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Part 3 Beyond Coping: Leadership in Calm and Crisis

Updated: May 14, 2020

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” Nelson Mandela

Visible Leadership is now more important than ever. Currently, Leaders have complicated new challenges with COVID-19 shuttering schools and damaging the health of our teaching staff, our students and their parents in every community. There are no easy answers to these issues; however, it is imperative that we continue to focus on putting FACES on the data (both hard and soft data) that we have about our students, their parents and our teachers. Leaders everywhere are stepping up and “taking the front line” to provide a calming influence in this time of challenge and tragedy by finding logical solutions to these emotional and structural upheavals.

We must not abandon what we do and how we lead in calmer times when chaos surrounds us. Everyone is a leader. This is an unprecedented time when true leaders step forward to lead, often from behind, to make the greatest difference to all: students, staff members, parents and the broader community. As my good friend and colleague Alma Harris (2020) recently wrote:

School leadership, of course, is not just confined to those in the leadership team. If leadership is influence, then teachers and teaching assistants exercise leadership every day. In times of crisis, leadership at all levels or distributed leadership, is needed to address the complexity of the challenges and to carry the burden of leading in uncertain times (Harris, 2013).

Against the current frenzied backdrop, it would be easy for leaders to reflexively plunge into the maelstrom of social-media misinformation, copy what others are doing, or seek big, one-off, bold gestures. It is also true that crises can produce great leaders and communicators, those whose words and actions comfort in the present, restore faith in the long term, and are remembered long after the crisis has been quelled (McKinsey, 2020). Thus, amid a myriad of things to read and guide us, like excellent sites from , I return to what we know works for leadership in every system and school setting.

In 2012, Fullan and I wrote Putting FACES on the Data and we noted three leadership characteristics that are needed to do the work os system and school improvement with a never-ending focus on learning: Knowledge-ability, Mobilize-ability and Sustain-ability. They are applicable now more than ever. Since that time, my colleagues and I (Sharratt & Fullan, 2012; Sharratt & Harild, 2015; Sharratt & Planche, 2016; Sharratt, 2019) have added to our original three abilities as we have reflected on what it takes as system and school leaders to lead in calm times and amid crises in Figure 9.2 from CLARITY, 2019, Chapter 9.

I unpack the six leadership abilities (Sharratt, 2019) as they apply to calm and crisis:

1. Knowledge-ability:

  • Prioritize responsiveness;

  • Check-in daily and keep up conversations;

  • Put FACES (of students and staff) on your data;

  • Continue to form conversations groups about learning – as it is still “the work”;

  • Walk alongside teachers and parents with support of a ‘Knowledgeable Other’;

  • Work with technology to continue your Networks and Learning Hubs, always focused on students’ learning as student well-being is an outcome of that focus.

2. Mobilize-ability:

  • Ensure equitable access to resources;

  • Set-up streamlined systems for “Accountable Talk with teachers, other leaders; parents and community;

  • Adjust schedule and prioritize Professional Learning;

  • Focus on connections – reach out;

  • Know that emergency technology training is not authentic PL nor the way we learn best.

  • Encourage and complement sharing of new technologies or uses of technology that have worked for teachers and leaders in your system or school.

3. Sustain-ability

  • Build leadership capacity in every teacher and teacher-leader;

  • Develop and promote other leaders;

  • See who steps up to become ‘Knowledgeable Others’ at a time of crisis;

  • Create a learning culture, online and face-to-face, where teachers feel they can experiment, innovate and lead without fear of failure; Fail Fast (CLARITY, pp 51, 96)

4. Imagine-ability

  • See opportunities to accelerate change;

  • Redesign systems with equity in mind;

  • Create a culture of ‘Research and Development’;

  • Reimagine your School Improvement Plan (SIP);

  • Catch and pollinate new ideas.

5. Col-labor-ability

  • Create knowledge, humour and warmth;

  • Find a course buddy;

  • Focus on ongoing purposeful collaboration beginning with data;

  • Reach out as connecting matters more than ever.

