How Simulations Make Aspiring Leaders Hit the Pause Button

May 11, 2022

By Nick Kovalcik, Danielle Miller, and Ken Spero

How frequently do school leaders take a strategic pause to think about what they should do next? The answer to this question is not enough. School leaders are expected to be on the go constantly, accomplishing more and thinking more. Is that even possible to do so? Expecting leaders to succeed in a world where they must always act, think, and generate more is, at best, self-defeating. It might be terrible for our projects, teams, and health in the worst-case scenario. So, how do we keep up and improve as leaders simultaneously? We do it by challenging, if not outright contradicting, established wisdom.

Hitting the pause button on your leadership is not the same as being lazy, indecisive, or weak. When used correctly, it may signify a leader’s tenacity and power. So, when you face a dilemma, keep your preference for action in mind, but have your thumb hovering over the stop button. Because sometimes, the best decision you can make as a leader is to wait. How do you recognize when it is time to put your leadership on hold?

Simulations encourage students to hit that pause button before hitting the ground running. Aspiring leaders before would be thrown into challenging situations where they do not get the chance to think before taking action. The beauty of simulations is that this natural pause gives the students time to think critically. Colleges and universities across the United States have begun implementing SchoolSims simulations into their curriculum to provide this ‘pause button’ and create a safe space for discussions with peers at each decision point of the simulation.

Alejandro González Ojeda, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University, uses SchoolSims Simulations in his Preliminary Administrative Services Credential programs. In his synchronous and asynchronous courses, “Students engage the simulations through an equity-driven leadership lens that our programs are rooted in. Each simulation is accompanied by a reflection model that prompts students to exercise an equity-driven leader’s leadership dispositions and values. These reflections are used as opportunities to develop their decision and reflective leadership skills as they prepare to complete the state performance assessment required for licensure.”


Aspiring leaders who use simulations to master the deviant art of the strategic pause and overcome the age-old tendency towards action will gain a slew of benefits. Mastering this skill—knowing when to halt and when to act—leads to enhanced productivity, improved performance, increased innovation, and concrete benefits.

“The most frequent comment from students is that no matter how much they have read about a situation or response, they could not imagine how stressful it is to experience authentic scenarios where the stakes are higher and the decisions more complex. Students often report that they could not imagine developing their competency without first practicing extensively in a simulation.” – Ginger S. Watson Ph.D. – Associate Professor, Instructional Technology/Learning Sciences/Simulation Curriculum, Instruction, & Special Education, School of Education & Human Development at the University of Virginia.


Each decision point in a simulation presents aspiring leaders with various options, but it never tells you the outcome for each. You must live with your decision; there is no right or incorrect answer; instead, you should choose what you believe is the optimal option in that situation.

Even the most motivated, action-oriented school leaders will usually choose to push the pause button in one of four situations:

  • When they do not have all of the information 
  • When their emotions are out of control 
  • When they are under pressure from stakeholders to make a speedy conclusion 
  • When their inner voice tells them to be patient

Hundreds of other action-oriented leadership expressions emphasize the need for school leaders to have a strong desire to act swiftly. On the other hand, influential school leaders understand that there are moments when you must resist the temptation to act and instead press the “pause” button. Decision points in a simulation give aspiring school leaders the mental space to percolate, reflect on all the information they have consumed, and connect it in unusual ways. It can help them gain remarkable clarity and think about challenges more broadly.

Victor Frankel said, “There is a space between stimulus and response. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” The issue is to inject that pause in-between stimulus and response. With the craziness and heavy emotion present with the challenges that leaders face, many are simply in reaction mode as they do not feel they have no time to react or are too stretched to do so. That is where the pause is needed. Our gut reactions are based on our past experiences, and sometimes the past is not such a good line guide for how to act now. Being thoughtful and mindful is critical and so taking a breath or a pause is the kind of muscle memory that we are focused on with simulations. When decision-making in a simulation, the scenario forces participants to think through what they want to do and why. Furthermore, when doing it with peers, they can hear other perspectives from people like them to see that they are not alone and get an alternative approach that they may not have thought of. This is the muscle memory that aspiring leaders need as they take on the role of Principal, Superintendent, or Head of School that will help improve decision-making and well-being.