• Kathleen Donohoe

Changing nature of school Leadership in a time of crisis


Leadership growth in crisis

“only a crisis … produces real change.” Milton Friedman, Nobel Prize-winning economist


In any crisis, leadership determines destiny. This is exemplified in a pandemic, where the fate of the world is literally on the line.


Recognising that leadership is ordinarily required to deal with daily incidents in schools and jurisdictions, the proliferation of crises such as the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, makes crisis leadership fundamental in all schools.


School leaders operate contextually. What may on the surface appear to be an effective leadership strategy in one setting, may not be as effective or even relevant in another. Concurrently, the leadership attributes and skills required of school leaders in times of crisis are fundamentally different from those generally required as part of the routine school environment.


Leaders or Managers?

Effective school leaders, acknowledge and respond with a broad contextual perspective naturally, hence, when confronted by crises they translate these bankable traits into team good will, while those Principals who operate primarily in a manager capacity find crises more challenging.



The principal is the most complex and contradictory figure in the pantheon of educational leadership. The principal is both the administrative director of state educational policy and a building manager, both an advocate for school change and the protector of bureaucratic stability. Authorized to be employer, supervisor, professional figurehead, and inspirational leader, the principal’s core training and identity is as a classroom teacher. A single person, in a single professional role, acts on a daily basis as the connecting link between a large bureaucratic system and the individual daily experiences of a large number of children and adults. Most contradictory of all, the principal has always been responsible for student learning, even as the position has become increasingly disconnected from the classroom.


Kate Rousnaniere, The Atlantic, November 8, 2013.


Consequently, during a crisis, principals (at the operational level) are constantly answering questions, accommodating conflicting demands, or interpreting and implementing departmental policies. The time-intensive nature of these activities often intensifies dissatisfaction, andas the crisis evolves, tensions between strategic and operational will deepen. Long standing, unresolved governance dilemmas or complex issues that may have become salient will resurface in the form of dilemmas.


In times of crisis, schools and systems need leaders rather than managers. Managers will focus on continuity of the present, across systems, supervisions, processes, policies and structure, whereas leaders will focus on the common good and the human relationships. Leaders will embrace creativity, problem solving and agility, with consideration for the short term, the horizon, and beyond.


True leaders are revealed in times of crisis,as they changethe status quo and create a difference for today and tomorrow, utilising their past experience and learnings.


A leader’s attitude, demeanour and mindset are contagious. Leaders are dealers in hope, which is much needed in calamity Even in an extreme crisis, a positive mindset and an optimistic, solution-oriented perspective will unite teachers and school communities. True leaders consider alternative solutions, acknowledging the risks and opportunities that each of these solutions brings. They energise and influence their communities, exploiting the crisis to cultivate people’s desire for a change of circumstances, and the creation of different and better. Leaders truly understand the power in community.


Leadership is:


…the first among the achievement criteria in crisis management. In order to call a person as a leader, he/she shall be able to unite people and activate them, he/she shall leave a trace behind and create a difference.”Fenera and Cevikb, 2015.



Leadership is not only a positional responsibility, but also an inevitable responsibility. Times of crisis enable respected leaders to make and engage in collaborative decision making, reinforced through cooperation to achieve common goals. This commands the trust and respect that the leader has earned over time. Principals as genuine leaders collaboratively negotiate with the members of their school communities to achieve optimal outcomes, often reflecting resilience that has been built and sustained across long periods of time.


Overreacting to a state of crisis can bear results that are worse than giving no reaction.

The coronavirus pandemic is exposing long term structural problems in the education community, from the inequity of digital access, capabilities and devices, the fragile understanding of effective online pedagogy or the unpreparedness of some teachers, parents and students lacking digital skills, both general and specific to technology in education. This is exacerbated by the inequity of internet access across low SES and remote areas, in schools, homes and community facilities. An empirical illustration of this argument, was presented in the Pivot Survey (Flack, Walker, Bickerstaff, Earle, & Margetts, 2020) in which 2,373 educators in Australia and 1,183 in New Zealand responded to questions addressing issues directly related to the current COVID experience and practice. The study identified the challenges of meeting student needs from a distance, the use of educational technologies to support distance teaching, and both student and teacher well-being.

