Last month I was asked for my opinion on a difficult decision facing the leadership of a residential boarding school in India. I’ve already offered my perspective to the people who asked, but as I watched them struggle through their decision-making process, it occurred to me that leaders everywhere could learn from this situation. True, many of you who subscribe to my blog do not work in educational institutions (yes, I know, some of you do!), but no matter what type of an organization you guide, you face leadership dilemmas, and they’re never easy! So tell me what you think. How would you handle this situation?
The dilemma: Should the school’s leadership cancel or go ahead with its planned Grand Reunion this June?
Background: This residential boarding school in India holds its Grand Reunion every five years, with the next one scheduled for this June. Approximately 150 alumni from all over the world are planning to attend this year’s event. The majority of alumni are located in India, but approximately 10% will be visiting from overseas (Europe, North America, Australia and other parts of Asia). In early April this year, tragedy struck. While on a school trip to a national park in the area, two 12-year old students were killed and 22 others injured when the tractor-trolley they were riding in overturned. As a result of this event, two distinct sets of opinions have emerged. Many people believe that the Reunion should be canceled. Just as many believe that the show must go on.
The case for canceling: Because of the nature of boarding schools, students develop a very strong sense of kinship, and a very significant percentage of alumni go on to form lifelong personal and professional relationships. If you’ve ever spoken to people who have attended a residential boarding school, most of them will tell you that there truly is a sense of family (much more substantial than in ordinary day schools), and for many, the deaths of the two children are felt similarly to the loss of one’s own child or sibling. Those who believe that the Reunion should be canceled see it as a way to show their solidarity to the two families who lost their youngsters in this tragic accident. Besides, who wants to celebrate when you feel like you’ve lost a member of your family?
The case for continuing: The other camp believes that life must go on. While they don’t wish to minimize the seriousness of this accident, they also feel that resiliency is important. Terrible things happen in life, and it’s important for those left behind to not only mourn but to also shoulder and carry on. In addition, this group feels that in an attempt to respect the two families who have lost young ones, they would in fact be disrespecting a whole host of other people. Many alumni, and not just those traveling from overseas, have scheduled vacation time, arranged for childcare, purchased airline tickets, and made hotel and other travel arrangements. In some cases, this planning has been underfoot for over a year. To cancel the Reunion at this late date would create financial and other implications for these people.
So you have it. No matter which option is selected, a large number of people will be upset and angry. You no doubt have faced situations in your workplace where the alternatives were just as unappealing. But good leadership means that sometimes you have to make tough decisions. What would you do?