Being a leader in crisis is tough – we must take care

Being a leader in crisis is tough – we must take care

20th May 2020

Leaders must take care of themselves physically, emotionally and psychologically, writes Jill Westerman

Some years ago as the fairly new principal of an adult education college I read a short article entitled Leadership in a Permanent Crisis by Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky. At that point, in 2009, we were experiencing the impact of the global economic crash; this had begun to affect my own small part of the FE system, which was already buffeted by shifts in policy away from adult learning.  The authors argued that it would be a mistake to assume that the crisis would pass and we would return to our previous normality: ‘The immediate crisis…merely sets the stage for a sustained or even permanent crisis of serious and unfamiliar challenges’.  Over the ensuing years the challenges persisted and I learned to live with ongoing uncertainty – about funding, which could be cut at very short notice, and about policy, which changed equally rapidly.

In recent weeks, now as a governor of a very similar adult education college I find myself returning to the article, which feels relevant in what is a crisis of a very different magnitude.  The leaders of adult and further education institutions, indeed the leaders of almost anything, find they are in a time of crisis and uncertainty which goes beyond anything we experienced in 2009.  Once the crisis phase of leadership passes the tougher process of adapting to the new normality begins: staff and students will look to leaders for certainty and solutions.

But as we know there are no easy solutions to complex problems; at the moment any certainty feels a way off.  We hope for an end to the horror of the illness and loss of life, but when this will happen is unknown.  I am reminded of Jim Collins’ description of the Stockdale paradox; we need to be certain that this will end, but not pin our hopes on any particular end date as dashed hopes create despair.

What can leaders do in this situation?  Heifetz et al offer, not solutions, but broad precepts to follow as we move into the adaptive phase of the crisis.  We need to allow ourselves and others time to grieve for what we have lost, and embrace the possibilities offered by disequilibrium, both to preserve and adapt. Disequilibrium can be disturbing, but it also brings a new energy.  Many leaders prefer to be in control: this is a time to accept a loss of control and avoid detailed, grand strategic plans, instead running ‘numerous experiments’.  Some of these may fail, but leaving a number of different paths open to the future means that failure does not mean further disaster.

At this point mobilise the resources you have: collecting the ideas of colleagues at all levels of the organisation will generate creativity; starting conversations will bring ideas and real distributed leadership which not only supports individual leaders, but also brings some much needed feeling of control to all – hitherto swept away in the face of the global pandemic.

For everyone, but importantly for leaders, this is a time to take care of ourselves: physically, emotionally and psychologically.  Online communication is vital, but the resulting digital deluge can be constant and overwhelming.  Leaders need to take time away from the demands of work to exercise, eat well and find sanctuaries and trusted confidantes.

The world is changing rapidly; we don’t yet know how much.  This is the time to pause, however briefly, from crisis management to think and reflect on the future.


Jill Westerman

Jill is vice chair of the Further Education Trust for Leadership and a governor of City Lit.

This article was originally published from tes