Leadership Without a Crystal Ball

Charlotte Pearce Cornish Leadership

There are many names for it, from straightforwardly “the pandemic”, to dramatically “The Event” (always capitalised), to comfortingly minimising “the kerfuffle”. However we refer to it, we can all agree that the current situation is leadership challenge which is unprecedented in the UK and much of the rest of the world.

Like many professional services firms, PAG works on a three month horizon in normal times. We know our core clients – schools, MATs and local authorities – have much longer horizons, across the school year and the seven years of each pupil’s education and for the decades, even centuries of the life of their organisations. Despite our near horizons, these circumstances are still challenging for us. How much more disruptive, then, the current situation for leaders on the front-line?

We are seeing heroic efforts from people across the public sector. They are serving pupils, their families and communities. All of this in addition to also looking after family, friends and neighbours.. Leaders at all levels of these organisations are also serving their teams.

Looking forward is harder, and more important, than ever. But how best to lead now, when the mists of the crystal ball can at best clear to show one big shrugging emoji?

We must go back to basics: mission, vision and values. If you and your team are clear on what you are doing, why you are doing it and how you go about it, you are ten steps ahead. We don’t have the facts – the fourth tool for planning. But a three-legged chair is sturdy enough for a while. Mission, vision and values tell us how to lead, how to communicate, how to prioritise. We must use them; we must trust them.

If leaders don’t have clarity of mission, vision and values, they are still placing their trust in their people. Teams across education are showing just how wonderful they are, from the incredible efforts being made by individual teachers to keep educating pupils, to the catering staff providing meals for vulnerable people in their communities, to LA officers collaborating to find the best solutions for their county. What a gift for leaders to work in this context. Leadership is knowing when to support and amplify, and where to put your resources.  It’s also knowing how to get out of the way.

If you’re a new leader, or have a new team, this can be hard. Consider Brene Brown’s powerful question for changing mindset: how would I act if I genuinely believed that everyone was doing the best they could? If we genuinely believe this, trust is boosted, support is freely given, morale is lifted. If we can’t believe it yet, acting like we do can be a sufficient panacea. Everyone is starting from a different place every time they log on in the morning. Everyone has different worries and stresses and triggers. Everyone deserves trust, compassion and the benefit of the doubt.

Being clever and analytical and good at processing information have always been important leadership skills. But acting with compassion and integrity are vital. We can see that now more than ever.

This pandemic proves that we cannot future-proof. We cannot anticipate what the risks may realise, whether a second wave of the virus or something else entirely. This situation should not encourage us to become dragons, jealously hording all the resources we might need to meet any challenge which may come our way.

Don’t be Smaug. Be Bilbo Baggins.

We will build resilience and live generously. We will scan the horizon for risks and opportunities whilst tending to the work we have to do right now. We will continue to serve our communities with thoughtfulness and creativity.

Our leaders are more than equal to this challenge.