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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

12 Leadership Lessons in (Another) Year to Forget

It’s been a year since I looked back on 2020 with 12 Leadership Lessons in a Year to Forget.

Filled with hope that the New Year and, more specifically, a vaccine would lead us into a post-Covid world, I concluded:

We will return to better. We will. Of that, I have no doubt. 2021 is the new 2020.

Little could I imagine that it turned out to be exactly that. 2021 was just 2020: Season 2.

So here are 12 more leadership (and life) lessons in another year to forget.

Again, it’s not an exhaustive list. It’s not even an entirely serious list. But one or two of these lessons may just cause you to nod in agreement or give rise to a wry smile.

A photograph of an iPhone with a 2021 calendar on the screen


Overhoping is a word

I’m guessing that our predecessors who lived through global pandemics did the same. As one year ends and another begins, there is a tendency in each of us to assume that the bad things in our lives will miraculously evaporate as we count down before midnight. It’s the same with school years, even for students. Equipped with their new pencils, notepads, and satchels there is so much hope that this year will be better, neater, and more organized than the last. 2021 was going to be the year that Covid disappeared and we would all get on with our lives. We overhoped, liked we always do.


Don’t predict when your crystal ball is cracked

This is the time of year when many of us launch re-enrolment and, with that, bring out our predictions for the year ahead. We speak confidently about who will leave and who will join our school. We run the formulas and produce graphs. We are seen as soothsayers and prophets… except that, this year, many of us noticed early on that Covid had cracked our crystal balls. As hard as we looked, we could no longer predict as clearly and confidently as we once did. We spoke of the future but with less conviction in our voices. And when all was said and done, some of us got it right and some of us got it very wrong. The truth of it, though, was that our models were based more on luck than judgment.


All rules expire eventually

This month marked, for most of us at least, one year into the pandemic. One year of press conferences, royal decrees, and restrictions. We had learned an entirely new lexicon and were, by now, well versed in the language of bubbles, social distancing, and (if you lived in Belgium) “cuddle contacts”. Never before had we paid so much attention to what we could and could not do. Never before had we had to work out with so much precision what exactly was within 5km of our front door or how to wear a surgical mask. But, one year on, as many students returned to campus, it was increasingly difficult to enforce these rules. Masks constantly slipped below the nose and under the chin. Two meters of distance was a measure that young people were never designed to keep as they happily, huddled together - reunited after months of being stuck with mum and dad. The rules had worked for a year, but, in the end, they started to lose their coercive power.


Never speak too soon

With the English football Premiership suspended or played behind closed doors for so many months, we turned our attention to another international league table. China was top for a while, followed by Italy. But, as with the Olympic medal table, the US soon came storming back into first place. Then there was India. Having been very quiet for the longest time, the extent to which the virus ripped through the nation shocked the world into silence and sadness. And as we checked our phones for daily updates, patterns began to emerge. We’d see the lines in our corner of the world start to level out and then decrease. We’d declare ourselves the winners. We’d celebrate into the night that this thing was beaten. We’d make up stories as to why no one around us was catching Covid any more. And, every time, we found that we’d spoken way too soon.


The world is divided between the Haves and Have nots… and the Want nots

At the time of writing, a total of 7.81 billion doses of the Covid vaccine have been administered. It represents one of the most collective acts in history. These vaccines are reported to already have saved half a million lives in Europe alone. But behind this remarkable achievement lies a much darker and more complex story; a story of the way in which Covid exposed and exasperated our socio-economic and political fault lines. People and nations raced to be the first in line, while others lined up in protest to protect themselves from the jab. And if you ever needed to be convinced that the were winners and losers in this race, take a moment to compare Belgium and Burundi. Both have a population of around 11 million citizens. One has administered 20 million vaccines. The other just 3000. It appears that it wasn’t such a “collective” act after all.


