Aug 2020
Learning Matters Blog: Getting the right balance – leading in a crisis!

As a headteacher for more than 12 years, I experienced my fair share of crisis situations: a gun siege in a house overlooking the school which lasted for several days, in my first year of headship; a serious flood in the summer of 2007 resulting in the school being closed for a period of time and some pupils taught offsite; and a hoax bomb call which thankfully came on an inset day with no pupils on site. All required a specific response - an emergency evacuation, and all required a specific type of leadership. This involved being both decisive and clear, whilst remaining calm and optimistic, but also brought periods of both self-doubt and despair. I know that many headteachers and school leaders face unexpected situations every day, some more serious than others and some more frequently than others, but we could never have imagined the type of situation that our school leaders are facing right now.


Our Research School ‘Learning Matters’ professional learning programme recently brought together over 40 school leaders to share their experiences and reflections of leading during a crisis and to identify together the type of leadership needed to ensure the leaders and their teams could flourish rather than just cope. The session, which included fabulous inputs from Marc Rowland from Unity Research School and colleagues from the Embark Federation, also included a study group process. School leaders were invited to read and reflect on a range of different think pieces on the theme of lessons learned during lockdown  then feedback in smaller, facilitated groups on the types of leadership qualities needed to lead in a crisis and the kind of leadership needed in the post Covid world. The study group was expertly facilitated by Diane Heritage, a Senior Associate with the Education Endowment Foundation.


This is a summary of that feedback:


  1. Be a reflective leader - ask and listen, read, stay outward facing and take the time to reflect on learning and experience, evaluate and seek out evidence
  2. Be an agile leader - context matters, be responsive to need, give yourself permission to change your mind, be flexible
  3. Be a grounded leader - model ethical leadership, show moral purpose, stay true to yourself and your beliefs (e.g. equity and social justice)
  4. Be a humble leader- have humility and integrity, show respect for what others have achieved, hold up others
  5. Be a strong communicator - have clarity, be decisive when needed, be honest, ask for help, invite feedback, be careful about the language used, ensure shared understanding
  6. Be a community leader - ensure the school stays at the heart of the community it serves
  7. Be a people leader - build relationships and a culture of trust, value others, take care of people
  8. Be an optimistic leader - be realistic but always hopeful, talk about what can be done
  9. Be a collaborative leader - stay connected to others, engage in networks, share ideas, give your best away
  10. Be a resilient leader - create and lead a strategy which builds resilience in yourself, in others and in the organisation


These powerful leadership qualities and approaches are nothing new but now seem far more authentic and needed. They have been activated and practiced, they have been tried and tested, they are more important now than ever before. The challenge of course is in getting the right balance, knowing when to be firm and decisive, when to invite feedback or change your mind, when to ask for help. The most important thing is knowing that we have the permission to use our intuition to choose and blend approaches as needed. We can learn much from the inspirational leadership shown by Jacinda Ardern throughout the pandemic, ‘I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong’, but also from our own leaders. The shared moral purpose and commitment to collaboration from Doncaster school leaders over recent months has been tangible and gives us much to be proud of. They have demonstrated these leadership qualities in abundance. By continuing to work together, building on our best, asking for help and by being optimistic about new ways of working and learning, we can build back better and rise stronger.


I sincerely hope that school leaders everywhere take time over the summer break to enjoy some well-earned rest and recuperation, to spend time with family and friends and to re-energise ready for the next stage of the journey.



Helen Bellinger (Director Doncaster Research School) July 2020