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Blog post Part of series: Educational leadership on the threshold of a post-pandemic world

College leadership in a time of Covid-19: Learning to distribute leadership, learning to listen?

Kevin Richardson, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of Nottingham

Often teams will show you the right direction from being honest, because in a pandemic there was so much to do from a leadership point of view, and it was overwhelming at times because everything was coming my way.’

Inner-city college principal

The initial challenge facing all leaders from the early part of the pandemic were questions of how to lead, how to sustain operational management, and how to cope both personally and professionally with uncertainty. The near-total shutdown of further education (FE) colleges in England (March 2020 to March 2021) served to focus principals’ minds on using words and deeds to maintain order and consistency. This would eventually have an impact on how they chose to evidence their leadership and communicate with all stakeholders.

College principals’ personal narratives – as considered through my research with 10 England-based college principals on the manner in which they have interacted with staff outside of the senior leadership before and during the pandemic – have been invaluable to listen to and to inform my research-generated reflections on distributed/shared leadership (see Mifsud, 2016) adopted at a time of unparalleled uncertainty. Adopted in part in order to maintain confidence in them and to maintain operational effectiveness under extreme pressure, it was something that, over time, was to increase college principals’ understanding of the needs of their staff, and, for some, indicated a potential longer-term change in their style of leadership. This is what happened in England. It would be fascinating to hear from colleagues in other countries about parallel or divergent experiences.

As well as the overnight shift to online learning for the majority of their learners, within a short space of time principals also had to come to terms with the impact of the pandemic on learners’ progress and likely attainment levels. Within a matter of a few months, this was to lead to the new notion of ‘lost learning’ in the FE sector (AoC, 2021) and all that is associated with the term.

What emerged in the first phase of leadership in a pandemic was a major emphasis on effective communication with all stakeholders, initially to reassure and then to inform and to listen. The ‘listening’ duty associated with leadership, or ‘active listening’ (Jonsdottir & Kristinsson, 2020) was clearly an enhanced responsibility during the pandemic, certainly in the early stages of the college ‘lockdown’. There was also the necessity to counter ‘misunderstandings’ emanating from local media outlets, which led one principal to comment that ‘I have seen that staff are now saying that if it wasn’t in my Friday briefing then it is not true’ – an observation that quite rightly reflected well on his belief in regular communication with staff, and demonstrated that it was working and was valued.

‘What emerged in the first phase of leadership in a pandemic was a major emphasis on effective communication with all stakeholders, initially to reassure and then to inform and to listen.’

What has emerged has been the ability to convey an understanding of the issues to all stakeholders and then communicate operational plans in a manner that was perceived to be inclusive, adaptive and people centred. This approach to leadership in a crisis evidenced the value principals placed in their staff (Nissim & Simon, 2021). As one principal noted in April 2021, when reflecting on how they approached their duties in the pandemic: ‘I think I now feel I understand more deeply the importance of personal ownership of communication.’


References

Association of Colleges [AoC]. (2021). College catch-up funding and remote education. AoC survey, spring 2021.

Jonsdottir, J., & Kristinsson, K. (2020). Supervisors’ active-empathetic listening as an important antecedent of work engagement. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(21), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17217976 

Mifsud, D. (2017). Distribution dilemmas: Exploring the presence of a tension between democracy and autocracy within a distributed leadership scenario. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 45(6): 978–1001. https://doi.org/10.1177/1741143216653974 

Nissim, Y., & Simon, E. (2021). Flattening the hierarchy curve: Adaptive leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic – A case study in an academic teacher training college. Review of European Studies, 13(1). https://doi.org/10.5539/res.v13n1p103