New Leadership for New Times

Sean Slade and Denise Barrows
August, 2023

Originally published in Education Reimagined by WISE All-In, this article explores the need for a different set of skills and mindsets for our new VUCA times.


These past 18 months have required school leaders to lead through an unprecedented period of change and uncertainty. What is also changing is the realisation that such ‘change’ will become commonplace. We are leaving the static education industry of the twentieth century and entering a time when change itself becomes routine.

The coronavirus pandemic upended almost every aspect of school at once. It was not just the move from classrooms to computer screens. It tested basic ideas about instruction, attendance, testing, funding, the role of technology and the human connections that hold it all together. A year later, a rethinking is underway, with a growing sense that some changes may last.
‘How the pandemic is reshaping education’, The Washington Post, 15 March 20211

New Skills and Mindsets for Leadership

The skills and, just as importantly, the mindsets needed to lead through change and uncertainty are not typically developed via traditional instructional leadership. While a focus on instruction and pedagogy remains important, the skills and mindsets that enable transformational leadership will become essential for schools to thrive in more changeable environments.

School leaders will need to grow as change leaders, inspiring their teams by building a sense of shared purpose that creates optimism for a future that they are building together, by mobilising their people and creating the conditions to enable others to succeed.

They will need to equip their staff to move to productive action in the face of evolving challenges, and ensure that change occurs not only in the classroom but across the whole school.

These new leaders will not be those who feel constrained by traditional structures or expectations or disempowered in the face of change. Nor will they be ones who seek out stability and rely on the status quo, but rather the ones who can themselves create the clarity needed to act, who seek solutions and embrace the uncertainty. They will be the leaders who focus on

  • multiplying perspective – taking the broader view of an issue and of the potential outcomes

  • emotional connection – bringing emotion and empathy back into leadership and into decision making

  • seizing momentum – being prepared to adjust or alter course rather than remain stuck in a predetermined path or process

  • sensing the future – being open to new ideas, solutions and processes, and testing them quickly

  • your ego – being comfortable with ‘I don’t know’ and putting ego and the traditional leader role aside.

(Adapted from MESSY School Leadership, BTS Spark, 2020)2

As our world becomes more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) we must grow and develop school leaders who are more comfortable in this context and understand how it can impact on others and their own personal resourcefulness. We will require leaders who are able to navigate the uncertainty, adjust and adapt quickly, and bring others along with them. We will need to shift from more transactional leadership models to more human, people-focused and collaborative approaches to leadership, and this should be mirrored in the way we grow and develop our school leaders.

These human-centred attributes are at the heart of effective networks, where their strength comes from the interactions and the relationships developed. According to Jean-Pierre Mugiraneza and Susan Douglas (The Power of Leadership Networks, in this report), successful networks are able to

  • create trust among school leaders

  • strengthen relationships among school leaders

  • develop effective collaboration among school leaders

  • display robust leadership

  • be results-driven or purpose-driven

These attributes echo the Disruptive Triangle framework of Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose, being discussed by WISE ALL-IN as part of their Education Reimagined: Leadership for a New Era deliberations. They focus our attention on the purpose of our actions and help build the agency and self-efficacy of the group itself. The strength of a network comes from people themselves and their ability to share ideas and learn from across the network. Learning from others, proposing ideas, and actionable research are all hallmarks of effective networks, where learning takes place across and between networks’ members.

We must harness this lateral energy of collaborative leadership that emerged between schools during COVID, and actively support its continued development, both across networks and also within individual schools.

In addition, one positive coming out of the pandemic is that many educators and many schools have had, either by choice or by need, to form networks and reach beyond their traditional support systems. The closure of schools and the isolation of teachers somewhat ironically forced many to ask for and offer help, from and to others. This now provides an opportunity that should be maximised, and these formative networks encouraged to grow and expand. We must harness this lateral energy of collaborative leadership that emerged between schools during COVID, and actively support its continued development, both across networks and also within individual schools. In both contexts, much deeper levels of trust and shared purpose, across teams and between leaders, will unlock new levels of leadership partnership and possibility. These will be the foundations that equip our schools and our educators for the next crisis, or the ongoing volatility of our 21st century world.