Ed Leadership Theory for a pandemic – emotions, organisations and development.

Over the last few weeks, I have been wondering what knowledge or research might be interesting to those working in schools to help them understand what is going on right now.


I do believe knowledge of threshold concepts can help us review and revisit what we see in our environments. However, only when they don’t provide the quick wins or the answers. If youre looking for the silver bullets of leadership, turn away now. None of these provide answers.

But what they will provide is strong knowledge – well written, considerable bodies of theory that will help you to look at these perspectives a new.

Why not quick wins? Because I’m not a headteacher. I’m an academic. I’m not serving schools right now. You are. No one has the answers right now outside of generalised statements akin to “be more this and be more that”. Plus, I believe the profession is sick of quick wins – they want the meat, not the gristle. They are slowly recognising that the reality of schools as having wicked problems means solutions cannot just be transplanted from one place to another. They require undergoing a process of comprehension.

It is here where I hope to help. What I feel I can do, rather than make concrete suggestions from my lofty ivory tower, is to point you to theoretical positions and ideas that might just give you some solid lenses from which to review re comprehend the problems a new.


Question 1: How can we advance our understanding of emotion in schools.
Schools have, and always will be, hotbeds of feelings, moods and emotion. Megan Crawfords work in this is particularly insightful. As is this paper from 2018 which does a great job of explaining the differences between these often confused concepts. Both these pieces of work are excellent places to start if you want to increase your understanding of emotion and it’s relevance in schools.

Critically we all have to protect ourselves. A common addage is, at this time, we must empathise deeply with those around us. Paul Bloom argues that a more appropriate construct might be rational compassion in his book “Against Empathy”. It will transform how we think of others and how we manage when we have so many stories, emotions and perspective to take into account.


Question 2: Why is this all happening and how can I plan in light of this?
Folks, if you haven’t discovered complexity theory, it’s time to jump on the bandwagon. As a heuristic (thinking device) it can help us to re conceptualise our environment. Matt Evans is rapidly becoming one of my favourite bloggers on this and provides a great starting road into the domain. When youre ready, Hawkins and James is the next point of call. It’s a wonderful paper, but you’ll need to read it a few times (not because it’s bad, but because complexity theory takes a few goes before you get it), as is this tomb by Ralph Stacey.


Jean Boulton also then offers a more theory to practice approach which embodies complexity theory guide. But don’t skip to this. Read the theory first. You’ll get more out of the praxis guides if you do.


Question 3: Turning COVID in a developmental opportunity.
There is a lot of talk of using COVID as an individual and collective opportunity to reimagine a new way of working. To look at things afresh and to start again.


Before I go into how we might do this, I wish to share a word a word of caution about why such statements makes me nervous. There is a common misconception that is perpetuated in self help or self improvement workshops: that is, that you need to go through trauma or bad experiences in order to have fundamental growth opportunities and fundamentally shift how you view the world. For more information on what I mean by world view, see my research paper on adult ego development here.


The truth is that, whilst trauma and negative experiences do force us to question how we make sense of the world, they are a risky and dangerous mechanism for growth. For example, this paper demonstrated how life events such as divorce can lead to adult growth. However, this was only individuals with certain baseline psychological characteristics. Indeed, we forget that trauma can go wrong – it is unpredictable and can leave a whole host of complicated psychological structures severely impacted. I have no doubt that there are some individuals that come out of the back of atraumatic experiences [including yours truly] who feel that they are perhaps better for having gone through them. However, many do not. And for those that do to get the “growth” part, they have to recover from the fall out first.


So, first of all – turbulence and negative experiences do not on their own breed moments for growth.

What can support growth, however, is structure boundaries and safety. Whether or not you are looking to turn turbulence into a moment of reflection or growth, or just looking to help staff to continue to learn and grow, we need to provide safety. Providing secure, safe environments will allow individuals to explore this turbulent time as an opportunity to learn.


This means thinking about our environments and what we need them to be. A good starting point is understanding adult learning. Eleanor Drago-Severson offers a great guide to adult learning frameworks for schools and educators. I have also recently reread this paper around the concept of psychological safety and it’s relevance for school leadership and this might be useful, as is Kahn’s (2001) paper. Kahn provides an interesting read on the role of holding environments in combating this. Finally, understanding how our self systems can be compromised so readily by stress and pressure (I talk about this in a recent podcast).


So, what have I provided here? I suppose its just an elaborate reading list. Again, I make no apology for the lack of silver bullets. I do this out of respect for you and your roles in schools. And if any of this knowledge is useful, let me know.


Keep reading!