Purposeful Day School Leadership During Times of Crisis

Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick

During this COVID-19 Pandemic, many of us in educational leadership positions are experiencing unprecedented challenges against a backdrop of tremendous uncertainty. These daunting challenges and exigencies are fueled by a sense of urgency, resolve and purpose. As leaders, we are also inspired through a profound sense of personal and professional responsibility, commitment, passion and motivation.

Most of our Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot in the United States have engaged in comprehensive around the clock “scenario planning” with the hope and prayer that our schools will be prepared for their eventual “reopening” (either in-person or remotely) in the beginning of September (for most of us). Although it is impossible to predict the future, given the information we do have, it is now imperative that school leadership begin to forge ahead with conviction and resolve that together, in partnership, we will develop creative and meaningful solutions to meet the challenge.

These challenges, and many more, are an integral part of the new realities which school leaders are currently facing during this global health crisis. We are all now forced to lead from in front in a constantly changing environment. As a colleague recently quipped: “how can we possibly lead and plan effectively for our schools (during this Pandemic) while the sands beneath our feet is continuously shifting.” My response was straight and to the point – “we must because we have no choice.” But, the question still remains – how?

The leadership challenges we now face are daunting and palpable. From ensuring the physical health, safety and wellbeing of our students to providing them with opportunities for their continued cognitive, social and emotion growth; from inspiring our faculty and staff with positivity in order to stay the course to providing them with desperately needed guidance and support; and from helping parents navigate the complex maze of growing uncertainty to serving as empathetic listeners, consolers and problem solvers.

A leader’s actions and behavior during times of crisis reveals the true strength, capacity and resilience of the leader. Each of us in leadership positions have our own personal and professional leadership style, philosophy and approach. One leadership approach hardly ever fits all. Having said that, one leadership commonality, in light of the current crisis, is the imperative for us to be proactive, strategically planful, decisive and above all, purposeful.

It is with this in mind that I borrow a chapter from our understanding regarding Purposeful Leadership and how this form of leadership can best help us lead, guide, and inspire our schools, our constituents and our stakeholders during times of crisis.

On a very fundamental level, Purposeful Leadership, may be defined as the extent to which a leader has a strong moral self, a clear vision for his or her team, and an ethical/principled approach to leadership marked by a commitment to the institution’s stakeholders. To be sure, it requires that the leader develop a specific direction and plan of action; create an environment which inspires support for the direction and actions; garners and mobilizes support for that direction and action; and develops an internal infrastructure, system or process to effectively move the plan forward.

In order to actualize a purposeful leadership approach or model in a Jewish day school, during times of crisis, the Head of School and/or principal (depending upon the leadership pyramid) must first and foremost inspire his or her management team regarding the school’s vision. Next, every member of the leadership team (with no exception) must be engaged in a meaningful manner, based on their skill and expertise; and they must be positioned to innovate in a process that collectively moves the vision forward with clarity and purpose. Critical to this challenge is for the team to collectively create and support a structure which is developed in order to result in an agreed upon outcome.

The “glue” that holds the “purposeful” leadership paradigm together is the leader’s unswerving self-awareness and consciousness regarding his/her ability and capacity to reinvent, transform and as well inspire and influence people to innovate through a shared vision. It emanates from the heart and soul of the leader and not from textbook case studies or a leadership playbook. The leader is at the center of a concentric circle from whom emanates trust, empathy and a sense of purpose … all driven by a clear vision, goal and objective.

So how do these attributes of purposeful leadership translate into reality in our schools during times of crisis?

When the professional leader of a Jewish Day School is faced with a school-wide crisis – whether it be existential, financial, one of moral or ethical concern, or the impact of a global health crisis (such as the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic), the basic principles for responding effectively to the crisis remains constant and consistent. Obviously, today’s Pandemic is of epic proportion and precedent-setting … and therefore may deserve more weight. Nevertheless, the principles of purposeful leadership are the same, irrespective of circumstance or severity of the crisis.

It’s important to note that Heads of School or Principals with extensive leadership experience in strategic planning have an advantage over those that do not have that exposure or experience. Why that is the case may be obvious … but, in the interest of time and copy space, this writer will reserve that discussion and explanation for a separate post.

