A school leader in the time of Covid-19: Five leadership lessons

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic are some of the most difficult school leaders will ever face. Continuing her focus this year on leadership lessons learnt from experience and professional reading, Caroline Sherwood considers five relevant leadership lessons

Being surrounded by some brilliant leaders – some hugely influential to my leadership practice – has taught me to constantly seek out and reflect on opportunities to improve. The lessons they have taught me have never been more valuable during the current crisis. Leading staff in the time of Covid-19 is both daunting, and a privilege.

Lesson 1: You need more emotional intelligence than you ever think you will

In Kids Deserve It, Nesloney and Welcome (2016) state that “kids deserve an excited adult”. They go on to explore what would happen if students felt important and empowered every time they walked into the school.

Rita Pierson, meanwhile, in her 2013 TED talk, famously said that “every child deserves a champion – an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists that they become the best that they can possibly be”.

I would argue that you need huge amounts of emotional intelligence to do this every day. Leaders need endless self-awareness, self-management, motivation, and empathy before they can begin to be a student’s excited adult or champion.

Nesloney and Welcome (2016) suggest “leaving your problems in your car”. They add: “Find hope. Kids need the best you.” However, leaders can only do this when they are able to prevent their problems and emotions from debilitating their performance. It is not a case of not feeling the emotions. That is impossible, and arguably every emotion deserves to be felt. But great leaders marshal their emotions and align them with their passions.

Schools are full of little humans – some vulnerable, some disadvantaged, some unable to self-regulate. Leaders must have an endless reservoir of emotional intelligence to counterbalance this.

I would argue that emotional intelligence has never been more important than during the current crisis – for both students and staff – and perhaps this has never been more difficult to achieve. Engaging remotely with students and staff has meant that day-to-day interactions are more difficult. Communicating with calm, purpose and positivity in a remote classroom, or over the telephone or video-conference, needs planning and careful consideration.

Ultimately, a leader lacking in emotional intelligence is not able to “effectively gauge the needs, wants and expectations of those they lead”, as former Navy Seal Brent Gleeson puts it (2015). He adds: “Leaders who react from their emotions without filtering them can create mistrust among their staff and can seriously jeopardise their working relationships.”

As a leader, reacting with unpredictable emotions can be detrimental to overall culture; it can be acidic and leave lasting damage. Leaders need to draw on an unlimited source of emotional intelligence – more than they will ever think they will need. And there will be days when you do not feel like you have got enough. And yet we recover and we continue, knowing that our emotions are contagious and hugely influential.

The stress and pressure that the recent situation has produced is new and different. It would be very easy – and totally remiss of any leader – to let this stress and pressure undermine relationships with the people they lead. Now, more than ever, staff need consistency, positivity and candid, genuine leadership.

Lesson 2: Be prepared to be vulnerable

Running parallel to the need for emotional intelligence is the willingness to be a vulnerable leader; recognising that leaders do not have all the answers – and do not pretend to – but are willing to ask for help when we need it, ask questions when we do not know, take accountability, and receive feedback openly, ready to learn.

This has never been more important – the questions that I have been unable to answer in recent weeks outweigh those that I can answer. Leaders are doing things they have never done before; we must be open to feedback and be willing to acknowledge when we get it wrong.

It is a hugely complex leadership lesson as vulnerability is “the first thing we look for in others and generally the last thing we’re willing to show” (Della-Camina, 2016).

I have learnt that it takes huge amounts of bravery and courage to reveal vulnerability at work; there can be no vulnerability without risk.

Deli Moussavi-Bock (2011) places “perfection as counter to growth, risk, learning, and innovation and, most importantly, authenticity”. A vulnerable leader, who is aware of, and shares their limitations, will encourage staff to lean in, to connect, to sit around the table to find solutions, to create better teams, to increase performance.

Moussavi-Bock goes on state that “vulnerability is where our greatest untapped source of power lies, a key ingredient of a leader and also of a culture that creates openness, truth-telling, innovation, and most importantly, connection”.

This connection, during this crisis, has been what has enabled teams to grow, to pull together and do their absolute best during difficult times. During a time of such uncertainty, staff deserve a leader who can cultivate truth and trust; they deserve to be in a team where they can say “I’m not okay”.

An important lesson I wish I knew earlier about vulnerability, is that it is the person receiving the vulnerability that holds all the power. I have worked with leaders before that have not protected vulnerability.

A common example is when a problem is shared, and the receiver responds with a hugely unhealthy and harmful dismissive disparagement – the classic example being pupil misbehaviour: “But they’re fine with me.”

Vulnerability is authentic, it is showing people that you are human. When we reveal our humanity – our human vulnerability – it creates an open and trusting culture, one in which people can connect with each other, unless it is not received well, then the culture can become at once distrustful and corrosive.

A crisis, like our current one, is an opportunity to show our vulnerability – to show your staff that you are human, but it must be shown with the acknowledgment that they are also human and vulnerable.

Lesson 3: Believe in your team. Trust them. Fight for them

A brilliant colleague I worked with in the past once said to me: your most valuable resource leaves the building every evening, and it is your job to ensure they walk back through the door the next day – metaphorically speaking.

During lockdown, enforced distance makes this even more imperative. Leaders have the power to build high performing teams, simply by believing in them. Sonia Thompson (2017) reveals that “your level of belief in the potential of your team empowers them to achieve. Smart leaders know this. That’s why it’s no coincidence that some are able to consistently build high-performing teams”.

Developing the habit of believing in every person that comes under your care will re-motivate, re-enthuse, empower and unshackle them.

The toxic impact of being made to feel entirely invisible in a team is, from my experience, almost impossible to come back from. In contrast, I have felt the immeasurable power of having a leader believe in me. Great leaders bring out greatness in their teams because they can see what is possible. Believe in your team. And fight for them. Now is a time that staff might feel voiceless – be their voice.

Lesson 4: Believe in your values. Trust them. Fight for them

Values-driven leaders lead from a deep sense of purpose and values, such as honesty, integrity, excellence, courage, humility, and trust. Allowing these values to guide day-to-day decisions will ensure that they are not abandoned at the first hurdle.

In Start with Why (2009), Simon Sinek explores the concept of the “golden circle”, explaining that “why” is the most important message that an organisation or individual can communicate – as this is what inspires others to action; sharing the purpose is where leaders draw on their values.

Dave Chaffey (2019) explores the fact that the golden circle relies on successful communication of the passion behind the “why”, in order to connect with the limbic system, the part of our brain that processes feelings such as trust and loyalty.

Chaffey goes on to state “successfully articulating your ‘why’ is a very impactful way to communicate with other humans, define your particular value proposition and inspire them to act. Sinek’s theory is that communicating ‘why’ taps into the part of the listener’s brain that influences behaviour”.

I would argue that this will only become an effective leadership tool if your values are ones you believe in, that you trust, and that you would fight for.

Lesson 5: You might not feel ready

I love the Hugh Laurie quote: “It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.”

There are days I arrive at school and discover an item of clothing is on inside out, and I think “who am I to think I can do this job?”. There are days I feel so unprepared – not ready at all.

Even more so now. I have times during remote working when I feel like I’m doing a dreadful job. I am, at heart, an introvert who grapples with self-doubt. But if I waited until I felt ready, it might never happen. So now seems as good a time as any.

Human performance rises substantially when stress levels increase, specifically when you achieve levels of optimum stress. So stepping out of your comfort zone, and accepting that perhaps there is no such thing as ready, can reap beautiful results.

  • Caroline Sherwood is assistant head and head of English at Isca Academy in Exeter. To read her previous articles in SecEd, go to http://bit.ly/2UbukrO

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