Deadly as Covid-19 has been, it offers an opportunity to acknowledge and redress deep set structural education inequities. Current media reports are full of optimism that the pandemic will produce a political cultural change. However, change in education and society is rarely easy or painless. How do we create this same optimism and opportunity for learners and acknowledge and redress education inequity?

Great educational leaders position schools for this future, supporting and empowering leadership, staff and students in the pursuit of teaching and learning excellence. Their leadership through this crisis will focus on dealing with events, emotions and consequences in the present, minimising personal and organisational harm to the school and community, whilst looking, planning and moving forward.

Principals need to acknowledge community fears, then encourage resolve, through modelling of an optimistic outlook and focusing on the silver lining and the opportunities that are revealed, whilst also addressing emergencies and business as usual – not an easy task. Relationships in crisis. Recognising and managing the emotions of the situation (others’ as well as your own) can help with individual and group resiliency, safety and wellbeing, and the transition to the new normal(s). For some staff and community members in an emotional state, the situation may prove overwhelming. Principals as leaders, by the very definition of their role, treat people with sincere consideration and genuine concern, recognising the influences on behaviours specific (or not specific) to the situation.

During a crisis, leaders who have built a personal and relational foundation can focus on the immediacy of the moment. Principals are often focused on the emotional turmoil of others in the school, but it is equally as important for leaders to take care of themselves and reflect on the current circumstances that they find themselves in. As Klann (2000) explained “A crisis can exert a high impact on human needs, emotions, and behaviours, we may not be conscious of this, but our behaviours send messages to others about our own underlying needs and emotions.”

Whatever leadership role they play, school leaders need to be aware of their own emotional turmoil, its effect on behaviour, and its influence on leadership decision making and influence. Effective leaders remain calm and maintain a sense of perspective because they:

  • Give people a role and purpose:  Principals charge individuals to act in service of the school and community. They empower people. They do not fear giving up power or control. Foremost, principals need to accurately and quickly communicate and extinguish misleading or incorrect information.

  • Plan for recovery: As principals know, there will be a tomorrow. There are lessons to be learned from the current and ongoing impacts of this crisis. It is the principal’s responsibility to ensure one eye is kept on the future. The team will need to be de-briefed, counselled and supported through planning, to address future reoccurrences (same or similar).

Lessons for us:

  • In an unprecedented crisis there’s always time for thinking, reflecting and planning.

  • Refuse to be overwhelmed.

  • Follow your moral compass.

In a crisis, the school community looks for guidance and support from leaders who articulate a strong moral compass. When a crisis happens within or outside a school, the community look to their principals and teachers. The expectation is that these leaders will keep them safe, reassure them, reunite them and support them in adjusting to their current and future circumstances. A leader’s empathy, and the way they reach out to their own and other communities at this time, is critical.

Leaders see an opportunity during a crisis to build stronger partnerships and networks, seeking support and advice where needed. It is to the principal, that executive and staff teams look, for strong support, guidance and confidence as a mark of continuity and consistency in an ever-changing climate.

To successfully navigate crisis, strong leaders adeptly become comfortable with widespread ambiguity and chaos, recognising that they do not have all of the answers, a crisis playbook, or one defined way forward. Instead, they commit themselves and their followers to navigating point-to-point through the turbulence, adjusting, improvising, and re-directing as the situation changes and new information and evidence emerges. These are key skills for educational leaders who have embraced evaluative thinking to support continual improvement.

Courageous leaders understand mistakes will be made along the way and the need to embrace this and pivot quickly as needed. More importantly, they recognise the learning from each of these mistakes, instead seeing them as opportunities and guidance for the future.

Crises take a toll on all of us

Very few principals finish their career without having led their school through difficult times that impact the entire community, whether drought, personal trauma, fire, flood, violence or the current health pandemic.