Feeling invincible doesn’t mean you are

As we started to give up on Zoom parties and venture out again into the streets and restaurants, we had to relearn the art of common conversation and it was harder than we imagined. We couldn’t inquire where our friends had been last weekend or ask to see their holiday snaps for obvious reasons. So we talked about Covid. We complained about the restrictions or showed off our knowledge of new rules coming down the line. And, best of all, we asked of one another whether we were equipped with J&J, AstraZeneca, or Pfizer. We described the symptoms that had accompanied the jabs and, with the second one in the arm, we walked away from the existential precipice and felt invincible again. We completely forgot, for a moment at least, that people get sick and die for many reasons, not just Covid.


Learning something doesn’t mean we won’t have to re-learn it one day

Airports can be daunting at the best of times. As any frequent flyer will know, there is a certain art to moving efficiently through the various stages of international travel. The booking process, the check-in, baggage drop, security checks, passport control, and boarding all require a bit of practice to keep things smooth. But, as we took to the skies again, we found ourselves having to relearn a whole new set of skills. We had to understand that every country had a colour. We had to get used to the fact that airlines rescheduled and cancelled flights at will, to say nothing of the PLFs and PCRs. We arrived at the entrance armed with every paper we could think of and, even still, some of still managed to get turned away at the door.


Don’t assume our parents know where their children go to school

As new and returning students walked onto Campus for the first day of a new school year, there was a semblance of normality for many of us. At least the students were actually walking on Campus, which is not something that we could say for their parents. And then it dawned on us that, it you take into consideration the number of new students we have each year, the majority of our parents had never walked around the school. They had never seen their son or daughter stand on the stage. They had never stood on the touch line on a cold, November Saturday morning. They had never attended a social event, a parent’s evening, or international festival. Yes, they were being updated on our latest Covid protocols and, where time permitted, our plans and initiatives. But, in reality, they really had no idea what it feels like to be a part of our diverse international community.


Learning to live with the virus begins by making things simple again

Back in the Fall of 2020, we had produced impressive and sometimes glossy Reopening Plans. One year on, however, these pages on our website were suffering from endless revisions and updates. They were like a a badly edited Wikipedia entry. And, in any case, by this time, the crisis was not so much a disruption in life as the way life now was. We no longer had to define social-distancing or phrases such as “hybrid learning”. We just had to find a way of making things simple again. As a wise man once said, Make things simple to understand, but also simpler to live with. It’s really that simple.


The problem with Covid is that it might not kill you

By this point in the year, it was clear that the vaccines were having their desired outcome. The chances are that most of us will get Covid at some point, but the likelihood of us being extremely sick are really very small. But as we breathed a sigh of relief, many of us found ourselves struggling to catch our breath. The tiredness was inescapable and no amount of sleep at the weekends seemed sufficient to recharge our metaphorical batteries. For adults, this has led in some parts of the world to the “Great Resignation”, as people start to chose to spend their time differently. For children, however, the global reality (thankfully outside most of our schools) is stark. In a 2020 global survey commissioned by Save the Children, it was reported that 8 out of 10 children felt like that were learning little or nothing at all. Two thirds said that they had heard nothing from their teachers during the lockdowns. More than 8 out of 10 reported an increase in negative feelings. The problem with Covid is that what doesn’t kill you, doesn’t always make you stronger.


Learn the letters of the Greek alphabet

I guess that we just have to do the maths. Covid has been with us now for almost 2 years. That’s 730 days and we have just arrived at Omicron, the 15th letter in the Greek alphabet and nine more letters to go. In other words, we are 62.5% into this thing. So by my (rough) calculations, we should be done in another 430 days or Wednesday 15 February 2023 to be precise. And even if I’m wrong, the point is that we aren’t out of the woods yet. Deep down we all know it.


We will return to better. Again.

I said it last year and I will say it again. We will. Of that, I have no doubt. 2022 is the new 2020 and none of us are anything if we lose hope. So here’s to overhoping and to the thought of better days to come.



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