Three P’s of Leading During a Global Pandemic
BY THOMAS W. GIARD III/School Administrator, September 2021

Thomas Giard III

The past year, the greatest challenge of my career, has tested my leadership style, patience and poise as superintendent of a 2,400-student system in Connecticut. The duration and intensity of this crisis has forced us to adapt, adjust and discover new ways to lead. The pandemic pushed me to examine my assumptions about people, process and my personal style of leading.


»Don’t forget your team! It is easy to get buried in the tasks and lose sight of the people. Performing a mental check on ourselves regularly to ask whom we need to check in on is so important. Keep your team at the center. Know what makes each person tick.

»Be honest yet compassionate. Leading during a crisis requires decisiveness as well as empathy. Be direct when communicating with stakeholders but also realize people react to adversity differently. Understand people’s breaking points and when they need to unplug.

»You cannot do it all. People may be more capable than previously observed. Circumstances have thrust demands on all of us and asked superintendents to apply distributed leadership. There has been no conceivable way to micromanage this situation from the top, forcing us to rely on the expertise that lies within our teams.


»Take small bites. Shorter recurrent meetings have proved to be better than prolonged less-frequent meetings, enabling me to monitor the pulse of the team. This approach al-lowed people who are experiencing cognitive fatigue to accomplish bite-size tasks and regroup rather than carry out longer multistep projects in isolation.

»Trust the team and trust the process. When designing our reopening plan, we conducted numerous “premortem” sessions. These borrow heavily from the military’s red teaming concept, which is the exercise of challenging plans and assumptions by using divergent thinking. Giving your team opportunities to prove you wrong is a helpful exercise.

»Let others become experts. We split our large reopening committee into six distinct teams led by a member of our leadership team. Leaders selected their area of interest and became experts on a specific aspect of reopening. We then used a jigsaw approach to formulate a coherent plan. Specialization encouraged creativity and open discourse allowed good ideas to surface from people by applying a different lens to the problem.


What I learned about my leadership style are lessons that I hope were modeled for the team.

»Adrenaline only takes you so far. I realized I needed to recharge my own batteries. This also reminded me sometimes taking that mental break is more productive than pushing on.

»Call upon transferable skills. None of us in the superintendency received specific training on moving an entire school district into an online learning academy during a global pandemic. I had to trust instincts and existing skills.

»You can’t over-communicate. When you have said it all, say it again. Use various communication methods, frequencies and times of day.

»Be comfortable making the final decision. Seek stakeholder input and try to build consensus over the monumental tasks ahead, but at the end of the day, you need the fortitude to make the final call. As superintendents, we are called upon to be decisive and persuasive. Our teams look to us to lead.

I am fond of the expression hope is not a strategy. During this period of crisis and tragedy, I have come to appreciate the silver linings and now understand that hope has been a necessary strategy. Communicating hope helps us to persevere.

THOMAS GIARD III is superintendent of Waterford Public Schools in Waterford, Conn. Twitter: @waterfordsuper