When I was very young I was plagued by nightmares about being attacked by sharks.  Beyond being terrifying, this was odd.  I grew up in Billings, Montana, which is farther from shark territory than pretty much any place on earth.  And this was before JAWS came out. Go figure.

Over the years it became a semi-joke that my destiny was to be eaten by a shark.  Even my kids were in on it.  When I embarked on a work-related trip, I would leave written instructions for how to handle things in my absence, and especially if that shark finally found me just in time for its dinner.  Needless to say, pleasure trips have steered clear of beaches and saltwater sailing, except when feeling enormously daring.

I’ve been thinking about sharks lately as I contemplate leader burnout, and ponder systems stability when leaders are temporarily or permanently derailed.  The US presidential inauguration got me thinking about this.  Biden is 78. As good as his current state of health may be, he may not last 4 years.  His choice of Vice President –and indeed his inner cabinet – is critical. Even more critical is that he lead in a spirit of transparency, collaboration, and delegation.  If he gets attacked by a shark, hit by a bus, stricken down by COVID or beaten down by the daily accumulated strains of governing in this multi-crisis situation, the sustainability of the US depends on how effectively he has developed a ‘shark-attack’ approach to leadership.  He can certainly do better than his predecessor in this.

To be clear, the benefits of developing a shark-attack plan go beyond a sudden derailment.  What if the leader in question simply decides to pursue new things, like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is doing?  Or wants to step back from the hectic pace of organizational life to take a break or early retirement?  Having a solid plan in place that will allow the organization to continue to operate smoothly is just a good idea.

In the international schools world, what might a shark-attack plan look like?  Here are some ideas for your consideration:

·       Establish a deputy head role if your school can support this.  Treat the deputy head as your ‘leader in waiting.’  Communicate clearly with the school community that your deputy head has your full confidence.  Act on this, e.g. give her/him visible, mission-critical roles at the school; when travel starts up again, travel to conferences and recruitment fairs and put your deputy in charge while you’re gone.

·       Provide your senior leadership team with training in and exposure to issues that go beyond their assigned roles.  This could be budgeting and finance, facilities operations, human resource management, school governance.  At the very least, they see what absorbs your time and attention every day. Big picture, you’re preparing them for higher leadership roles, and for shark attack situations.

·       Be as open and transparent with your senior leadership team as circumstances allow, especially with mission-critical information that keeps the school running in both calm and shark-infested waters.

·       Include your leadership team in development of a shark-attack plan, including ways they will specifically step in if and when the menacing JAWS music starts.

·       Keep the bigger picture in mind.  The community of leaders ready to take on senior leadership roles in international schools will expand enormously when ‘leaders-in-waiting’ have more concrete, demonstrable leadership skills and accomplishments to capture the attention of search committees. (Note to search committees and recruiters: no more “Must have previous Head-of-School experience” excuses.)

·       Be deliberate about diversity, equity and inclusion in your plan.  The inclusion of diverse voices makes decision-making more solid. Equipping women and minority leaders with these additional skills and experiences will create a more robust pipeline of diverse leadership candidates that recruiters say they want but can’t seem to find.

What other ideas can you think of?  There’s always the development of shark-repellent.  I, for one, wouldn’t bet on that plan.

Yours in swimming with sharks – with a strong, diverse team back on shore,