Merge's Blog

What would you do if faced with this leadership dilemma?

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?

8 thoughts on “What would you do if faced with this leadership dilemma?

  1. When the Olympic bobsledder crashed and died on his practice run the day of the opening ceremonies, were the Olympics cancelled because of that? No! They instead delicately and eloquently mentioned it that day and days to come. Every mourned the loss but the show did go on. Even his teammates showed up for the opening ceremonies and then left the stadium, showing their respect for their fallen teammate.

    I believe they should continue with their plans, but definitely take time to mention and mourn their loss. A respectful thing to do.

  2. I don’t think the school should cancel the reunion. I feel that they should hold a memorial service for those two boys, maybe start a scholarship program in their honor – funded by present and past students’ voluntary contributions. We can’t cancel long planned events that will inconvenience people that have been planning for this for years in advance.

  3. Leah, a good parallel. I didn’t think of the Olympics as an example, but you make a very valid point. Thanks for your perspective.

  4. Neeraj, what a great idea to start a scholarship program in the boys’ honour. It memorializes the boys, and makes something good out of something terrible!

  5. Sad though it is…the loss of the young ones is very tragic for the school, friends & parents….but we cannot put a stop to the functions of the school or the reunion of the girls who have been planning for a long time. No one knows when we all can meet next!….A Memorial Service can be held & as Neeraj says a scholarship programme too….

  6. At a time like this, solidarity and shared experiences afford great healing and understanding to those who mourn. I would continue with the reunion. Both the memorial service and the scholarship program are good ways to bring everyone together in shared grief.

  7. Indira, I think you keyed in on the one thing I am hearing the most from those who believe that the show must go on! And that is: in order to show respect to one group of people, cancelling will actually disrespect other people. Disrespect other people such as the group of past students who have not met in 20 or more years, and who are not sure that they will ever meet again, should this event be cancelled.

  8. Deb, you make such a valid point about the importance of sharing grief as a way to get through and past the mourning. In addition to posting this situation on my blog, I also presented it as a “case study” to several of my leadership groups who gave it thoughtful deliberation and discussion. By far, the overwhelming majority believes that more good will be accomplished by continuing rather than cancelling.

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