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How is school leadership changing?

Thursday 7 October 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has challenged us all, calling for new ways of leading in times of continuous uncertainty, complexity, and crisis.

“A new chapter is being written about school leadership in disruptive times that will possibly overtake and overshadow all that was written before on the topic. In a different time, in a different context, school leadership operated within known parameters, with clear patterns and rhythms to a school year, with set terms and set holidays, with clear lines of accountability and rules governing most things including examinations, INSET days and even snow days. COVID19 has changed all that and unpredictability and uncertainty are now the watchwords of all those leading schools.” (Harris, A., & Jones, M.,2020)

A number of insights about effective leadership practices are emerging, that could inform new approaches to leadership development and training:

  • Leadership is driven by context: Whilst the principles of good leadership are a constant i.e., having a clear vision, developing others, managing people, building capacity etc. (Leithwood, Harris, and Hopkins 2020), leaders have learnt the need to be highly responsive to their context because of COVID19 (Harris 2020). As Beauchamp et al (2021) notes: “leadership as dynamic, situated and contingent, located in times of deep uncertainty which demanded greater intra- and inter-organisational collaboration and agile decision-making under conditions of heightened public scrutiny.” Effective school leaders understand and respond appropriately to the different contextual demands that they face
  • New levels of leadership skills are required: Leadership development and training need to address the challenges leaders face:

to lead through uncertainty, complexity, and crisis – “protracted and complex ‘slow burning’ or ‘creeping’ crises” (Boin et al., 2020: 120). Skills required include resilience (the ability and optimism to cope and thrive on ambiguity), creative thinking, problem solving, decisive decision-making, improvisation. Adaptive leadership requires collaborative problem solving, continual learning and adaptation, the leveraging of multiple perspectives and shared leadership responsibilities (Drago-Severson & Blum-DeStefano 2018).

to lead dramatic change within and beyond schools – with the ability to bind people together (to be seen ‘to stand with them’ (Jetten et al., 2020), and develop a shared understanding of goals and thus of how to move forward together. Such leadership requires high level communication skills to enhance the many interactions between key groups and individuals, as a means of supporting effective collaborations.

to provide effective emotional and moral leadership in uncharted and rapidly shifting territory (Beauchamp, G., Hulme, M., Clarke, L., Hamilton, L., & Harvey, J.A., 2021).

  • Prioritize well-being both of self, staff, and students. , COVID 19 has exacerbated well-being issues and jolted leaders into rebalancing priorities and re-focusing on establishing a whole-school approach to nurturing well-being (Beauchamp, G., Hulme, M., Clarke, L., Hamilton, L., & Harvey, J.A. (2021).
  • Distribute leadership: networked leadership at all levels (shared, collaborative and distributed) is the new imperative of education (Azorín, Harris, and Jones 2020). ‘All hands to the deck’ could describe initial pragmatic and contingent responses to the pandemic, but for many this resulted in increasing collegial and delegated leadership, drawing on the diverse skills of colleagues. An ability to work with and through people to achieve critical outcomes, synthesising information, empathising with others and remaining respectful.
  • Nurture collaboration and networking: responses to the pandemic stimulated multi-sectoral collaboration (education, health, social and community), facilitated peer-learning (which includes sharing experience, information, challenges, ideas, solutions, and lessons learned); and strengthened communities of practice for teachers (UNESCO, May 2020). As we go forward leaders should be encouraged to (a) build on the increased collegiality in school leadership networks, (b) to promote teacher professional collaboration and learning, and (c) to provide teachers with access to resources and online platforms for collaboration (Reimers, F.M. and Schleicher, A., 2020).
  • Focus on the school ‘community’: Lockdown pointed to the need to work collaboratively with all members of the school community and to create a strong educational home-school nexus (Azorin, May 2020)


AITSL (2020)  'Spotlight The role of School leadership in challenging times'

Azorín, C. 2020. “Beyond COVID-19 Supernova. Is Another Education Coming?” Journal of Professional Capital and Community. 

Beauchamp, G., Hulme, M., Clarke, L., Hamilton, L., & Harvey, J.A. (2021) 'People miss people': A stury of school leadership and management in the four nations of the UK in the early stage of the COVID-19 Pandemic' Educational Management Administration & Leadership, Vol 49(3) 375-592.

Boin A, Ekengren M and Rhinard M (2020) Hiding in plain sight: conceptualizing the creeping crisis. Risks, Hazards & Crisis in Public Policy 11: 116–138.

Drago-Severson, E & Maslin-Ostrowski, P 2018, ‘In translation: School leaders learning in and from leadership practice while confronting pressing policy challenges’, Teachers College Record, vol. 120, pp. 1 – 44.

Harris, A., & Jones, M., (2020) COVID 19 – school leadership in disruptive times, School Leadership & Management

Jetten J, Reicher SD, Haslam SA, and Cruwys T (eds) (2020) Together Apart: The Psychology of Covid 19, London: Sage.

Leithwood, K., A. Harris, and D. Hopkins. (2020) “Seven Strong Claims about Successful School Leadership Revisited.” School Leadership & Management 40 (1): 5–22.

Reimers, F.M. and Schleicher, A. (2020), A Framework to Guide an Education Response to the COVID19 Pandemic of 2020, OECD, Paris.

UNESCO Preparing the reopening of schools, May 2020

Tags: COVID Leadership


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