Leadership in times of crisis

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Five years ago today, at 4:35 am, Saturday 4 September 2010, the Canterbury region was rocked by a magnitude 7.1 earthquake. The next major earthquake was on 22 February 2011 at 12:51pm. On this occasion 185 people lost their lives.

From 4 September 2010 until 4 September 2011, there were around 9,000 aftershocks and earthquakes. Some of these were very strong and caused more damage to buildings and land.

Schools were closed for about two weeks after the Feb. 2011 earthquake. Over 12,000 students re-enrolled in schools outside of the Greater Christchurch area – almost 16% of the total number of students in the region at the time. Half of these had returned within a year of the first quake. 

Damage to school buildings was extensive, with remediation required ranging from complete demolition and rebuild to extensive repairs and refurbishment.

A number of the more seriously affected schools were co-located on other schools’ sites for periods expected to vary from a month or so to the rest of the 2011 academic year, and potentially beyond that.

During this time and since we have witnessed examples of incredible courage, of resilience, and of leadership in the face of crisis. This includes our education leaders – particularly school principals, many of whom worked tirelessly to support their staff, students and community for months on end, returning home each evening to their own damaged homes and property.

A lot of people believe that the true leadership capacity of a person is tested during times of crisis. Performance under stress can show how quick witted or level headed a person is, or on the contrary, it can show where their weaknesses lie.

The devastation of the Christchurch earthquakes caused an unprecedented impact on the human and formal school systems and infrastructures in the city. This natural disaster created a state of crisis. School leaders were required to respond during this crisis, executing crisis management and crisis leadership strategies.

Of course, this isn’t just about principal leadership. In times of crisis leadership emerges at all levels of the system. MIT Sloan Professor Deborah Ancona notes that natural disasters call on all of a person's leadership skills. She says…

“What is clear is that during such disasters you need leadership at all levels. Executive leadership to devise overall strategy and people on the ground with the authority and skills to act of their own accord when necessary.”

She goes on to say… “Natural disasters demand all these skills, they are important aspects of a leader's repertoire. A huge amount of innovation is necessary, new processes, new structures to pull together relief agencies and all the disparate actors in the relief effort. Multiple agencies have to work together, so relating skills are pivotal.”

Since the Christchurch earthquakes we have seen many examples of this with the emergence of groups such as the Student Army and CANcern, the activation of community groups in leading the restoration of community assets and facilities, to the heightened work within some neighbourhoods to provide support for the vulnerable in their midst.

A recent initiative to aid the recovery of schools involves a partnership between the regional Ministry of Education and Ngai Tahu, working with four provider organisations to design, develop and deliver a programme of support for schools and their communities as they work through their recovery process.

This is what the distributed leadership model is all about: understanding the context in which one is operating, developing productive relationships and networks, visualizing the desired outcome, and inventing ways of working together to realize that vision.

We are evolving towards the view of a networked education system, where models of distributed leadership will most certainly be required, and collaborative approaches demanded. We can use today to reflect on the events five years ago in Christchurch, and use this experience to consider what model or models of leadership are needed, working with parents, whānau and community, to provide us with the future focused education system that will prepare our learners, our tamariki, our mokopuna, for their future – and not our past.

 

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