During times of crisis, people look to leaders to help them understand and make sense of what’s going on and to help them work through what they are experiencing at both the individual and the organizational levels.  People also look to leaders to give them a sense of the way forward in terms of how to deal with the challenges that they are facing and in terms of what the next steps would be that the organization would take. Of course they also want leaders to support them and to build their confidence in helping them take these next steps. So, leaders in all organizations must become aware of this very important role that they play in holding the organization and the people in it together as they navigate the crisis. 

Emerging research is showing that a leader has to focus on four key things in the organization especially during a time of crisis and uncertainty.

Building Trust

Firstly,  the leader must build trust. Team members want to feel that they can trust the leader, they can trust the decisions that are taken by the team, and that they can trust in the processes that are identified to implement these decisions. So trust is really important in any organization during this time.

Showing Compassion

The second thing that the leaders to focus on, is compassion. Team members want to feel that the leader and the organization care for them.  At the personal level, we speak about the health and well-being of individuals of our teachers and their families as well as at the professional level. So how does a leader support me in doing my work during this difficult time. What care does the leader show for me in understanding how difficult and how challenging it may be for me?  When leaders show compassion for team members, they actually build the trust on the team members in the leadership so it’s really important to show compassion. 

Ensuring Stability in the Organization

The third thing that the leader needs to focus on in the organization is stability. Now the uncertainties of the social and organizational aspects of our lives often add to the anxiety and stress that we experience. So the leader has a key role to play in developing clear plans for how we move forward; how we deal with the crisis; how we rearrange our work schedules; how we implement the protocols.  But the leader also has a role to play in supporting members to adjust to doing things differently in the organization. So stability is key, and the leader has to support team members in ensuring the stability in the organization.

Giving hope to people that things will get better and that they can, and they will, come through the crisis

The last thing that the leader needs to focus on in the organization is hope. Team members want to know that the crisis will eventually pass, and things will be OK.  So the leader, while he or she has to be realistic in terms of framing what is going on currently, he or she must also engender hope. They must also give hope about the future by instilling confidence in the team members and building their strengths. We call this agency.  When the leader does this, it helps to motivate people and builds the resilience of the team. 

So it’s important that the leader is actually clear in terms of doing these four important tasks in the organization: building trust; showing compassion; ensuring stability in the organization; and giving hope to people that things will get better and that they can they will come through the crisis.

Comments on the contributions of educators to the challenges of leading under uncertainty

I have listened to some colleagues sharing their experiences. I see a few key themes emerging.

Firstly, I hear the concerns in the fears that they expressed in terms of going back to school.  They were concerned about their own health and well-being – the safety of themselves as well as others in the school.  These concerns are real, they are real for them and the principal and school leadership team have to create a space for teachers and learners and parents  where they can express what’s going on, what they are experiencing, and what they are feeling, what they are thinking, what is going through their minds around the current crisis.  We talk about building an environment of care and support when schools do this, and when they do it well it not only builds teacher confidence and trust, but it also motivates teachers and builds their resilience

Secondly, I notice that despite their concerns and fears that they spoke about, these educators still showed a commitment to making the changes that were required for teaching and learning to continue in their schools. I think they should be commended for this

Thirdly,  what I noticed was that these colleagues exercised agency in their schools and by agency we just mean the willingness and the ability to make the changes that were required for the school to become functional in order for teaching and learning to take place. I could see this clearly in the stories. The school management teams were quite proactive. One team member spoke about planning and that it had to be consistent and concise to help him rise above these circumstances.  Now, when they do this well, it brings a form of stability into the school and that’s a key aspect of what we need to have our schools doing during a time of crisis. Another team member spoke about redesigning some of the work streams in their school. They spoke about developing new strategies for establishing committees to look at, for example, timetabling and scholar transport. The principal of another school also spoke about them working on the own to establish new protocols for dealing with the crisis they were in.  So these are all great examples of leadership exercising agency.  They did not wait for help to come from the outside but took the initiative in changing the way things were being done in their schools. These are great examples of adaptability and flexibility in responding to the crisis and this is exactly what we need to have happening in our schools right now 

I would say that our school leaders are the most important leaders in the schooling system right now.  This is not only because they exercise the leadership that is closest to the core work of the school, which is teaching and learning, but they are also leading institutions that are directly exposed to the danger of the pandemic.  We can say that they are at the front lines of carrying out the educational mission of the school under very difficult and challenging circumstances that have been brought about by COVID-19.  This is the reason that they deserve all the support we can give them.  

It is rather disappointing to hear from one of our colleagues about the lack of support provided by some district officials to our schools.  Right now, our schools need much more than just monitoring for compliance. Our district officials are also leaders in the education system and during times like this, they should be working more closely with schools and school leadership teams to give advice and guidance and to provide support to them.  The current crisis, if it does anything, should shift the relationship – or change the relationship – between the district in the school from one of compliance monitoring, to one of supporting school leaders and the SMTs.  The changing relationship between the district and the school should be framed by the question that the district official asks when he or she comes into the school.  That question is, ‘How can I support you?’  This is a very, very important question and it should be embodied both in attitude and in action. When this happens, when this relationship of support really takes place between the district and the school, it will go a long way in strengthening the school functionality and effectiveness that are needed for learners to do well in the schools.