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Leadership in Times of Crisis: Dispositional, Relational and Contextual Factors Influencing School Principals’ Actions

In disaster situations, children and young people look for guidance from supportive adults. If a major crisis happens at school, they look to their principals and teachers. The expectation is that these adults will keep them safe, reassure them, reunite them with their families and help them adjust to their future circumstances. This article reports on themes drawn from interviews with four school communities as their principals led them through the events and aftermath of the 2010/2011 earthquakes in Canterbury, New Zealand. Five major earthquakes over 6 on the Richter scale, accompanied by over 12,000 aftershocks, caused major damage and on-going disruption to the city of Christchurch and surrounding districts. School principals found themselves taking on emergency management and crisis leadership roles for which they felt ill-prepared. From a constant comparative analysis of the data, this paper describes the role of school principals from immediate response, through short and mid-term recovery, to time for reflection. It uses concepts from the field of crisis leadership to frame the stories. The article concludes with a conceptual analysis which highlights three sets of factors – dispositional, relational and contextual – which help to explain the the changing role of principals in a disaster context.

 The literature review highlighted the dearth of literature that examines the roles of schools in disaster contexts, particularly, the expectations that are put on principals to support their students, staff and wider school communities. A first level analysis of the data drawn from interviews with principals, teachers, and parents was discussed in a semi-chronological manner which highlighted principals’ actions in the response, recovery and reflection phases of the disaster. This gave a glimpse into the complexity of a principal’s role when dealing with an on-going crisis. The second level of analysis drew on a conceptual framework, distilled from the literature on crisis leadership, in which leadership factors were grouped into three interrelated themes – dispositional, relational and situational. This analysis highlighted that principals who became successful crisis leaders drew on their dispositional qualities and prior experiences along with the relational skills they had honed over time to build an effective school community, and managed the on-going crisis by assessing and responding to the situational demands in a thoughtful, flexible and nuanced manner.

The schools in this study saw their principals as successful leaders throughout these difficult times.

 In conclusion, as Canterbury communities are resettled into new homes and students attend repaired or reconfigured schools, it is important that the role of local principals is acknowledged. With the teachers who worked alongside them, they worked tirelessly and selflessly for their students, school families and communities. As one parent commented, they are “quiet heroes” in the story of the Canterbury earthquakes.


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