21st December 2021: Leading with Positivity in Tough Times

Positive leadership is a challenging concept in these uncertain times. The past 21 months have been tough in the extreme. Physical and mental well-being has been greatly challenged, and school leaders feel they were denied the opportunity to recover from the first exceptionally tough pandemic period. When summer holidays 2021 arrived, the inevitable exhaustion hit. Yet, the summer was one of hope and optimism for the school year ahead and the surprisingly good weather, together with falling covid-19 infections, enhanced this sense of renewed hope. There was quite a shaky start in September, a calmer settling in period and then, once again, everything began to deteriorate. Infection numbers rose steadily accompanied by inevitable severe illness and hospitalisations. The incredible vaccination programme waned in its protection and boosters emerged from scientific knowledge as being a necessary tool to keep people safe. The exhaustion of pre-summer times re-emerged as contact tracing in schools abruptly ended and principals felt alone attempting to manage rising cases, staff illness and absenteeism, and the lack of teachers and SNAs to help with substitution. The opening up of society went ahead as planned and there was a parallel universe of normal without any hope of normality in schools. Things got worse as time moved on, and even the support of students and seconded teachers could not bridge the gaping hole of daily substitution needs.

Things remain extremely tough, tougher than ever before in fact. The cumulative burden must be acknowledged. Principals have fought hard to maintain normality since March 2020. They do this primarily for their students and families but also for staff members and the wider school community. They are limping towards Christmas like the battle wounded with no certainty around what early 2022 will bring and the added concern of the unknown omicron variant characteristics. Questions need to be asked. How can school leaders continue to cope? How can they positively lead their school communities when there are constant obstacles, challenges, changing scientific knowledge, demands for reassurance and fear for the future from everyone around them? Is positivity possible at all?

One place to begin might be the acknowledgement and articulation of the harsh reality we find ourselves in. This is about having a check in with your staff as to where they are at and how they are feeling. It can be done individually as well as in groups or with the entire staff. It should be a safe, reflective space at the beginning of a staff meeting or Croke Park Hour session when people are given the time and space to reflect both privately and collectively on the current situation in their school, the journey the staff have made through the pandemic so far, the challenges that are arising as people attempt to move forward and the areas that need to be prioritised to address the well-being of the school community. Achieving this time and space will be challenging considering the timetables of schools and the perception of them as ‘greedy’ organisations (Earley, 2020:118) ever demanding of the time, resources and resilience of the people who work in them. Prioritisation of these short conversations is necessary to expand a school’s sense of community and simply to gather strength in numbers, conversations, and professional discussions. Ensuring opportunities like these are provided, whether online or face-to-face, enables ‘context responsive leadership’ (Harris, 2020:244). Such opportunities provide a focus on the needs of each school context and on what should be prioritised to provide the best learning experiences and outcomes for students in their own school context, and to safe guard their well-being.

Connected to the concept of time and space for the staff to reflect is the idea of ‘collective responsibility’ (Munby, 2021). As principals and deputies, we find it incredibly hard to ask for help and perceive it as a form of weakness, perhaps even a source of shame. Munby claims that asking for help builds collective responsibility and trust and prevents us from falling over. However, we need to empower those we work with to engage in such a level of responsibility. How well principals and deputies facilitate teamwork and give agency to others is reflected in the level of collective responsibility that exists in the school. School leaders should perhaps reflect on the difference between delegating tasks, and the facilitation of others to engage in and complete tasks. This can be difficult as it involves placing trust in new ways of working and facilitating learning points, changes of directions and wrong turns. Real facilitation is challenging for those in senior leadership but also for those going forward to help and share their ideas and expertise. Both sides need a shared and trusting space to achieve goals and to work together effectively. According to Harris (2013), this means ‘actively brokering, facilitating and supporting the leadership of others’ (pp. 547).

