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Leadership in the time of Covid-19: How to best manage crises in early years

date October 27, 2020Dr Valerie Daniel


On this blog, we turn to headteacher at Washwood Heath Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Birmingham Dr Valerie Daniel, to get an understanding of how we can best manage crises in early years:

A disaster movie called Covid-19

I don’t know about you but I keep waiting for the credits to roll on this disaster movie called Covid-19! The really sad thing is that I am one of those people who will watch a movie to the bitter end just in case you get one of those post-credit scenes, you know, the last little bit that indicates a stinger, a cliff hanger or an added element of doom!

This movie that we currently live in is longer than expected and has had us sitting on the edges of our seat pretty much through all of it so far! And now I am petrified that there may be a post-credit scene where we will be greeted with more drama or an unsatisfying ending. There is a massive difference however between watching a movie with a pre-destined ending and being actively ensconced in this life where we have some control over the directions we choose to take to mitigate risk and to lead effectively in the time of Covid.

domino pieces falling

Understanding the different types of crises

Crisis management expert, Erik Bernstein, informs us that crises can be divided into three categories:

  • Creeping crises
  • Slow-burn crises
  • Sudden crises

The management of any of these situations by themselves must be onerous, so how do leaders manage a crisis that bears the hallmark of all of the above three categories? Covid-19 is proving to be complex and convoluted:

  • It is plagued by damaging rumours and inadequate preparation for business interruption (creeping crisis).
  • National governmental actions appear to negatively impact operations rather than improve them (slow-burn crisis).
  • Damage has already occurred and is set to get worse the longer it takes to respond appropriately and the economy is suffering from serious business interruption (sudden crisis).

Anyone tasked with leadership in these times may see the role as daunting and there will be days that may well be described as excruciating especially in regard to the sustainability of businesses in the current climate. Although this blog is essentially about leadership rather than management, I thought I would do a whistle-stop tour on business sustainability. After all, if businesses fail then the capacity for leadership goes with it!

At this stage, most businesses are in a scramble to survive. The current market is chaotic and there is a need for some quick wins to weather the storm. If you don’t already have a Business Continuity Plan / Sustainability Plan, then it’s time to embrace this as part of your core business strategy. Examine the relationships in all the spheres that your business has a presence and get a clear understanding of the impact of the pandemic on these stakeholders. This will help in responding quickly and effectively and also help with the resilience of your business.

woamn working on her business plan

The good news for those of us who work in early years is that we are used to working in a state of constant flux and we survive against the odds and actually thrive because of three main leadership capacities:

1. Realistic optimism

Leaders with a deep awareness of current circumstances coupled with a sense of urgency. There is usually a need for decisive action from leaders and thankfully, we are used to being creative, adapting and improvising just to stay viable!  Even with our sense of urgency, still take a bit of time to consult and discuss with staff and stakeholders because there is nothing worse than unstructured, reactive responses without agreed processes and misaligned resources. Purposeful and adaptive responses depend on leadership capacity to make sense of the emerging situation, direct resources appropriately and allow for flexibility in decision-making that reflects reality on the ground.

2. A strong commitment to purpose

Leaders who understand that their professional purpose is profoundly important and that it contributes to the life of others (children, parents, staff, stakeholders) just as much as it affects the lives of others. This sense of duty needs to positively influence behaviours and re-energise efforts in collectively creating a sense of order and control in extreme events. A purely top-down approach may demoralise staff, create bottlenecks in a situation that requires fluidity and flexibility and also compromise how we harness external support effectively.

childminder with children

3. Finding order in chaos

Leaders who possess the ability to embrace and work through multi-dimensional problems. Strategies include:

  1. Handle fear – anxiety stifles clear thinking.
  2. Work with the pressure to intensify your focus.
  3. Believe in yourself and your abilities even when things seem impossible.
  4. Collaborate – speak to others – No man is an island.
  5. Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers and ask for help when you need it.
  6. Focus on two-way sharing of information to build an accurate operational picture.
  7. Be wise in adhering to government regulations but be careful about establishing rules and processes that are so rigid that they restrain staff freedom to act sensibly within the framework of system-wide goals and priorities.

There are two last bits that are essential to leadership in a time of Covid:

  • Look after yourself! You are no good to anyone if you are not in any fit state to lead. Don’t burn yourself out trying to be all things to all people. Know when to stop and know when to say enough is enough!
  • Above all, develop an attitude of gratitude.  Be grateful for even the little things that are going well. Remember…
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.”

Dr Valerie Daniel

Dr Valerie Daniel is currently headteacher at Washwood Heath Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Birmingham. She has over 30 years’ experience of teaching and is both chair trustee of the Birmingham Nursery Schools Collaboration Trust (BNSCT). She received her doctorate on ‘The Perceptions of a Leadership Crisis in the Early Years Sector’ and is a trained systems leader and leadership mentor for other head teachers and leaders in the early years sector.


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