How to Live with Uncertainty as a School Leader


This blog post is based on the reflections of Giles Barrow, an Integrity Coaching Associate on the topic of managing uncertainty as a School Leader. To watch the full masterclass, please click here.

It has now been almost two months since the country went into lockdown and now, very tentatively we are seeking to ease our way out.
The future is still uncertain and there remains a huge array of unknowns. As a result, most of us are now in what I’d consider to be a “liminal space”.
To clarify, if you’re not familiar with the language, liminal means threshold, it is the period of time between two concrete senses of who we are. For example, adolescence is a liminal period of time as we are no longer a child and we are also not yet an adult.
It is often referred to as a “between place” and during this time,  I’ve seen so many people have been commenting on how peculiar this between and betwixt place they currently feel they are in feels.
This is partly because one of the important things about this liminal time is that it inevitably involves disintegration. After all, there is no way in which it is possible to be a child, undergo adolescence and be a child at the end of it.  It’s just not possible!
We can have a pseudo liminal process in which we think we have had a heck of a time, but we haven’t really experienced this sense of disintegration.   We usually know that is happening because of a number of things: we feel the disintegration bodily, in our minds and we find that what used to make sense, no longer makes sense.  Therefore, there is a real feeling of disorientation.
However, with this disintegration also comes transformation, which sometimes that gets forgotten when we are in the thick of liminality.
Often, when we are in a liminal space, we want it over with as soon as possible. We want to find a way of short cutting, a way to reach back to normal, be how it used to be.  This is a way of resisting the implications and the transformation that results from the liminal process.
Whilst it is not possible to rush liminal, nor is it possible to shortcut it, there are 5 factors (ISTOP) which are worth keeping in mind when we are engaged in the liminal process or supporting others in the liminal process, that can help individuals better understand how to lead themselves and others during this time.
These factors are also linked to how it is we are so vulnerable in the liminal space.

The Liminal Process – 5 Key Factors

1. Information – One of the factors, and why we are so vulnerable is that we don’t have the information that we used to have.  The information we used to have is no longer helpful now. The gap of information can be terrifying.
2. Stress – Secondly, the ways in which we manage stress or the way we used to manage stress, no longer seem to be available to us.  For example, going out at weekends and seeing friends were, for a period, closed off to us.  Strategies for managing stress do not work the same as they used to.
3. Thinking – Thirdly, the old ways of thinking don’t seem to be applying now.  We are trying to generalise into the future the specific way of thinking which was once used in a particular circumstance which no longer exists.  This can also be terrifying for some.
4. Options – Fourthly, are options.  The options are limited.  For some people this is extraordinarily challenging.  The lack of flexibility, the inability to negotiate/work around, seems to have closed down.
5. Power – Finally, power.  Quite suddenly we find our personal power, out positional power and organisational power may have changed in such a way that we feel quite powerless.
Each one of these five variables may affect people differently, some may serve as a pinch point for certain individuals.  So, when trying to help people, we may notice that it is the lack of information that scares them most or leads them to believe the end of the world is coming.  For others it might be more about stress management.

Relating to your own context

As schools now prepare to open and we know this will look different for each school, it might help with your planning to consider these five factors and to ask yourself and perhaps also members of your SLT, the questions below:
1. How can we best manage the lack of information regarding plans for re-opening our school? What is right for us and our context?
2. Have we noticed anything different about our ‘normal’ responses to stressful situations during this crisis? Have there been any key personal/professional learning points?
3. Given the current context, what are the ‘old’ ways of thinking that might now need to be let go of? What new ways of thinking do we need to adopt to enable us to prepare for the next phase of school life?
4. What are the options open to us? Are there any that maybe we have overlooked?
5. How has ‘power’ shifted, personally/professionally? What are the implications?


As a result of the current COVID-19 crisis, the challenge and complexity of the Headteacher role has grown exponentially.

Every School Leader in the country has witnessed an enormous amount of change in terms of what their life, their role and school now look like.

Today, like never before many Heads find themselves having to sail previously uncharted waters. These are unprecedented times, for which there are no rule or guide-books. Everything has changed! As a result, there is understandable anxiety about the current situation we are all in. Feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, isolation and stress are prevalent.

Relationships with families, pupils and staff have changed. The speed of change has been swift, with little or no time for School Leaders to make sense of both the here and now and also what the ‘new order’ might bring. We are all living in a liminal space at the moment; a space between what is known and unknown.

Amidst changes and challenges such as these, we believe more than ever it is crucial that our leaders are provided the proper emotional and psychological support. 
Without such support, we know that this crisis could prove to be both overwhelming and isolating for those who lead our schools.
Leaders also run the risk of emotional ‘burn out’.  When this begins to happen, not only do we experience extreme levels of mental and emotional exhaustion that can be debilitating, but we also can begin to derive less satisfaction from our lives.
Having been a Head myself and experienced burnout, I know all too well what this feels like and equally what must be done to prevent it!
It is for this reason, that I now offer free “Coaching for the Soul” calls, for Heads who feel that they could benefit from a confidential space that will allow them to:
–  Talk through the challenges they’re facing and find solutions
–  Receive support and encouragement in their current situation
–  Reflect on recent events and the impact they are having
–  Gain clarity around their thoughts and plan a way forward

Book Your Call

 If you feel like you’d benefit from a call like this or perhaps know someone who would, please follow the link above!


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