Leaders learn and lead at the same time. System and school leaders use the process of co-construction of thinking, at every opportunity, to promote teacher and leader collaborative decision-making that creates collective efficacy. Inspired by their own sense of efficacy, which is contagious, leaders empower others to do great work, all the while seeing the forest and the trees, providing the calm and stability, even in turbulent cultures of constant change. I call that ability to work through change and adversity to build collective efficacy ‘Adapt-ability’. Leadership for today and tomorrow demands adaptability (CLARITY, 2019, Chapter 9).

6. Adapt-ability

  • Learn how to use all mobile devices;

  • Capture video and images;

  • Pool your knowledge and resources with those inside and outside of your system or school moving quickly – out-front whenever possible – to bring “what works” to your teams;

  • Rethink the role of teacher to writer, scholar, researcher and have them report proven ideas quickly as they become part of the front line of change;

  • Be playful: how many staff can you interact with to have fun while learning together;

  • Find one or more ‘Knowledge Other(s)’ to walk alongside you;

  • Perfect is the enemy of good: don’t hold off and do nothing waiting for perfection (Munby, 2019);

  • ‘Give it a go’; ‘Just do it’

Leaders with Adapt-ability ask,

  • Do I manage little and lead often? Do I model and monitor, flexibly changing course if needed?

  • Do I reflect on who is doing most of the talking in my conversations and meetings?

  • Am I the ambassador for the team and for the organization?

  • Do I really model the belief that all students and all teachers can learn, given time and support?

  • Can I navigate tensions between collaborators and/or innovators?

  • Do I ask the right, tough questions?

  • Do I empower myself and others?

  • Do I know how to excite, initiate, and pull things together?

  • Do I allow myself and colleagues to fail fast and keep going?

  • Do I keep distracters away?

  • Am I able to stay calm amid chaos?

  • With the intensity of this situation, what do I do to stay calm?

  • Do I leave no room for hierarchy or bureaucracy?

  • Do I give and get feedback by paying attention to feedback loops?

  • Am I aware that I build collective efficacy? How do I measure it?

Having CLARITY in all aspects of leadership behavior is key to making the entire enterprise of a school or system work best and become a learning organization (Sharratt, 1996). Leaders in learning organizations are consistent, persistent, and insistent in knowing, expecting, and seeing effective, high-impact practices that have a positive impact on all students in every classroom. As Harris (2020) writes,

“There is no neat blueprint for leadership in such times; and, no pre-determined roadmap, no simple leadership checklist of things to tick off. There are only highly skilled, compassionate and dedicated education professionals trying to do the very best they can and to be the very best they can be.”

System and school leaders have the power to model what it takes to lead not only in calm but also in crisis. Leadership has a trickle-down effect. If everyone is a leader, then we must all show caring and competence towards all students’ learning and all teachers teaching in the good times and in the bad. Leaders in calm and crisis are consistent, insistent, and persistent in the pursuit of equity and excellence for all students. They seek out and celebrate the remarkable moments. They never lower their expectations for all learners’ growth and achievement.

Deep Breath: Stay the course and hold your nerve until you and your team are moving forward in learning with energy and empowerment. Especially now.


Harris, A. (2013). Distributed leadership matters: Perspectives, practicalities, and potential. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.

Harris, A. (2020). Leading a School during Lockdown.

Mendy, A.; Lass Stewart, M.; & VanAkin, K. (April 2020). A leader’s guide: Communicating

with teams, stakeholders, and communities during COVID-19 COVID-19’s speed and scale breed uncertainty and emotional disruption. How organizations communicate about it can create clarity, build resilience, and catalyze positive change. New York: McKinsey & Company.

Munby, S. (2019). Imperfect Leadership: a book for leaders who know they don’t know it all. Bancyfelin: Crown House Publishing.

Nachbar, M. (2020). Why Online Collaboration and Connection Matter More than Ever.

Sharratt, L. (2019). CLARITY: What Matters MOST in Learning, Teaching and Leading.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sharratt, L. (1996). The influence of electronically available information on the stimulation of knowledge use and organizational learning in schools. University of Toronto, Canada.

Sharratt, L. & Planche, B. (2016). Leading Collaborative Learning: Empowering excellence.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sharratt, L. & Harild, G. (2015). Good to Great to Innovate: recalculating the Route, K-12.

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sharratt, L. & Fullan, M. (2009). Putting FACES on the Data: What Great Leaders Do!

Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Valentine, S. (2020). 10 Strategies for Leading Online When School is Closed.

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