The Toughest Leadership Test

Tough times. That’s a phrase I use to preface every letter I write because the principal’s office has certainly been a tough space in the last 16 months. The toughest leadership test – is the title of an article by three international McKinsey partners to help CEOs embrace micro-habits which can prove effective in the heat of a crisis. I’m using their insights to support school CEOs, many of whom have already changed their mindsets accordingly. Sadly, many others have been paralyzed by the enormity of the challenge facing schools in underserved communities. Those with ineffective management teams or systems which are not sufficiently functional or poor communication strategies have been the hardest hit by the crisis. There are national rescue initiatives, but they require each school, led by its CEO, to develop its own local response within every classroom.  

Developing the right micro-habits – daily routines and ways of working – can help CEOs seize the moment, stay ahead and take care of themselves in these difficult times. Even after more than a year there is much uncertainty. 

A primary school with Grade 1s attending on alternate days and making up for months of lost time has a whole new purpose, and the CEO, who simply has no choice but to qualify himself as a foundation phase expert, must articulate that new purpose clearly day after day. And not just articulate, but implement and supervise. CEOs need effective deputies and department heads more than ever, but there is simply a more intense level of direct CEO leadership and communication required right now. 

In these times of Covid confusion, teachers wait for principals to take the front-line lead. School CEOs will be remembered for how they acted and reacted in tough times. Be aware of what you say and do. Your community is taking careful notice.  And it’s not just your teachers that are watching you lead with an adapted style and with new priorities: the Covid-school CEO’s leadership is carefully scrutinized by wider community, by partnering organizations and by districts.  

Furthermore, a CEO’s personal sincerity and physical presence are also monitored. There have been many opportunities for compassionate leadership with so much illness, loss and anxiety. 

The best CEOs report that their team’s cohesion has been absolutely critical. Some team members have come to the fore as leaders with initiative and with the ability to stay calm under pressure. Shorter and quicker team meetings with a focus on operational rather than general issues should be happening multiple times per week. CEOs, have hopefully learned to voice and to show their appreciation at every opportunity. Of course, the true leader is looking beyond the daily detail, thinking and planning ahead. Times of crisis are often the opportunity for accelerating change. If your teachers are teaching as before, you are missing a huge chance to move your school forward. 

Key to leading in tough times is taking care of yourself. It is fine to admit that you sometimes feel powerless and unprepared. Find new simple ways of replenishing your energy and your spirit. Perhaps an unthreatening and supportive afternoon call to your mentor can help clear your mind. Don’t forget that exercise is a tested way to restore energy. Don’t create your own lockdown. Ensure that you break out of your isolation with a good friend, with another principal with whom you can share and with an unwavering commitment to established routines with your family. And remember, the best way to lead a balanced professional life as a principal is to stay close to the children. Chat to more than a few every day.  

In adapting this article I’ve used the title CEO to describe the modern principal, but I can’t help thinking that Headteacher is a more appropriate appellation for a school leader. It’s a value-laden title which connects the community and the office to the classroom in a way which emphasizes the art and craft and science of school leadership. 

Last week I was inspired by a principal who, having completed her preparations for the new term, designed her own screensaver as a daily reminder. It read:  

Note to self:  When things feel overwhelming, remember: 

  • one thought at a time 
  • one task at a time 
  • one day at a time. 

In turn she inspired me to share this article with you. 

Paul (Coach/Mentor) 

Principals Academy  

The Toughest Leadership Test, May 28, 2020, Homayoun Hatami, Pal Erik Sjatil and Kevin Sneader (all McKinsey partners) 

Keeping in Touch in Tough Times. #22 of 2021. 30 July.