Post-Pandemic Recovery Leadership


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Message from the Editor:

Caroline offers here a model of educational leadership – Recovery Leadership – which acknowledges vulnerabilities, is rooted in empathy and built on trustful relationships and open communication. She opens this blog post with some very touching reflections on previous disasters involving members of her own family. She then takes us into the current context, proposing a model of leadership for a post-pandemic recovery. Thank you, Caroline, for offering us this very timely read and sharing your thoughts on Recovery Leadership. I’m sure many BELMAS members, educational leaders and educators will find resonance in Caroline’s blog and we look forward to seeing your comments on Twitter, using #BELMASblog.

 - Suzanne

Author: Caroline Vinall

In September 1939 an entire London school boarded a train to the Welsh Valleys. Allocated host families, evacuees attended school for half days, swapping over with the village children at lunchtime. My Grandma, Audrey Brown, said that keeping her school community together made the trauma of leaving parents behind much more bearable. During WWII, schools played a pivotal role in successfully evacuating children from major cities. The shared experience of a whole school community moving to another town ensured that there was some sense of stability, safety and security for children.

Once again, the UK is experiencing an unprecedented national crisis: this time, against an unseen enemy. No bombing raids, but deadly invisible particles. Part-time schooling, home learning and physical distancing from others is the ‘new normal’. Once again, schools have played a crucial role in providing continuity of care for the most vulnerable and children of key workers within communities and learning opportunities via every possible channel. Sadly, unlike 80 years ago, schools have not been able to secure a clear, physical and protective ring around all its children and adults to ensure shared experiences, to enable shared recovery.

The current challenges faced by school leaders have not conformed to traditional leadership models. There could have been little pro-active planning for an incident of this type. Indeed, there are usually clear top-down structures and planned emergency procedures to ensure that systems, processes and personnel know what is expected. My father-in-law, Tony Vinall, worked in the Welsh Office and was on site after the 1966 Aberfan disaster. He maintained that no amount of forward planning in the creation of disaster management systems could possibly compensate or account for the emotional trauma of a devastating community catastrophe.

‘Community’ suggests a sense of unity, but research into the “capacity of profoundly impacted communities to shape and drive their own recovery” (Leadbeater, 2013) focuses upon single-event localised disasters. Coronavirus has been different. There has been no unity in lockdown and there are fewer ‘shared experiences’ from which to draw when leading communities in recovery.

Faced with this seemingly impossible situation, how can school leaders ensure that their communities feel stable, safe and secure? The stresses of illness, bereavement, finances, food, home-schooling, anxiety and relationships are personal and these psychological, mental, physical and social worries will have affected each individual differently, carving new paths in their lives. Models of leadership pre-COVID-19 appear woefully lacking when attempting to heal and regenerate a vulnerable and fearful school community. There is simply no precedent.

McKinsey’s Leadership in a Crisis gets the discussion going about ‘Recovery Leadership’, albeit from a business perspective. D’Auria and De Smet (2020) outline five behaviours and mindsets of good leadership during a crisis. They suggest that devolved autonomy in small peer networks helps to build the trust required to settle and stabilise staff and that empathy is key to rebuilding relationships. So, what is this empathy which is key to recovery?

Empathy can be described as an “other-focused” emotional characteristic (Aaker & Williams, 1998) and, despite being non-quantifiable, can be tracked as a crucial element across many different models of ethical leadership (Qian & Walker, 2014). A leader who considers an employee’s feelings in order to make intelligent decisions (Goleman 2004) simultaneously shows them respect, acknowledges their strengths. whilst embracing their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. This in turn enables and empowers a leader to make ethical and just decisions based upon personal interest in, and knowledge of their followers (Hargreaves, 1998) Others argue that some contemporary models of leadership are incompatible with compassionate or empathetic approaches (e.g. Culshaw, 2019). Post-COVID-19, there is surely no room for insincere or ‘false’ empathy in educational leadership.

A model of Recovery Leadership seems to be missing in our education system. Bucking the trend of a market-oriented and outcomes-focussed system, true recovery in education will only appear when - with time, effort and within a non-threatening and genuinely supportive environment – staff vulnerabilities are better understood. Recovery leadership will require intense and honest relationship-building across a fragmented and potentially insecure workforce.

So, I position Recovery Leadership within the context of empathetic leadership, which navigates all followers through a diverse range of potentially traumatic experiences, in order to rebuild confidence as individuals, as teams and a community via a culture of authenticity and trust. A Recovery Leadership approach enables all members of the school community to return to the fold at their own pace, feeling heard and understood as individuals, with quality time for reflection.

Recovery Leadership offers flexibility at difficult times and provides peer-to-peer support from trusted colleagues, not linked to performance management. Line management structures become more relaxed and the holistic welfare of staff becomes key, including support with other stress-factors such as finances, health and bereavement. Communication between all staff is clear, open and non-judgmental, enabling relationships to re-build, and creating a more supportive staff culture which values everyone.

Recovery Leadership requires leaders to acknowledge vulnerabilities in themselves and others. A skilful Recovery Leader will show respect, genuine empathy and trust which will enable equity of opportunity for all to make a full post-pandemic recovery.

Caroline Vinall is a Diocesan Senior Officer for SIAMS, RE and Governance with the Diocese of Ely and she is currently completing the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership’s NPQH. In 2019, she graduated from the University of Cambridge with Distinction in her MEd (Educational Leadership and School Improvement). Her thesis was entitled “Chains of Command, Webs of Influence or Quantum Leaps? Headteacher perceptions of the locus of accountability in Multi-Academy Trusts”. Caroline was also awarded the Simms Prize for Education from her college. She tweets at @ResearchNovice.


Aaker, J.L. & Williams, P. (1998). Empathy versus pride: The influence of emotional appeals across cultures. Journal of Consumer Research, 25(3), 241-261

Culshaw, S.Y (2019) An exploration of what it means to be struggling as a secondary teacher in England.

Goleman, D. (2004) What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review, January 2004

Accessed via

Hargreaves, A. (1998). The emotional politics of teaching and teacher development: With implications for educational leadership. International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice, 1(4), pp315-336

Leadbeater, Anne. Community leadership in disaster recovery: A case study [online]. Australian Journal of Emergency Management, The, Vol. 28, No. 3, Sep 2013: 41-47.

McKinsey: D’Auria and De Smet. Leadership in a Crisis: Responding to the Coronavirus outbreak and future challenges. McKinsey (2020)

Qian, H. & Walker, A (2014) Leading with Empathy

in Branson, C. M. & Gross, S. J. (Eds), Handbook of Ethical Educational Leadership, New York, Routledge

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