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Leadership in crisis – bringing certainty in moments of uncertainty

By Mark Bocker

I had two crises in my first headship. One was at the point of entry and the second, the saddest, most challenging day of my career.

Day two of my first headship brought a full OFSTED inspection. Yep – day two!

The school (a Pupil Referral Unit) was already identified as “causing concern” and, with a history of inconsistent and ineffective leadership, the outlook was apparently bleak. Along with the support of fantastic Local Authority staff, the incumbent acting head and our tiny SLT, we spent day one and most of that afternoon and evening creating a narrative which allowed us to show the potential for progress. A pathway. A vision. We had to create certainty, confidence and belief in what we could achieve. There would be no hiding over the next two days. There could be no negativity.

Common values

We brought all the staff together and we sold them a narrative which was powerful, convincing, believable, realistic and purposeful. We highlighted strengths and focussed on what we could achieve if everything went to plan. We agreed our purpose. Our ‘why’ in why we do what we do. We shared our common values and affirmed to demonstrate them at every opportunity. It simply had to work or the school faced closure. Schools are part of a community and it’s the temporary guardians – staff, governors and leaders – that must do all they can to keep them alive. Schools, after all, will be there long after we are gone.

We did everything to showcase over the next two days and it worked, and we celebrated! Then we slept and what followed was a journey of vision, alignment, planning and development. Developing and auditing staff, creating plans, focussed targets, specific milestones, identifying pivotal moments, building partnerships – leadership.

Three years in, an extremely vulnerable young boy who had been making amazing progress, died in tragic circumstances. The impact on our school community and his mainstream school and community was profound. The ‘story’ was morphing on social media into something quite distasteful and his family was in turmoil. My team were in a wind tunnel of pain and loss and we needed to build a resilient response in support of our staff, his family and community and to celebrate the beautiful boy we had lost with respect and dignity.

I realised in the days thereafter how a true leader in crisis must lead from the front. Every fibre of my character was tested and the days took their toll but every day had to begin with a complete reset; an acceptance of the reality. Being there for staff every minute of every day; remaining calm, focussed, resolute and tireless. Demonstrating resilience and determination to cope in spite of the emotion and numbing fatigue. Creating a temporary extended SLT – key staff, key stakeholders, key advisors and communicating regularly and with clarity through one voice. Most importantly, living our empathy and allowing people to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Being there, in the moment and being real.

Lessons learned

I learned more from those two moments than in anything else both personally and professionally – they are lessons which will never be forgotten.

Leadership, you see, in the days, months and years where things are going to plan and external and internal evaluations are rosy, fills the atmosphere with an optimism and positivity. It’s not easy, but it feels like it is. At these junctures professional development and empowerment are one’s drivers. The shadow of the leader is cast and your team takes centre stage, take all the credit and build their confidence. Your role should be almost invisible. Listening, paraphrasing and observing become acutely grooved skills, as does the ability to smell BS from an incredible distance! Many over compliment – never let them.

Our job in the moments of calm is to support, reflect and encourage risk taking and the search for opportunities. Sustainability is impossible if anyone becomes irreplaceable so the steady, inexorable development of the team and it’s staff becomes the day job while capturing the strategic weather at senior forums so we remain informed and in tandem with all the bigger pictures.

Systems & processes

So that’s the easy part, the best part, the periods of reflection on progress and celebrations of successes. Watching colleagues become more and more independent, focussed and driven by their passions. Learning from the mistakes, refining the plans and resetting goals. The systems and processes.

But, what now? Covid-19 is no crisis like the ones I faced no matter how big they appeared to me at the time. This is a worldwide crisis being faced by leaders who would readily swap it for one of mine! Leaders who had two days after Gavin Williamson’s announcement – yes, two days – to prepare for wholescale change in their lives, their communities’ lives and societies reframing of what education means both now and in the future. This is a monumentally challenging situation for which no one has been trained or prepared.

Headteachers will deal with it because they have to do and remember, while families will use benefits to support and feed their children, schools will be the first place to welcome them all back. Education journalist Laura McInerny puts it so well:

“Finally, I would implore everyone, parents, governors, the entire public, to go easy on schools. They cannot be perfect at this time. Children will be upset about cancelled exams. Not every school can stay open for Easter. One may have sent home a whizzy digital learning package, another may have sent textbooks and a wish of good luck. When the world changes in nine minutes, it rarely changes equally. No one is having an easy pandemic. Let’s hope it is over soon.”

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