But what about school leaders themselves and their own simple, practical approaches to keeping their heads above water? On speaking to a group of principals in recent weeks, they offered the following as ways of holding on tightly when the going is extra tough:

  • ‘The fact that schools are remaining open keeps me going, I’m not sure I can lead online learning again. It lacks inclusivity and the most vulnerable students suffer the most’.
  • I’m coping because I know where to look for support and I also have the experience and enough confidence in myself to know what to prioritise and what to leave for another time’.
  • ‘I have good support from the staff and we’re all trying to mind each other’.
  • ‘Children remain the same, willing to have fun and to smile, they sustain us and make it all worthwhile’.

It is not surprising that these principals get motivation from their students as looking after their needs is at the core of everything they do. It is both interesting and reassuring that they are receiving sustenance from their staff and are digging deeply into their confidence and experience to prioritise. It begs the question of how newly appointed principals are coping. In a recent CSL survey, they reported the following challenges:

  • Knowing what to do and when to do it, learning on your feet and as you go
  • The expanse of issues
  • Juggling teaching and being the principal; there is a constant feeling of not being fully present in either role
  • There is something new to be learned every day, the job is hugely multifaceted
  • The workload is considerable, complex, and difficult at times
  • The challenge of staff, saying the right thing and dealing with tricky situations and conversations
  • Balancing teaching and learning with the practical tasks of running a school in the midst of a pandemic

Thankfully, these newly appointed principals have the support of experienced mentors who give of their time generously and without remuneration, to support principals as they begin in their new role. As one of them reported:

‘I have the most wonderful, wise and supportive mentor. If I knew I was going be given this service, I would not have had one night’s worry’.

When asked how they remain positive and look after themselves when they are looking after everyone else, Principals at a recent Belmas Ignite event said they do the following: ‘I look at what I have already done’, ‘I say every week that we’re a week closer to the end of the pandemic’, ‘I keep things very simple’, ‘I believe that things will be alright and I trust my people to help me get there’, I remind myself that I don’t have to be perfect’, ‘I seek out fun’ and ‘I put myself first, my well-being has to be an everyday thing’. These are all simple ideas that portray an image of eating the elephant in bite size pieces. Perhaps such a simplified approach is all we can rely on currently due to the complexity of our pandemic world.

Principals, deputy principals and other school leaders are struggling to attain the energy and motivation they need to deal with all the challenges they encounter. They need the support of their team to survive the current crisis, but this support cannot materialise overnight. Collaborative or distributed leadership is built up over time so that it facilitates the development of reciprocal trust to enable and empower everyone’s skills and expertise. Principals who have invested time in this development are currently benefitting from it. Newly appointed principals are beginning to understand its value. Checking in with the staff and allowing time for an informal chat at the beginning of staff meetings, even if online, gives a sense of community and caring. Providing care and compassion for others builds resilience. Appreciating the good people, both at home and at school enhances your sense of well-being. Applying simple rules to one’s own day to day existence as a principal while keeping things as simple as possible works for many. Looking for and appreciating fun, laughter, love, and care works for most.

Relationships don’t last because of the good times; they last because the hard times were handled with love and care (Anmol Andora).


Earley, P. (2020) ‘Surviving, thriving and reviving in leadership: The personal and professional development needs of educational leaders’ in Management in Education, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 117-121. Available at: https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/doi/pdf/10.1177/0892020620919763

Harris, A. (2013) ‘Distributed Leadership: Friend or Foe?’ in Educational Management, Administration and Leadership, vol. 41, no. 5, pp. 545–554. Available at: https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/doi/pdf/10.1177/1741143213497635

Harris, A. and Jones, M. (2020) ‘COVID 19 – school leadership in disruptive times’ in School Leadership and Management, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 243-247. Available at: https://journals-sagepub-com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/doi/10.1177/1741143213497635

Munby, S. (2021) ‘Leadership in Times of Crisis and Uncertainty’ in Leadership+, Cork: Irish Primary Principals’ Network (IPPN).


[1] Belmas is the British Educational Leadership, Management and Administration Society which supports quality education through effective leadership. Ignite events facilitate presenters to present on aspects of educational leadership and to discuss these aspects with the audience. This event took place on November 16th, 2021.

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