Leadership - Stepping up in a crisis situation

When things go wrong, you have to be commander-in-chief - this guide will help you to handle the pressure

A key part of leadership is crisis management. Alongside counsellor, business manager, educator and all the other hats a principal or senior teacher has to wear, you also have to be ready to step up to become commander-in-chief at any moment.

This can be an intimidating proposition, as no one fully knows how they will react should the worst happen. Everyone will be looking to you for guidance, be it over a fire, the death of a student, a brewing media storm or the countless other emergency situations that can happen at school. Fortunately, there are some universal tips that should help you through an incident.

Expect the unexpected - Many supposedly unexpected events can be planned for in advance. Draw up a list of every potential incident you can think of and have a checklist of actions to follow in each case - it can make a major difference to your reaction times and your management of a situation.

Determine priority levels - Every potential incident should have a category of response attached to it that determines its level of urgency. Everyone should know the hierarchy.

Form a team - Develop people around you who will be your major incident response team. Choose members for their leadership qualities but also for their communication skills, ability to work under pressure, familiarity with the local community and proximity to the school should they be needed at short notice outside working hours.

Inspire confidence - From the moment a crisis develops, you will be under scrutiny. This will be a test of your management skills, as well as your emotional ability to cope. To remain calm and exude calmness, it is important that you inspire confidence through your words, tone of voice, body language and ability to take charge. It is crucial to be aware of this responsibility.

Get your story straight and get your message across - The rise of social media has meant that stories quickly reach wide audiences without the traditional fact-checking or questioning of participants. It is therefore essential to get your story straight, word it clearly, without hyperbole or emotion, and publish it as soon as possible on your school website. This means you can control the story from the start. It is also important to have an up-to-date list of contacts so that all parties who need to be told of the incident, be it students, parents or others, receive the news from the school first.

Prepare yourself for media attention - Seek training on handling the press and their questions. Ask your drama staff to assess your interview technique and film yourself to see how you react under questioning.

Be seen - It is important to keep abreast of any developments, but it is equally crucial that you remain a visible presence around the school and are seen to be in control.

Record everything carefully - Keep notes throughout so that you have an accurate record of what happened and how you reacted. Together with evaluations from all sections of the school and the emergency services, this record will enable you to pinpoint any failures or areas for improvement.

Remain human - Your message may need to be dictatorial but do not become dictatorial yourself. You must be aware of the emotional state of those around you. Your team needs to hear your message, rather than focusing on your tone or attitude.

Look after your students - They will have a strong desire to flock together to talk about the incident. Use staff who have good relationships with the students to bring some order to the groups, relaying information and being their mouthpiece.

Look after your staff - When the staff reflect on your handling of the situation, they should know that everyone was looked after, including them. This will have an impact on how they react to any future incident.

While not exhaustive, this list of tips should give you a good chance of getting through a major incident. Combined with some research of your own - ringing around other schools to share policies and contacting emergency services for advice, for example - this advice shows that major incidents, although always unwelcome, need not be unmanageable.

Victor Allen is the founder of the UK's Mirror Development and Training Ltd, and a leadership and behaviour specialist


For more on this topic, follow these links to the TESConnect website:

What happens when schools unwittingly attract unwanted media attention? bit.lytesmediastorm

This webinar chat discusses how to assess and manage risk in schools. bit.lyschoolrisk.

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