Leadership: Certainty in uncertain times

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

A new academic year dawns and we continue to live with the uncertainty of the pandemic. Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers us some simple ideas for leading with certainty in uncertain times

Within school, we are all leaders. Whether our responsibility lies with leading small groups of children or the running of several schools, we have all got people looking to us for direction. That can feel hard if we are feeling less than certain in our abilities or the situation, but the simple ideas below can be effective in helping to cut through the noise and can help you to be the leader that uncertain staff and children need during these complex times.

Comfortable with not knowing

While we would all love to know all the answers all the time, that is not possible even at the easiest of times; right now, it is downright impossible. That is frustrating and can lead to us feeling inadequate in our role as leaders. But if we acknowledge uncertainty and role-model how we respond to an ever-changing situation then we will be exactly the leaders our communities need right now. You could:

  • Acknowledge uncertainty – name it and be outwardly curious about it.
  • Role-model responding to a changing situation, acting humanly, not heroically.
  • Be prepared to be wrong and acknowledging when you are wrong.
  • Problem-solve out loud and invite the voices of your community.
  • Forget traditional hierarchies – those with the least experience are sometimes best placed right now, so try to hear every voice in your team.

Consider: How can you role-model problem-solving, learning and resilience in the face of uncertainty?

Make imperfect decisions boldly

Sometimes you just need to take a decision. You might not have the information or confidence to make a perfect decision, but when you are the leader and people are looking to you, they need you to put your best foot forward and lead them as best you can. A bold decision will lead to a sense of belonging and cohesion as people pull together. You could:

  • Communicate your decisions clearly and review them often.
  • Be prepared for things to change and when they do communicate change clearly.
  • Listen to objections with curiosity and invite alternative solutions.
  • Aim for a culture of constructive criticism that defies traditional hierarchies.
  • Encourage others to make imperfect decisions boldly too.

Consider: How can we create a culture where staff and students can make imperfect decisions boldly?

Focus on what you can control

While there is much that is ever-changing and much that we cannot control, there are a large number of things that we can confidently lead on and take control of. Try to focus on these controllable things and use them to create a feeling of consistency, predictability and community. You could:

  • Look back to your shared values and vision and consider how you want things to feel?
  • Communicate this shared vision simply and often, return to it when making decisions.
  • Create comfort with routines and rituals; consider how to make things feel predictable.
  • Consider different scenarios and plan ahead with “if... then...” planning.
  • Look back to what was going well a couple of years ago – what can you pick back up?
  • Decide what to cherish from the pandemic and lean into these new ways of working.

Consider: What is within your control? How can you create a sense of predictability and consistency?

Share clear expectations

Make sure that students, staff and your wider community know just what is expected of them. Ensure that everyone is on the same page and that everyone knows when they are doing a good job, and when they are stepping out of line. You could:

  • Develop and share realistic expectations.
  • Ensure that students, staff and families have shared expectations about progress, attainment, attendance and conduct.
  • Take special care to ensure that newer members of the community are on the same page as you.
  • Reflect often and celebrate success. Revise expectations as necessary but also give people space to thrive and excel – many will.
  • Try to be realistic in terms of your expectations of staff; keep an open dialogue with your team.

Consider: Share expectations about down-time and self-care – you will need to be a role model here too.


Good luck and above all remember that you are not in this alone. Up and down the country and all over the world are leaders feeling just as lost and lonely as you maybe feel on those more difficult days. One day we will all look back at this time and marvel but until then these simple ideas will hopefully make the day-to-day feel just a little more possible.

  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. You can contact Pooky via www.pookyknightsmith.com and for her previous articles in Headteacher Update, visit http://bit.ly/htu-knightsmith

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