Leading through change

Leading Through Complex Change: How To Adapt Our Leadership Style To Support Staff During a Pandemic

School leaders undoubtedly have a difficult job. On the one hand, they want to ensure their schools are performing at their best while also aligning with government directives. On the other, they’re dealing with higher staff turnover and absenteeism rates during a time of high stress and crisis. Even for the most well-meaning leader, it can be difficult to envision a way to return to harmony. 

The sooner we realise that there’s no going back to the old way of leading the better off our schools will be. The pandemic has highlighted just how critical teacher wellbeing is and if leaders don’t tune into their staff’s needs, they risk missing the mark on offering the support they’d find most helpful and effective while ensuring staff satisfaction and engagement.

This article will cover:

  • Why change begins with the leaders
  • Why it’s time for leaders to adapt their leadership style
  • The importance of leading with empathy
  • How staff can benefit from emotional intelligence training

Change begins with the leaders

The COVID-19 pandemic was an unprecedented occurrence that leaders and teachers alike weren’t prepared for.  As a result, many scrambled to make it work by patching gaps with temporary fixes only meant to keep everybody running in survival mode.  Now that the dust of the pandemic has begun to settle (unless you are in WA!), we can clearly see the effects these changes and transitions have had on our staff. 

They’re tired, burned out, and many feel overworked. 

In times of crisis, people look up to their leaders and expect that they will minimise the impact of the crisis at hand.  Leaders in such situations must grasp and address the crisis while maintaining a sense of normality (Kwatubana & Molaodi, 2021).

Since returning to a pre-pandemic norm is unlikely (at least not yet), it’s time for leaders to ask themselves – what can we do differently that will effectively support the wellbeing of our staff? 

The caveat is that leaders can’t expect to take the same approach they would have taken before the pandemic – things have decidedly changed.  So going forward, it’s going to take a more distinct skillset and leadership style to navigate staff wellbeing. 

Adapting our leadership style

Leaders, staff, and teachers all have an integral role in impacting school outcomes and culture.  Through effective and harmonious collaboration, schools are able to meet the goals and vision they set out to achieve. 

It’s far too common for leaders to view themselves as the primary decision-makers regarding school directives and actions.  Still, this mentality doesn’t support the notion that deep-rooted change within a school’s culture can only happen when everyone is on board.

Both UNESCO and The International Task Force on Teachers for Education have emphasised that teachers should be included in national education-related decision-making.  The same can be said about seeking teacher input when making decisions for your school.  

The school leader cannot work alone because a top-down hierarchical approach is unlikely to be effective in a volatile, uncertain, and complex environment created by COVID-19.  Teachers are well and truly over having decisions made for them by governments, departments, and education offices, often with little to no consultation. Moreover, school leaders should also look after their own wellbeing.  Thus, distributing leadership responsibilities is more effective than other leadership approaches in times of crisis (Berjaoui & Karami-Akkary, 2019).  School leaders should be willing to confidently delegate authority, capitalise on expertise within the school, and create infrastructure to employ the leadership of a number of teachers (Kwatubana & Molaodi, 2021).

Leaders should be seeking to build a robust and nurturing school community where the wellbeing and resilience of one person affects the wellbeing and resilience of others.  They should be focusing on building a culture where respect and trust are the foundations for sustaining the wellbeing of staff.

For there to be a true spirit of collaboration, leaders should take the time to consult with their staff to make informed decisions that directly address their needs. 

In times like now, it’s best to adopt more servant and transformational leadership styles.

Emotional Intelligence: Leading with compassion and empathy

Emotional intelligence (EI) is one’s ability to identify and manage their own emotions and react appropriately to the emotions of those around them.  With so many teachers experiencing a decline in mental and physical wellbeing, it’s imperative that leaders develop and use their EI skills to approach their staff with empathy and care.  This way, they’re more empowered to do the same with their students. 

Continuity of teaching and learning depends on how teachers are supported by prioritising their mental health, nurturing their combined self-confidence, and understanding their workload.  Compassion can be a valuable tool for mitigating anxiety and ensuring that the team stays on track.  All strategies and actions to teach during and after lockdown will fall short if not accompanied by empathy.  Compassionate leadership is important for alleviating organisational stress (Kwatubana & Molaodi, 2021)

When implementing strategies designed to address staff wellbeing, leaders must work on building relationships with their teachers and staff so they can be aware of their individual circumstances.  This allows leaders to create a positive school environment that boosts teacher wellbeing and improves academic achievement by respecting educators as professionals, granting teachers autonomy and voice, creating opportunities for relationship building, and setting realistic goals (Porter, 2020).

Furthermore, in order to instil a culture of wellbeing, leaders should also normalise talking about mental health, including their own.  

Finally, they should consider training all leaders in ways to spot early signs of mental health challenges and appropriate actions to take to support those who are struggling.  School leaders might also like to consider training themselves and/or a group of staff to serve as mental health ambassadors committed to building awareness and connecting colleagues with resources. 

Emotionally intelligent staff

Developing staff’s emotional intelligence is just as important as upskilling leaders in this valuable life skill. 

Not only does emotional intelligence help strengthen staff’s ability to cope with stress and exhaustion, but it also has a meaningful effect on student learning outcomes and engagement. 

Several studies have shown that teachers require EI competency to support student learning, provide opportunities for social development, and promote academic achievement and success among students.  Similarly, EI competency can increase teachers’ own work environment, psychosocial health, and wellbeing (Pozo-Rico et al., 2020).

Providing teachers with training in emotional intelligence can help them build resilience, reducing the risk of burnout. 

Teacher training in EI should ultimately include practical tools and resources that:

  • Help staff manage their stress both in a normal educational context and in adverse conditions
  • Improve their understanding of emotions (academic self-esteem, self-realisation, and emotional awareness)
  • Improve their ability to identify emotions (improving intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships, increasing empathy and social responsibility in crisis situations)
  • Develops emotional expression
  • Boosts the ability to leverage positive emotions
  • Increases teacher efficacy through implementing EI strategies

Pozo-Rico et al., 2020


The actions and behaviours of leaders have a trickle-down effect that impacts teacher wellbeing all the way down to student learning outcomes.  However, leaders should consider that the challenges staff face now are far different than those they faced two years ago, which means their approach to leading must also be adapted. 

In a climate of crisis, it’s essential that leaders find ways to put their people first and express their support through meaningful actions but also through seeking to build stronger relationships with their staff. 

Resilience and the ability to manage stress come from feeling supported and empowered, and if teachers don’t feel that way, their mental health is more likely to be affected.  

In turn, staff and teachers can benefit from training that provides them with the training and resources they need to manage their health and wellbeing to take better care of themselves. 

By consciously addressing the wellbeing needs of everyone involved in the school community, we can build the foundations of a school culture that thrives. 

Want to learn more about how to level up your leadership skills to prioritise staff wellbeing in 2022?

Individual or group coaching for leaders can help strengthen leadership skills, create a shared vision, build successful action plans, and achieve improved wellbeing at their school. Discover how to lead whole school improvement of staff health and wellbeing by exploring our School Leadership Coaching sessions.

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