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Leadership and Adversity in Times of Crisis: Diamonds in the Rough

By Dr. Gregory S. Koons, Executive Director, Schuylkill Intermediate Unit 29

The pandemic has posed numerous challenges on educational leaders, and consequently, the pressures faced have created opportunities for educators to shine brightly.  Pressure is “the application of force to something by something else in direct contact with it” (Merriam-Webster, 2021).  As a resident, educator, and educational leader in rural Pennsylvania (PA), it is fitting to reference the significance of coal under pressure being forged into a diamond.  In a blog post from COACT, the author states that in order to forge diamonds through fire, one must have a high degree of intensity, a lot of pressure, and collective teamwork (COACT, 2021).  The pandemic has inevitably forced educational leaders to handle intense situations, withstand insurmountable pressures, and bond together through collaborative efforts.

The day schools closed

March 13, 2020, marked a monumental day in history when Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf closed all schools due to the impending threats of COVID-19 (Wolf, 2020).  Imagine being a school district superintendent on this day and determining what steps to take for the best interest of all staff, students, and families.  Leadership teams assembled and evaluated technological, educational, and human resources.  Internet connectivity became a necessity despite diverse technology infrastructures.  Technology devices were at a premium and were often on backorder.  Extensive cleaning and air quality measures were taken in response to required precautions by the department of health.  Preschool, school age, and higher education teachers ramped up their technological skills and provided synchronous and asynchronous online instruction.  Parents and guardians took on additional responsibilities in supporting their children with daily educational tasks and deadlines.

As stated by Stephen Covey, “I am not a product of my circumstances.  I am a product of my decisions” (Covey, 2017).  The pandemic created countless circumstances, and educational leaders became a product of their decisions.  These decisions were prioritized with health and safety plans, food and nutrition, instructional methods and resources, and meeting individualized student needs.  Magnificent leadership was exemplified amidst ever-changing conditions and pressures.  Leaders were forced to provide the best educational opportunities possible despite the requirements being continuously altered and modified.

In Pennsylvania, there are 500 school districts and 29 intermediate units (IUs), also known as educational service agencies (ESAs).  The IUs act as a hub for member districts throughout the entire state and provide programs and services based on the needs of local education agencies (LEAs), such as school districts.  During the pandemic, IUs were key in disseminating information to school districts, and facilitating county and regional efforts.  With the pressures endured by educational leaders, opportunities for creative solutions were forged.  Highlights of IU programs and services included virtual education programs, increased residential broadband access, increased technology devices, accelerated learning, teletherapy services, and a statewide vaccination rollout for educators and contractors.

Laser-focused on students

Like the formation of a diamond, the pressures of the pandemic smoothed out the surfaces, further refined educational leadership, and provided a laser focus on what was most important: the students.  Dirani et al. (2020) conducted research regarding leadership competencies and human resource development during times of crisis.  The research identified five best leadership practices, including model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act, and encourage your heart (Dirani et al., 2020).  In addition, the authors found that human resource development was needed and included the “need to voice employees’ concerns about work, suggest solutions to leaders, and make sure leaders listen to and provide psychological empowerment and supervisory support for their employees during these unprecedented times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic” (Dirani et al., 2020, p. 383).  The combination of the aforementioned leadership skills and human resource development is key as educational leaders navigate future opportunities for all students.

Encourage your heart

A personal takeaway from the study was encourage your heart.  As part of a collective leadership effort originally spearheaded in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Association of Intermediate Units (PAIU) launched a statewide kindness initiative called the PA Pen Pal Project.  The purpose of the project was for students from the 500 school districts to create letters, pictures, and positive messages and share them with residents in long-term living facilities during the holiday season.  The initiative gained traction across the state and became reciprocal, perpetuating well beyond the holiday months.  This is just one of many examples where leadership efforts got to the heart of the matter.  Although the pandemic brought dark times to our schools, the educational leaders helped shine a light for the students.

So how will school systems transition forward?  The reality is that schools are better equipped with technology and resources than prior to the pandemic.  In addition, the resiliency that administrators, parents, and students demonstrated faced during the pandemic created new collective strength in combatting challenges.  School leaders learned how to adapt and collaborate effectively under extreme pressures and changing conditions.  Students and families gained exposure to technological solutions and developed a new reverence for educators.  School communities learned how to improve collective efforts, including schools, businesses, emergency management personnel, and healthcare administration.

With challenges come opportunities, and schools are well poised to provide innovative educational solutions to foster student success.  ESAs play a vital role in assisting schools with necessary programs and services: The collective capacity of these organizations helps schools to shine brightly despite overwhelming pressures.  How educational leaders respond during times of crisis defines their integrity, drive, and commitment for the best interest of students.  As stated by John Maxwell (1997), “one of the major keys to success is to keep moving forward on the journey, making the best of the detours and interruptions, turning adversity into advantage.” Some of the most challenging interruptions and detours were surpassed by the schools. Now, it is time to use the new learning to maintain forward momentum.


COACT. (2019, July 15). To Become a Diamond, You Must Go Through Fire. COACT.

Covey, S. R. (2017). An Effective Life: Inspirational Philosophy from Dr. Covey’s Life. Perseus Books.

Dirani, K. M., Abadi, M., Alizadeh, A., Barhate, B., Garza, R. C., Gunasekara, N., Ibrahim, G., & Majzun, Z. (2020). Leadership competencies and the essential role of human resource development in times of crisis: a response to Covid-19 pandemic. Human Resource Development International, 23(4), 380–394.

Goodreads. (n.d.). A quote by John C. Maxwell. Goodreads.

Governor Wolf Announces Closure of Pennsylvania Schools. Governor Tom Wolf. (2020, March 13).

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Pressure. Merriam-Webster.


Dr. Gregory Koons can be reached by phone at 570-544-9131 and by email at

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