Pandemic legacy

Self-aware leadership

Rob Stokoe shares ideas about self-aware leadership and reflects on an emerging pandemic legacy of resilient, positive headship.

Facing the unknown

On a personal, national and global level, Covid has forced us to react to events which are fast moving. Long-term, well considered planning is no longer the norm in a challenging, fluid 2020/21. The role of the school leader is deeply complex and intense at the best of times, but the current pandemic has added both to the workload and intensity of the experience. To thrive in this context our leaders need to retain a capacity to lead with compassion, embracing authenticity, respectfulness, fairness and commitment to others.

It is no small ask to move forward with such a proactive mindset, while maintaining a level-headed ability to react quickly to changing circumstances. Schools with leaders willing to accept this daunting challenge will have the opportunity not just to survive, but to come through the experience stronger, as their leaders make a series of judgements to give the right support to the right people at the right time.

Boards therefore need to focus on two things: leadership and wellbeing. As ‘you cannot give from an empty cup’ they need to begin with the wellbeing of their school leaders.

We need our leaders to STAY WELL

The pandemic has brought many two-word slogans such as catch it, bin it, kill it; or stay home, save lives. We need our educators, and especially our leaders to ‘stay well’. Their instinct will be to look after others first and meet their own needs later. However, they must accept that caring for their own well being is essential, if they are to meet the considerable challenges ahead.  While they need to remain open, while communicating and sharing they also need to build their own personal support networks, constantly to examining how they are feeling, physically and mentally. Its been said before, but it’s worth repeating, leaders too must ensure that they exercise, eat and sleep well. Easier said than done? I have found that the following helps:

  • Reflect upon something that made you smile recently.
  • Write down three things you are thankful for.
  • Send a hand-written note to a person that you are happy to have in your life.
  • Write down what you are looking forward to most for the day ahead, no matter how small.

Leaders almost instinctively have the backs of their colleagues. However, others have to have theirs, and a support network of peers can really help: I have found that sharing, discussing and supporting each other at least every fortnight in a group like this can be a life-saver. There is no underpinning research base for this suggestion – just a belief in the premise that the best response to life’s ups and downs, is collaborating and being with other people. Having our cups filled from the collective pool of leadership collegiality, will enable us to continue giving to our students, staff and parents.

Finger on the pulse

I do have a concern, however, that school leaders have received no kind of respite this year, while stepping up to the plate time after time and working over-long hours. Dealing with a complex financial context as they plan for next year raises concerns in my mind about embarking upon a new year unrested. They are the wellbeing champions in their schools, but as well as having a finger on the school’s pulse, they also need to have one on their own, in order to function.

An external perspective can also help, and over recent months I have worked alongside Mick Walsh of the Learning Curve in support of teachers’ wellbeing. Mick has developed a blend of video and worksheet-based tasks to support individual awareness and engagement designed to inform individual self-monitoring monitoring and action. This approach accepts that participating teachers and leaders will have differing preferences as the course unfolds.

Looking forward

Our aspirations for the school leaders we work with is that, as they look to the calmer waters ahead, they find in themselves and others the optimism and open-mindedness that nurtures confidence in their individual as well as the collective ability of their schools to create better futures. After all, health and wellbeing are not luxuries, they are human rights.


Rob Stokoe


Rob Stokoe has had a long and distinguished career as an international school leader, most recently as Director and Managing Director of the Al-Futtaim Education Foundation and most notably at the JESS schools in Dubai.




Mick Waters

Mick Walsh has been a leading social-emotional resilience and wellbeing author, educator and speaker across Australasia and internationally for many years. A former college leader and avid researcher of positive psychology, he is the founder of  the Learning Curve Positive Education and Wellbeing program.


You can find out more about The Learning Curve here:

Feature Image:  kindly provided by The Learning Curve.