Leading through the fog
Updated: May 10, 2020
Imagine you’re driving a coach through fog, on a very long journey. You can’t really see where you’re going, but you can see glimpses of what's ahead and so you’re doing your best to keep on the road and keep moving forwards. On top of that, you have to physically stay inside the bus, except for one stop per day to get out and stretch your legs. And on top of that, the road is actually very narrow, very twisty-turny, and has a steep drop either side, much like a cliff-edge.
As the driver, you’re responsible for all the people on your coach; their health and wellbeing primarily, but also for trying to get them to the destination you had intended to get to. You’re having to take lots of diversions, but you’re hoping you’ll still get there in the end. And each time you have to decide whether to keep going on the main road, or turn left or right down the even smaller and more treacherous roads, or stop the coach altogether, you’re thinking through the consequences of each course of action, and you do this multiple times in a day. This whole time there’s been no map to tell you where to go either. No-one’s ever done this journey before, and you have to rely on your intuition: that puts a lot of pressure on you, and it could be weighing heavily on your shoulders.
Fortunately, there are some who can guide you, but this comes with its issues too. You’re hearing lots of different advice from lots of different kinds of people on the coach (such as the people in your care and their families, and also your colleagues) and from some who are advising you remotely. You know that whatever you do, someone will say you’re doing something wrong, and the consequences of a wrong decision could be deadly.
The strange thing is, you even saw the fog coming, but you had no way of knowing how thick it would get, how long it would take to clear, or how hard it would get to press on through it. And at the same time, you’re also planning for what it’s like at your destination even though you don’t know what it’ll be like when you emerge from the fog, or even when you’ll get there! You don’t even know whether some people, possibly even you, will be ill from being in the fog too long: from being cut off from those outside the bus, from the toxicity of the fog itself, or even grieving for those who didn’t make it.
This is my attempt at describing what it’s like to be leading a school during the coronavirus pandemic. (Maybe read the opening paragraphs again if you didn’t pick up on that the first time.) A lot of this analogy also applies to anyone leading an organisation, leading a group of people, leading a family, or just leading themselves for that matter! It’s hard for us all: those who aren’t in leadership may be living with the consequences of decisions made by people above them which actually make their lives harder, and this experience adds to the feeling of powerlessness many of us are currently feeling. At the same time, those in leadership may feel heavily burdened by their responsibilities, and feel like as the ones ultimately responsible and accountable for decisions made in a team, they have the harder task. Whichever camp we sit in, we need to be kind to each other, try to empathise and understand each other's perspectives, and give each other a little extra grace: we’re all doing the best we can.
Please do comment below with your thoughts and questions. Before that, though, here are some closing thoughts from me:
How can you help your leaders?
1. Remember that they’re human! You should have high expectations and bring challenge to your leaders; a culture of feedback helps build strength in a team. But at the moment especially, do this kindly, believing that your leader has good intentions and remembering they’re doing the best they can in an unfamiliar situation, just like you are.
2. Make sure you tell them if you're not ok. It's their job to help you! And if you do vocalise your struggles to them, they know that if you aren’t saying anything’s wrong then you actually are ok and you’re not hiding it from them, thus helping them have less thinking work trying to work out what's really going on with you.
3. If you have capacity, can you lighten their workload? Even something small would give them one less thing to think about, which could make a big difference in reducing overwhelm. If you don't have capacity, just focus on...
4. ...doing your own tasks well. This means your leader can trust you and they don’t need to check up on you to make sure that things that need to be done have actually been done to a high enough standard, again reducing the amount they have to think about.
Leaders, how can you help yourselves?
1. Share your own struggles with your team. Don’t pretend like you’ve got it all together, because a) people will see right through you and then won't trust you, b) putting on a facade will only cause your wellbeing to deteriorate more, c) it gives your team permission to share when they’re not ok, thus leading by example to create a culture of honesty, openness and support (which is needed anyway but especially at the moment!)
2. Prioritise checking in with your team. It’s a massive privilege to lead the people on your team, but it is a responsibility you shouldn’t take lightly. You have a responsibility for their wellbeing and for making adjustments to their responsibilities in response to their concerns.
3. Leave "thinking work" in work time. I know you have such a lot of important decisions to make, many of which have big consequences, but all you can do is do the best you can in work time, then leave it there when it's time to rest. Your school isn't going to fall apart if you take some time for yourself; rather, you’ll actually be able to make better, quicker decisions which will lead to better outcomes!
4. Trust your gut instinct. Yes listen to advice from others, and yes follow the government's guidance as closely as you can, but usually your gut instinct when you're making a decision ends up being the right one.
Remember, everyone: be kind; we're all doing the best that we can.