The loneliness of being a leader in those early days of Covid was stark and unsettling. It’s probably safe to say that the past 16 months have been the most challenging of our careers.
Each of us spent hours sitting behind our screens, well into the small hours, as we waded our way through the latest Department for Education guidance. We held it together for our staff with a supportive smile as they looked to us for answers, while inside doing our own version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.
But, from this period of angst and loneliness, a new type of leadership has started to emerge. Instead of being all about competition, it’s been focused on collaboration.
We’ve been more personally open with colleagues, sharing more about the personal impact of the pandemic than we might have done previously.
Covid: Female leaders pioneering a cultural shift in school leadership
What began as a friendly chat between individual CEOs, sensing that someone needed a helping hand or virtual arm around the shoulder, quickly transformed into a series of structured and regular conversations. In these, we discussed the things that were causing us sleepless nights – or simply exchanged best-practice tips to navigate supporting our respective schools through the pandemic.
It’s been female academy CEOs who’ve been at the vanguard of this cultural shift. Embryonic relationships grew from us reaching out in those early days of Covid, as female leaders started to realise the power of sharing knowledge, approaches and documents, and of quality-assuring policy decisions.
As the pandemic progressed, more formal networking and knowledge-sharing collectives emerged, with WhatsApp groups, women’s collaborative groups, mentoring arrangements and support networks, enhancing the existing work of the more formal engagement structures.
As CEOs, we are all part of various academy trust groupings, and have found these to be enormously powerful during Covid. But often in the past women leaders were in the minority in these groups, and some had expressed a reluctance to contribute.
In a very fragmented sector, Covid has given many leaders the nudge they needed to have confidence to reach out and find like-minded peers.
Leadership: A new type of camaraderie
This newfound solidarity has led to hugely practical benefits on the ground, too. We’re now sharing information in a way we’d never done before – for example, saving thousands of hours on risk-assessment templates or HR policies on Covid leave.
It is notable that we are hearing and seeing from more women leaders, thanks to our new collaborative approach. Zoom, Teams and Google have all created an opportunity for different people to be seen and heard. New collaborations have been formed, with dynamic and diverse perspectives.
And we are holding out a hand to help the next generation of women leaders up the ladder.
This is a new type of camaraderie that was there in nascent form before, but has now been forged in the fires of our collective determination not only to get through this period but to come through stronger and more resilient than before.
Collectively, we have greater heft. Specifically, we feel strength in numbers when we’re tackling some of the thorniest issues of the moment, such as how we really turn the tide on sexual harm in and around schools.
Being able to turn to another leader and really open up about our anxieties and concerns about this period has opened a door that cannot – and should not – now be closed.
These are relationships and alliances that have been forged in adversity, but which will endure long after the end of the crisis. If ever there was such a thing as a silver lining to the past 16 months, then surely it is this.
Working in this way has also allowed us a new, more positive narrative about the pandemic – one that is not about handwringing and catastrophising talk of recovery, but instead is about connection and bouncing back brilliantly.
Rowena Hackwood is chief executive of Astrea Academy Trust. Carol Dewhurst, OBE is chief executive of Bradford Diocesan Academies Trust. Catherine Anwar is chief executive of Summit Learning Trust