way for others. Their needs are often forgotten.

This is how we lead here at Oakcrest and how we deal with difficulties. It is a combination of faith and virtue. It is part of forming strong women who think, reflect, pray, work on teams, and problem-solve.  I hope these ideas inspire you to lead with calm in your work place and in your family.

Mary T. Ortiz holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from New York University, and B.A. degrees in both English and German from Bowdoin College. She has been dedicated to the education of young women for over 25 years and has been the Head of Oakcrest School since 2012.
Photo credit: Natalya Zaritskaya