Leadership Lessons From The Coronavirus Pandemic and Other Challenging Times.
Research conducted during the pandemic suggests that schools facing challenging circumstances need leaders who demonstrate a broad range of leadership approaches. This study “Leadership for Challenging Times” by Gurr and Drysdale (2020) gives some insight. Skills in these areas are most effective when underpinned by a core set of shared values. This ensures that no member of the team is pulling in a different direction. It takes resilience and a strong sense of purpose to maintain this focus when external events are impacting leaders’ own wellbeing. Effective leaders demonstrate strong individual values and drive.
This is a reflective post on my own personal leadership lessons from recent challenges. This includes the Coronavirus pandemic and its impacts. I do not claim to be a great school leader but I am constantly seeking to learn and develop. If you want to connect on Linked In use this link, I would love to hear from you.
Navigating The Storm
As is often the case when organisations find themselves navigating storms day to day managerial concerns can become the focus of much time and energy. Leaders must be responsive to external demands and contexts. This must balance with the wellbeing of their staff teams. Leaders are also accountable for maintaining school improvement priorities, or reevaluating these if circumstances change dramatically. So many leadership lessons were learnt during the initial stages of the pandemic, it was only when I took the time to reflect on the last year I realised this.
A study of 3500 business leaders and managers in the UK by ILM identified the following as essential leadership skills during the pandemic
Most Essential Leadership Skills
1) Empowering and motivating teams 57%
2) Problem solving 46%
3) Professionalism 44%
4) Empathy or emotional intelligence 42%
I wondered how this compares to my own experience as a school leader during the pandemic. The following post outlines 5 leadership lessons I learnt that correlate well with the research studies. If you want deeper explanations have a look at the links in the references section. All studies are free to access at the time of writing.
7 Leadership Lessons and Skills For Challenging Times
Leadership Lesson: Communication and Connection
Communication skills, whilst always essential, became of paramount importance. During 2021 a phenomenon known as “The great resignation” occurred. The current hypothesis is that this is driven by low wages and frustration at organisations not willing to account for staff wellbeing. Both of these apply to schools, especially essential support staff roles including vital teaching assistants. Some schools had been criticised on social media when they refuse to share the number of cases among staff and pupils. Successful strategies for maintaining a high level of staff morale in challenging times include leaders who provide support to colleagues’ development. Those who are able to manage conflict have been valuable in maintaining strong staff teams.
Leadership Lesson: Vision and Values
I have found this year a real challenge. I felt like I had lost almost all strategic elements of improvement in my areas of responsibility. For the first time in a long time, I didn’t have a defined goal. Any leadership course stresses how important it is to get buy-in to your vision. How important it is to work as a team that shares values. A leader sets the direction of the school and culture. During the pandemic late, missing or vague guidance from the DfE meant individual school leaders had to set the direction of their school’s response to a global crisis.
In order to regain focus on my leadership ethos I spent the summer developing my own value set and vision statement. If anyone has done an exercise like this it can make you cringe. Like writing a personal statement on a job application. All you are doing is formalising what you stand for and putting it out there for those you work with to see. Some will choose to embrace this, some will need you to communicate your personal vision and belief systems through your words and deeds. To take it a stage further I decided to publish mine as The School of Joy Approach. Why? This was to show people, and maybe myself that I could be more than a manager. I spent too long not thinking of myself as a leader or not thinking I was good enough to claim the job title.
Now more than ever we must “walk the talk”. It is only through being consistent and demonstrating the integrity of our actions that we can show we are worthy of leading. As a school leader, we must model the behaviour we need from staff.
Leadership Lesson: Be an Optimistic Leader
Not so much a leadership skill as an approach. I listened to Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game as an audiobook on my commute. This helped me stop thinking about short-term goals and focus on the longer-term outcomes we wanted as a school. We rarely discuss the importance of optimism in leadership. Leaders need to believe that every member of their team has the potential for growth and development. Developing others to take forward your shared vision and values is important. We need an optimistic belief that things will improve over time, and challenges can be overcome. Optimistic leadership allows you to put trust in others and recognise the need to be actively supportive and encouraging. Of course there are times when you need to challenge those who are not following the vision or actively pushing against it.