Whatever the current school culture is – good, bad or indifferent- this will come to the fore. The culture that the school leadership team has created, will become glaringly evident as communities navigate the crisis. Fundamental to recovery is trust Trust is the foundation for collaboration, and collaboration is what makes schools excel. Moreover, trust in leadership is the most important factor in building a positive school culture, even more so during periods of crisis and along the path to recovery. Educators who feel trusted are more likely to take leaps of faith and collaborate more authentically with colleagues. Of paramount importance during these times of angst, trusted leaders build on these foundations, to create more engaging, rigorous learning experiences. In contrast, poorly timed, emotional, or politically driven decision making will erode trust and unleash unrest that magnifies the crisis. Good leaders:

  • Don’t sugar-coat communications, whilst remaining optimistic. They are honest, noting crises are disempowering to all. Messaging should be delivered quickly and accurately, “killing off the rumour vacuum”.

  • Are visible.

  • Assess: What to stand up for and what to lay down for? They evaluate what is essential to students, teachers, parents. They prioritise, acknowledging that leaders who try to do everything, will fail.

  • Recognise that they cannot ask people to be their best selves endlessly. When a whole community is in trauma, so are the teachers. Teachers can’t sustain such an effort any more than the school leadership can.

  • Proactively create space for people to come together to plan, not just react.

  • Model empathy, build operational resilience, be kind and assume the best intentions in others.

  • Model self-care.

  • Pause the heart and open the mind for essential authentic reflective practice. Leaders create the time to see what is really happening in their school community, to ask deeper questions and seek alternative perspectives for more effective decisions and plan for recovery.

It is crucially important to effectively prepare our current school and system leaders, but equal attention must be paid to the preparation of emerging leaders, alongside existing leaders.  Deconstructing the background and history of successful crisis leaders will inform how we better prepare new leaders for inevitable future crises which will continue to confront schools, in various shapes and forms.

In order to develop as strong leaders, appropriate training and support must be provided, demonstrating how to be an effective leader, and leadership specific to crisis management, acknowledging that inherent in this are the same attributes that are needed for effective leadership in general – high cognition, developing trust, processing ambiguity, and sensemaking. By paying attention to emotions, needs, and behaviours, school leaders will be better prepared to handle the human dimensions of crisis.

To quote an expression from Friedman in his book Capitalism and Freedom, we may yet see a transition from “the politically impossible” into the “politically inevitable” and the goodwill and focus to translate this opportunity into reality.

The role of principal is seen as the metaphorical ‘meat in the sandwich’. They form a buffer between the wishes of parents, communities, individuals, unions, teachers and government, whilst navigating numerous fraught and tense situations. For example, in this crisis, principals are weighing up perspectives on:

  • vulnerable and non-vulnerable staff

  • the numbers of students physically in attendance in classrooms or in schools

  • the balance between online and face to face learning

  • mixed messaging, cabin fever, overall anxiety and employment demands.

Principals are often required to be courageous and resilient, and leadership can sometimes be lonely, particularly in crisis, with numerous perspectives and influences in an area such as education, that all of society believes in, but often values differently.

During this pandemic, there have been many calls for restructuring the tools and methodologies supporting the learning opportunities offered by schools.  Now is a time for leaders to step back and re-examine which traditional approaches to teaching and operations exist because of convention, not necessity, currency or effectiveness. This moment should not be lost: those who step up will be better off and ready to confront the challenges, and opportunities, than those who do not.

Our greatest leaders will be remembered for how they managed themselves and others through crisis. Who and what we remember will be based around how systems or societies connected, persevered, and specific to education, how schools emerged from this trauma – collectively stronger and fairer.

“leaders in times of crisis need to remember the big picture. Concentrate on the greater vision you have of yourself, both personally and professionally. Think about where you will be and what you will be doing a year from now…. Stop and realize that you are alive and that much good will come out of the crisis.” Klann (2000)

A thought to reflect on: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.” Rahm Emanuel – Former Chicago mayor and chief of staff to President Barack Obama.


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