It’s been said that one sign of being a strong leader is that you know what to do when you don’t know what to do. How can we prepare for those demanding situations that come out of the blue? How can we manage our time successfully in the face of potentially time-consuming issues we’re called upon to try and resolve?
This is one of the challenges of leadership at all levels. There will be days when you don’t know what to do, but those days don’t have to defeat you. Over time, you’ll develop the capacity to confidently cope with a range of problems you hadn’t initially anticipated. The fact that you’ve faced the unexpected before and survived will increase your faith in your ability to do so again.
Heed the words of academic and author Robert E. Quinn and be committed to “Building the bridge as you walk on it”. You can prepare for a new leadership role in a number of ways, but you’ll ultimately learn how to be a leader from the experience of being a leader.
It’s important to reassure yourself that however overwhelmed you might feel by an unexpected challenge, you’re never dealing with it alone. Leaders have tough decisions to make, but they should also have supportive networks within and beyond their schools, as well as sources of expertise on which they can draw while preparing to make these decisions. Sometimes simply talking an issue through with your senior team or chair of governors, can help clarify your thinking about the best next steps.
If an issue is particularly sensitive, talking to peers and mentors beyond the school can still be done while respecting confidentiality. There are helplines you can draw on, too, such as those provided by professional associations and organisations like the Education Support Partnership (educationsupportpartnership.org.uk). Know when to ask for guidance.
In the face of an unanticipated issue that’s both serious and difficult to deal with, you’ll naturally have to recalibrate your priorities. The unexpected can be time-consuming, which means having to create space for thinking, as well as action. It helps if you’re generally well-organised and can plan ahead, so that regular commitments can still be honoured or effectively delegated to others.
Communication is key here – if certain things have to be put on hold while you deal with the new challenge, ensure that people are aware of this. You don’t have to share the details if it’s a sensitive and confidential issue, but letting people know that you have to rethink and reorganise what you’d otherwise have been dealing with is respectful, and should help to generate understanding and support.
Finally, be aware of any opportunities to learn, grow and benefit from your experiences, however demanding they may be. After all, ‘rough seas make the best sailors’….
Jill Berry is a leadership consultant, author and former headteacher.