Redifining Leadership During Crisis: The Compassionate Leader

The Covid-19 pandemic generated global challenges, hardships, and crises. Worldwide, people experienced social restrictions, disruptions to daily routines, economic downfalls, self-isolation, and the sickness and death of loved ones. Situated in this turbulent context, a new type of school leader emerged. This leader was charged to courageously define student safety and orientate educational success in unprecedented territory, while lacking refined policy, structured guidelines, or parallel experiences. Within this chaotic setting, the linchpin for successful school leadership was not necessarily the decisive, knowledgeable leader, but, rather the compassionate leader. We argue that compassionate leadership was essential during the global pandemic. We explain how compassionate leadership encompasses two dominate themes: compassion for the school community and for compassion for oneself. 

Compassionate School Leadership

Houggard et al. (2020) defined a compassionate leader as someone who embodies a genuine concern and empathy for others. We define a compassionate school leader as someone who makes a space, a place, and a case for the importance and uniqueness of each individual, while encouraging the oneness and safety of the entire school community. 

Compassionate leadership can be represented in many ways, but ultimately it is about being empathetic, sensitive, grateful, and mindful. When a compassion leader asks a student how they are and truly listens to the response, that leader is respectful of the unique narrative of the other. The compassionate leader is grateful for both the individual and collective work of the staff and communicates that message to them. A people-focused leader is conscious of the realities of staff members outside school, and, moreover, the staff members are confident that their unique challenges are understood by the leader. These examples of compassionate school leadership are important during at any time; however, during Covid-19, such reflective actions were like the links of a chain that was needed to pull the school community through difficult times. 

As part of an Australian study involving eight principals, Longmuir (2021) provided examples of compassionate leadership during Covid-19. As school programs were quickly converted online, principals regularly checked in with individual teachers, students, and parents. The main intent was not to identify and solve problems; rather, it was to provide a voice (i.e., a space, place, and case) for staff, students, and parents and have their experiences heard. With that said, the compassionate leader is also known as a creative problem-solver. For example, in Longmuir’s research, principals scheduled online student assemblies, formed volunteer staff teams to assist with technological issues, and scheduled online social events like morning teatime and afternoon trivia challenges for staff socialization. They ensured students could connect with a counselor, if needed. Some school leaders personally delivered technological devices to students in need. Other leaders organized food hampers for families physically impacted by Covid-19. Having strong connections with parents and community groups, especially vulnerable, marginalized, and isolated students and families, was key to navigating through the pandemic. 

Compassionate Self-Leadership

Compassionate school leadership is not only about making a space, a place, and a case for caring for others, it is also about making that same space, place, and case for caring for oneself. As Harris and Jones (2020) argued, “Selfcare must be a priority for those leading schools at all levels” (p. 45). Self-care has commonly come to mean the ways in which a person takes individual action to preserve their wellbeing. Below, we share research that inquires into the ways principals practiced self-care during the pandemic. We end by making the argument that compassionate care become a system priority for all community members, including educational leaders. 

Pre-pandemic, the complexity and workload of principals was intensifying, and pandemic-related challenges have made the role of the principal even more demanding. Like others, principals may have juggled personal responsibilities (e.g., home schooling children or caring for elderly parents) with increased professional responsibilities (e.g., ensuring safety protocols, helping teachers to develop technology skills, or arranging for families to have access to food). Nevertheless, recent research highlights myriad ways in which practicing school leaders prioritized and practiced self-care. For example, in a survey of 473 school leaders, Ray and colleagues (2020), found three levels of self-care, ranging from ensuring that basic needs were met (i.e., sufficient sleep, nourishing food, and adequate hydration), to actively seeking stress relief (i.e., exercise and relaxation), to attending to higher order needs for belonging (i.e., volunteering, balancing work and family responsibilities, and cultivating personal relationships). Similarly, in interviews with 30 principals, Anderson and colleagues (2020) reported three self-care strategies favored by principals to help them to manage stress: (a) exercise and other physical activities, (b) networking and staying connected with other principals, and (c) relying on faith-based values and cultivating positive thoughts. Congruently, the principals in McLeod and Dulsky’s (2021) international study also found a collective wisdom in networking with other principals. In sum, while the demands upon school leaders have only increased, principals must include themselves in the group of people who need to experience support and care.

Recent research (Stark et al., 2022) calls for school systems and educational leaders to prioritize the social and emotional wellbeing of teachers through policies, programs, and practices. In a similar vein, DeMatthews and colleagues (2021) recommended that school systems provide training to district supervisors and principals on using self-care to mitigate stress and thwart burnout. Rather than providing a checklist of actions, the authors further recommended starting a conversation that prioritizes the wellbeing of all school community members.   


Traditionally, the essence of strong school leadership has been encapsulated in words like vision, strategy, decisiveness, experience, and determination. Although important, these qualities tend to focus on leadership as a situation. During Covid-19, most everyone experienced challenges; however, it was not the situation, per se, that mattered. It was the people. During the post-pandemic era, one thing that will remain the same is that compassionate, people-centered leadership is at the heart of educational success. 

Anderson, E., Hayes, S., & Carpenter, B. (2020). Principal as caregiver of all: Responding to needs of others and self. CPRE Policy Briefs. https://repository.upenn.edu/cpre_policybriefs/92
DeMatthews, D., Carrola, P., Reyes, P., & Knight, D. (2021). School leadership burnout and job-related stress: Recommendations for district administrators and principals. The Clearing House: A Journal of Educational Strategies, Issues and Ideas, 94(4), 159–167. https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.2021.1894083
Harris, A., & Jones, M. (2020). COVID 19–school leadership in disruptive times. School Leadership & Management, 40(4), 243–247. https://doi.org/10.1080/13632434.2020.1811479
Houggard, R., Carter, J., & Hobson, N. (2020). Compassionate leadership is necessary—but not sufficient. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/12/compassionate-leadership-is-necessary-but-not-sufficient
Longmuir, F. (2021). Leading in lockdown: Community, communication and compassion in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F17411432211027634
McLeod, S., & Dulsky, S. (2021). Resilience, reorientation, and reinvention: School leadership during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Frontiers in Education, 6(63), 70–75. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feduc.2021.637075/full
Ray, J., Pijanowski, J., & Lasater, K. (2020). The self-care practices of school principals. Journal of Educational Administration, 58(4), 435–451. https://doi.org/10.1108/JEA-04-2019-0073
Stark, K., Daulat, N., & King, S. (2022). A vision for teachers’ emotional well-being. Phi Delta Kappan, 103(5), 24–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/00317217221079975

By: Jane P. Preston and Anne Marie FitzGerald, University of Prince Edward Island

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