Several Guiding Principles and Assumptions:

The following are purposeful leadership principles and assumptions which can impact positively upon our Jewish Day Schools during times of crisis:

  • The best indicator or predictor of an effective organization is its leadership. This is true during normal times, and more so during times of crisis.
  • School personnel, whether they be entry level, middle or upper level management look to the leader for vision, direction, inspiration and purposefulness;
  • Purposeful Leaders must be direct, clear, transparent, consistent, empathic and knowledgeable. Anything less compromises the definition of “purposeful leadership”;
  • All members of the school management (leadership ) team are an integral part of the institution’s joint planning and decision making process as well as implementation process;
  • Purposeful Leaders, believe that the concerns, unmet needs and requirements of the school and it constituents are above all else. (As an example: the health and safety of students and faculty during the Pandemic crisis must take primacy over all other concerns);
  • Purposeful Leaders must be extremely empathetic and sensitive to the educational, social and emotional needs of the staff they supervise or lead;
  • Purposeful Leaders continuously and consistentlyinvite senior management team members to engage in joint planning and decision-making and inspire team members to take individual and collective responsibility for problem solving;

Purposeful Leadership (in a Jewish Day School) During Times of Crisis:

During times of crisis, such as our current Pandemic, leadership must lead their teams in a manner which exemplifies passion, confidence and sensitivity. As such, the Head of School and/or Principal must: 1) show remarkable compassion; 2) communicate with clarity; 3) create a sense of community among school constituents; 4) ensure levels of continuity; and 5) empower others to assume leadership responsibility.

Further examples may include but not be limited to: inspiring faculty and administrators to create collaborative and joint approaches to innovative and creative problem solving; encourage risk-taking which is informed by data and supported empirical documentation; lead by example in a manner which team members and faculty can rotate to, respect and embrace; and, encourage faculty to feel that they are part of a like-minded and respected inclusive school community.

At the end of the day, teachers, staff and administrators must feel that they are all an integral part of the school family. The catch-phrase – “we are all in this together” – is a powerful unifying concept which embraces and promotes a sense of community, unity and family during times of crisis.

In several of our schools while faced with today’s daunting global health crisis, I have observed select school leaders who are leading autocratically and who tend to develop a sense of urgency through top- down directives and crisis intervention strategies in the absence of broad-based support. This is the antithesis of Purposeful Leadership and it does not promote stability, security or institutional confidence. It may be the result of leadership insecurity, uncertainty, or a lack of experience or training

As an executive coach to nonprofit c-suite leaders, and Heads of Schools, I am often struck by the question of whether purposeful leadership is innate or learned? One the one hand, purposeful leadership is a manifestation and reflection of one’s personality, which may sway the argument towards the innate response. On the other hand, I have witnessed many school heads who over a period of time, through experience and professional development, have integrated and inculcated purposeful thinking and problem solving into their repertoire of leadership behaviors.

In summary, the concept of purposeful leadership during times of crisis is anchored in a leaders’ trustworthiness; ability to see and present all sides of the crisis; a deep and profound desire to resolve conflict and unify diverse perspective; and finally, ensuring that the plan which was developed in response to the crisis “has legs” and is on an agreed-upon responsible and responsive trajectory.

The following are several ways in which the Head of School or Principal can lead purposefully during a crisis:

  • Let your faculty know up front what your vision and course of action is in response to the crisis;
  • Ensure that all members of your school’s leadership team embrace and share your vision;
  • Let each member of your management team and faculty know and understand the strengths and potential weaknesses of your vision and action plan;
  • Create a school environment and climate that invites ideas, solutions and suggestions;
  • Invest and cultivate leadership in your staff by empowering them to take on significant leadership roles and responsibilities in the school;
  • Let your staff know and appreciate the amount of time, energy it requires to move the school forward in a meaningful direction in order to respond to the crisis;
  • Create a positive “growth mindset” which all members of your leadership team and faculty can support, embrace and promote;
  • Let your team and faculty know how dependent you are on their input, leadership and resolve to address the crisis;
  • Ensure that each member of your team is secure by reaffirming the core values of your school your purpose and your school’s mission;
  • Encourage open, honest and transparent conversation and communication by making certain that your schools course of action is clearly understood;
  • Become a stabilizing force in your school by responding to the crisis in a calm manner and avoid escalating the crisis with feelings of insecurity exacerbated by uncertainty.
  • Demonstrate compassion and empathy towards your staff who are feeling insecure, vulnerable or hopeless due to the crisis and always exhibit clarity of purpose, hopefulness and optimism.


The wide array of purposeful leadership qualities, attributes and standards presented in this post can be overwhelming in their totality. I have therefore attempted to summarize many of the leadership best practices and standards with the hope and promise that they will resonate with Jewish Day School leadership.

During the current global health crisis, it is essential that we continue to provide our schools with the leadership, support and direction they so desperately require and deserve. As leaders, we must lead from the front, communicate with clarity of purpose, prioritize our issues and response; and ensure that our vision moving forward is embraced by our stakeholders. But, first and foremost we must be purposeful, deliberate and reflective; and, we must be sensitive and empathetic to the growing needs and concerns of our school community.

In the final analysis we must turn crisis into opportunity; and opportunity into reality.

That’s what leadership is all about.

Dr. Chaim Y. Botwinick is Principal of the Hebrew Academy Community School, Margate, FL, organizational consultant and executive coach. He served in a variety of senior Jewish educational leadership positions on the local and national levels; and is the Co-Founder of LEV Consulting Associates, specializing in strategic planning and organizational development. He is the author of Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness, Brown Books, 2011.