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May 21 BigDug
May 21 BigDug

Headteachers in Covid-19 – How does leadership work in a crisis?

March 25, 2021, 14:36 GMT+1
Read in about 7 minutes
  • How do you run a school in this pandemic? Believe in yourself, you already have the tools to lead, says Laura Williams...
Headteachers in Covid-19 – How does leadership work in a crisis?

We may have reams and reams of ‘guidance’ and files and folders full of strategies, plans and risk assessments but the truth is much of what has happened these last 12 months has been and remains challenging, unpredictable and confusing.

And at the time of writing, this operational landscape that we find ourselves in doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon.

Just when we think we know something or have got to grips with the latest ‘plan’, what we think we know turns out to be wrong or is turned upside down with little to no notice. Not to mention having to deal with the many ‘opinions’ we’re bombarded with on a daily basis.


So what does this chaotic climate mean for leadership? How do we lead? How do we respond? How do we do right by our people – our students, our staff and our communities?

Despite the lack of certainty and direction, leaders have not missed a single step in terms of analysing problems, seeking solutions and mobilising and directing their resources to where they are needed most. Developing new systems and processes to support the delivery of an adapted curriculum as well as responding to the health, safety and wellbeing needs of their communities has demonstrated true agility and adaptability of leadership.

Many of the changes have also had to be communicated and responded to with little time to digest and strategise. Leaders have been open, honest and clear about not only what they know but also crucially, what they don’t know.

However, one of the biggest struggles I have seen leaders experience is maintaining their confidence in the face of criticism; especially when it comes to making decisions that they are sure in their gut are right for their school.

And with more changes on the horizon, it’s the biggest challenge that I believe that leaders will continue to face.

What do you know?

So how can you test your decision making process as a leader? How can you be sure you’re doing the right thing when current circumstances and the future are so far beyond your influence? Ok so, you don’t know what the next iteration of guidance is going to say. You don’t know what’s going to happen now and you don’t know what’s going to happen in September. You don’t know when things will go back to ‘normal’ and you’re not an expert in the communication and control of disease (even though people expect you to be!).

However, let’s take a look at what you do know. You know your school, your students, your staff and your community inside out. Better than anyone. Fact. You know what the official guidance says you can do and perhaps more importantly, what it says you must not do. You know how to risk assess your school building, your capacity and your ability to keep everyone that comes into your school safe – students and staff.

Also, you know what you need to do to provide an education for your students, what you’re capable of, what’s do-able and what’s beyond you, what is needed, you know when it’s possible (or not) to provide it and you know how to resource and deliver it.

Use this knowledge to ground you, to centre you, to focus you. Every decision you make should be sourced from this place of core knowledge.

Analysis paralysis

It’s because you know your school, your students, your staff and your community inside out, that you know exactly what the right thing to do is. It might not be precisely what the guidance says, be something that people like or what the school down the road is doing. But so what? You are a school leader – leading your school through one of the most difficult periods (if not the most difficult period) it has faced. And you can do this.  Instead of focusing on what you don’t know, focus on what you do know and what is right. Think about what you should do and realistically, what you can do.

I know there are some things that you desperately want to do but can’t – and this is frustrating for you as well as for others. This is where ‘analysis paralysis’ can really take hold. For these things, weigh up the cost of doing them versus the cost of not doing them. By cost, I don’t necessarily mean money but rather stakes; what’s at stake if you do and what’s at stake if you don’t? What is important right now? What does your school and its community need and can you make it happen?

These things might shift as we move forward but the one constant is you. Your knowledge and your leadership. You will be there today, tomorrow, in September and beyond. You are the voice of your school and its community. In the absence of a clear next step, trust in yourself and your teams to make the right decisions.

While everyone knows what the guidance says, not everyone knows what YOU know about YOUR school.

When it comes to making decisions about your school, who knows more than you? Nobody.

When you feel full of self-doubt

  • Be courageous – trust in yourself and your teams – you know your school and its community better than anyone. Use that knowledge to ground you and inform every decision you make.
  • Communicate – openly, honestly and clearly not just about what you know but also what you don’t know.
  • Collaborate – seek support, ask for advice and share what you’re doing so you can help others too whether it be through local forums or online networks.

Laura Williams, executive coach and trainer working with headteachers, SBLs and CEOs.