She shared, with surprising calm, that the winds had brought down three immense Cedar trees at the entrance of Brandon Hall’s campus and that she could not get home. I advised her to park somewhere off campus grounds and wait for me to drive my car as close to them as I could. When I arrived, the impasse was as she described, and all access to and from our campus was blocked. I helped them over the trees and they landed safely in my vehicle. My mind then pivoted to one of those leadership moments. How would we restore access to and from campus in the midst of a dangerous storm? What measures could we take to ensure safety for all our faculty and student residents? What kinds of communications to our internal and external community would be most effective, authentic, and reassuring?

My daughter’s ringtone for a Face Time request came at one of those moments when a parent fears the worst. She and my wife were en route home from a last minute shopping trip for provisions to get us through Hurricane Zeta’s arrival in Atlanta. It was one of those calls that brings both relief and anxiety.

As both a leader and a student of leadership, I cherish learning both from experience and from the infinite sources of wisdom of generations of leaders. I have a daily ritual of listening to leadership podcasts and taking notes on every actionable gem of knowledge I hear. Tonight, as I mulled over the downed trees and next steps to restore operations on campus, I thought about John C. Maxwell and his classic adage on leadership, “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” Quotations are an elixir in moments when life sends unexpected jolts your way. They can be calming, instructive, and grounding.

In a year where COVID 19 impacts continue to have a rippling — and sometimes crippling — effect, strong and steady leadership is an essential counterpunch. Independent school heads have also faced the harsh realities represented by a recent CATO Institute report that indicated over 50 percent of independent schools nationwide have suffered enrollment declines. Juggling these realities along with a natural disaster like Zeta can be overwhelming, but true leadership means running toward challenges and not away from them. Having a strong foundation on which to stand is critical. The 5 Pillars of People, Process, Planning, Principles, and Payoffs are essential to being an impactful leader.

The 5 Pillars of Leadership

Leadership, rightfully so, is one of the most common topics of books, podcasts, and academic research. The human and intellectual resources available to today’s leaders are vast and social networks are both expansive and inclusive. On any given day, a leader who is constantly working on his or her craft can access myriad newsletters, blogs, and insightful articles. The key to informed leadership is to take its breadth and operationalize it. One way I do this is to think of leadership as possessing five pillars or “P’s,” each of which is interdependent and reliant upon the other.


Jim Collins writes beautifully about the importance of the “who” in any thriving organization. A leader needs a team to thrive. In my experience, the strongest teams are composed of diverse and courageous thinkers, dreamers, and doers. In the aforementioned scenario of Hurricane Zeta, I immediately knew that I could call upon a stellar team of Brandon Hall colleagues and fellow leaders who were ready to mobilize, galvanize, and help our school get through a challenging string of days in which external threats of losing electricity, downed trees and other issues would be in play. A true leader leaves his ego at the door and hires team members who are selfless, committed and ready to run toward any challenge. In addition, forming a Senior Leadership Team, meeting regularly and assigning action steps along with accountability measures is critical to team growth.


By process, I refer to the selection of how a leader will arrive at the best decision possible for any given situation. In the context of a pandemic or major crisis, process defines the A-Z for all decision-making. There are many primary questions a leader must ask to determine process. The following five are amongst the most critical:

  1. Who will be included in the planning and strategizing process?
  2. What is the format and context in which ideas will be generated and decisions will be made?
  3. What resources will you use to inform the decision-making process? Examples include thought leadership experts, peer school leaders, academic and scientific research, professional webinars or policy WhitePapers by educational think tanks?
  4. When does a process end in terms of culling and distilling all of the opinions, experiences, and advice?
  5. How is process evaluated and improved upon?

Any leader who reflects on these central questions and leads his or her team through the journey of answering them is already far ahead of even the most formidable challenges. One of my favorite process models is John C. Maxwell’s “Cycle of Success.” He outlines five interconnected components: Test, Fail, Learn, Improve, Re-enter. Once completed, it regenerates and starts anew.


Shortly after the initial COVID19 outbreak, there was so much uncertainty as to how schools would continue to deliver their educational missions. There was a period in March 2019 when school leaders were galvanized together to chart unrecognizable terrain. During the peak of uncertainty, one strategy that brings focus is to develop a thoughtful, reasoned and purposeful plan of action.

I recall a day in which a friend who works in the U.S. Department of Commerce explained the concept of a COOP or Continuation of Operations Plan. This was both a revelation and a saving grace. The collaborative construction of a complex COOP matrix can be an illuminating exercise for all team members. It allows participants to zoom out and get an aerial view of the school’s various systems and components while also zooming in to craft detailed action plans that must be carried out in each of the areas. The joy of working with my team to create a COOP was such an empowering experience. It provided a tangible framework for breaking a massive challenge like COVID 19 preparation into thoughtful, actionable considerations and steps. The COOP became a high-powered, multi-page visual GPS.

While a COOP assigns deliverables in every corner of an organization’s operations: academic program, residential life, student safety, finance, etc. it works best with its indispensible partner: the CAPP. The Contingency and Preparedness Plan (CAPP) is the strategic and scenario-planning soul mate of the COOP. Where a COOP details goals, deliverables, and accountability measures; the CAPP outlines your “chess game” strategies and tool box plans of attack in all possible scenarios. A CAPP is an amazingly collaborative “what if” exercise that demands thoughtful delineation of various scenarios (A, B, C, D) for any given or anticipated situation.


Undergirding and sustaining the entire leadership experience are principles. In fact, there is nothing more important or foundational than knowing the basis upon which all leadership behaviors and decisions emerge. While principles possess timeless truisms and immutable qualities, there are also those that evolve as a leader gains knowledge, experience and invests time in deep reflection.

In my own leadership, my principles combine both deeply held values and the elasticity of changing perspectives based on the times in which we live. I decided early in my career that lifelong learning was not mere lip service. In fact, learning energizes me in ways nothing else can. My devotion to knowledge and curating wisdom inspired me to launch www.teachlearnlead.net in 2014 as an online epicenter of professional development resources for leaders all over the world. There are two immediate actions every leader can take to become more impactful and successful. First, take frequent pensive pauses, consider the generations of leaders who have passed before you and spend time with them via their stories, legacies, writings and actions. Second, develop a personal journal filled with inspirational and provocative quotations, excerpts from past leader ruminations, and your own reflections. These two actions will build a wellspring from which you can draw endless amounts of inspiration and motivation.


A payoff refers to both a starting and ending point in any leadership decision or process. The “payoff” moment occurs when you celebrate work well done no matter the outcome. There is much to learn from both successes and failures. Even if the outcome doesn’t end in a clear “win,” there is still the payoff of knowing that you and your team went through a process, planned accordingly and acted from valued and shared principles.

The contemporary leader has every conceivable tool at their fingertips, but it takes incessant and purposeful effort to hone the craft and refine the skill set. Next time, you approach any challenge, I hope that some aspect of the Five P’s will resonate for you. As a colleague on this journey with you, I hope you will reach out and connect with me at some point. Sharing knowledge and the ways in which we approach similar leadership experiences is always illuminating and transformational.

Dean J. Fusto is President of Brandon Hall School, a grades six through 12 international boarding and day school in Atlanta, Georgia. Fusto is an educational thought leader, a Columbia University Kingenstein Fellow, and the founder of the Center for Global Youth Leadership and the global brand www.teachlearnlead.net.

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