When you are optimistic you can distribute leadership more effectively as you trust in your team to do the right thing, make the right decisions. I found myself using my values as a filter to guide their own decisions. This view also encourages you to invest in your team, to seek constant development opportunities for them and support their desires to progress or have an impact on practice.
Leadership Lesson: Build Capacity and Develop Others
A key facet of leadership is developing others. It was essential to maintain staff and pupil morale and motivation. Effective leadership focuses on building capacity in your team. In SEN we commit to the belief that every child can learn and achieve meaningful outcomes. Our approach to education whether remote (virtual) or face to face sought to create the conditions that would maintain progress and a focus on academic skills. This was balanced by a deep concern for pupils’ welfare and the pastoral experiences of those not attending in person.
All of this relied on staff to embrace new ways of working and implement change in their practice and the school provision much more rapidly than we have ever experienced before. The only way this would be effective is if we built physiological safety and trust to ask for help, training or emotional support. Even more important was the ability to identify this in our teams. I coached four staff through the NPQML during this time. It gave us all a focus on moving forward and improving our practice. Developing staff helps build confidence in working towards our strategic goals.
Leadership Lesson: Value Relationships
In schools, we must be good at developing and maintaining relationships. It is essential to keep pupil outcomes at the centre of decision-making. It is our relationships with staff, parents and pupils that will make our efforts to maintain a great provision successfully. Leaders need to display joy when interacting with pupils. You can generate a high level of commitment in others through openness and honesty. The quality of interpersonal relationships feeds into the effectiveness and morale of your team.
Leadership Lesson: Understand the Context
Good leaders are able to create a sense of order in ambiguous situations. As a special school, 100% of our pupils have ECHPs so could attend school. There was no closure. Our average attendance was about 45%. What was happening locally had a huge impact on the school. Leaders had to be sensitive to local changes. This may have been a surge in cases in local schools that impacted whether staff could come into work or had to be home for their own children. The leadership lesson is that a school is not a silo – you are constantly reacting to external events.
Leadership in Challenging Times Lesson: Leading Collaboration, and Community
Within effective schools, an ethos of collaboration exists. we need a collective commitment to work together. This will not happen naturally we need to create psychological safety for staff to discuss concerns and feedback if we, as leaders, get it wrong. A leader during a difficult time can contribute to psychological safety if they choose to use influence rather than authority to gain teacher commitment. Influence is about engagement, collaboration, and building the commitment to improve. If relying on one’s authority and expecting compliance to a new set of expectations wellbeing and morale will be negatively impacted. The introduction of virtual teaching/remote learning required teacher buy-in. Leaders had no more expertise in this what they could do was support and collaborate with their networks to reduce the burden on teachers.
Leading Through Difficult Times with Strong Communication
This included providing opportunities for dialogue between leaders, teaching staff and parents. One of the key leadership lessons that I live by to this day is to work hard on ensuring positive relationships with parents. Many schools want/wanted to be seen as part of the community, working together. We did not want to be the visible face of enforcement of government guidance. This involved understanding the needs of the community and establishing both formal and informal dialogue with parents.
In the current climate, the capacity of leaders to make a difference depends upon their interpretation of and responses to the constraints, demands and choices that they face. Leading through difficult times certainly requires a unique skill set, resilience and mindset.
Gurr, David & Drysdale, Lawrence. (2020). Leadership for challenging times. 48. 24-30.
ILM & City and Guilds. (2020) Leading through challenging times: The impact of effective leadership on an organisation’s ability to navigate through challenging times (online)
Supovitz, Jonathan A. and D’Auria, John, “Leading Improvement in Challenging Times Guide” (2020). CPRE Workbooks. 2. (online)
Recommended Read – Effective School Leadership in Challenging Times: A Practice-First, Theory-Informed Approach. Liz Browne buy here https://amzn.to/3mQOUil