I was asked to speak today at UCL’s educational leadership programme, which was a real honour. I was asked to think about what I had learnt as a leader during the pandemic (well we are probably still in the pandemic so let’s say the last 18 months) and also some fantastic questions about my boundaries, my biggest mistakes/regrets, what I had done around EDI. It was great to reflect constructively and critically about the last 18 months from a leadership perspective.
One question I was asked to prepare was “personally, what did I learn as a leader” and I thought I would share this here.
The immediate lesson that came to mind was “never say never”. Before the pandemic I did not think I would work full time again (I am now full time), I did not think I would have a senior leadership position, I could not fathom that I would not go onto campus for more than 6 months, that I would hold all meetings on teams, that there were stretches of 10 days when I did not leave the house, that I would do Lego online and so on. So many things I never thought would happen.
The second was, that you cannot plan for everything. I knew this but the last 18 months have definitely reminded us all of that! In the future our pandemic planning will be amazing but we’ll hopefully never need it again! Yet other things will happen that we cannot foresee. We need to plan, of course we do, but our plans need to be flexible and adaptable and built on good foundations of trust, effective relationships and shared values.
Connections, compassion and relationships matter. More than anything else. If you build relationships and show compassion, things will happen. As a leader, you need to spend time in this space. And show compassion to yourself. I was asked today about boundaries as whilst the long periods of remote schooling or no schooling was hard, I am grateful that I had to walk away from the laptop to look after my family as it created a hard boundary. And in the long run this helped me be more focused on my priorities and honest about what I could and could not do. You have to prioritise yourself so that then you can support others.
Related to this, listen, listen listen. Ask for help and listen to the answers. Be honest and humble, acknowledging how hard the situation is for you can support others to be honest with you and demonstrate your humanity as a leader. I think the pandemic really helped build informal relationships and connect us all as humans, not our roles.
Be bold, make decisions. They may well be wrong or need to be reversed but they will help us get further than we were before. Then we can deal with the outcomes and results.
Show flexibility, be non-judgemental, reduce the number of red lines you have.
I have written elsewhere that my leadership mantra is “creating the conditions in which others can act” and this was reinforced during the pandemic. We gave our team wellbeing days to support their health and recognise the stress they were under. We had regular team meetings, we worked to support each other.
New collaborations became great networks of support and enabled me to share the load, support others and collectively problem solve. The networks and regular meetings I had with close colleagues were invaluable.
Laugh! Yes it was hard, at times it was horrible, at times I wanted to go and hide or I was so anxious I was struggling for breath. Yet, we got through it. And there were times of great joy and laughter – dressing up for a team meeting, the dog vomiting on my lap whilst recording a video for my team, consistent kid madness, the wipe and toss machine (yes really) – so many good memories amongst the struggle. Laughter helped and still does.