I recently I had a conversation with Saima about the reopening of her nursery school for September. Saima is an excellent early years teacher with a highly principled approach to her work. She works with a talented and committed staff team. She recently became the Headteacher.

Saima expressed her astonishment at the complexity of her new role. A leadership position certainly provided a new lens through which to view her work and she was on a steep learning curve. Just as she was settling into her role, the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Saima felt out of her depth. She said “Being in this leadership position has really made me question myself and my ability to do the job. With the Covid crisis, everything has got worse. Some of my key staff are rebelling! What is happening?”

The whole world is currently responding to the pandemic in collective and individual ways. There is an emerging body of documentation on the impact of coronavirus at many levels – our physical and mental health, families, early years settings, schools, the economy, and more. We remain in a climate of uncertainty, of not knowing.

Saima was facing something completely new. She was struggling to accept resistant behaviours of her middle leaders who she thought she could depend on, alongside emergent information about Covid-19.

I introduced Saima to the ‘capability learning cycle’ (Schratz and Walker 1995). It makes the valuable distinction between conscious and unconscious operations – in other words, between actions we take with full self-awareness and those we take without consciously having to think about them. It is particularly helpful for leaders in relation to their professional development. Development and growth require us to move through the stages shown in figure 1. The key for leaders is being able to intervene, to activate ‘capability awakening’ rather than ‘incompetence panic’, with the damage associated with feelings of anger, guilt, shame and a sense of not being good enough (Pen Green Research Base, 2008).

Unconscious incapability

I am not aware of what I do not know or cannot do until I become aware of a need or deficiency; then I move to:

Conscious incapability

I am now aware of something I do not know or cannot do. I can now choose whether I want to gain new understanding or knowledge of it: develop a new skill, or not. If I do, then as I undertake new learning, I am aware of being in a state of:

Conscious capability

I need to concentrate and think in order to understand new knowledge or to perform the new skill. As I absorb new knowledge and I become skilful, I move into a state of:

Unconscious capability

New knowledge takes its place alongside other acquired knowledge and I am able to apply the new skill without deliberate attention to the techniques involved.

Saima’s self-reflections on the cycle

Unconscious incapability – Saima had missed that during the Covid-19 outbreak, each of her staff would be on their own personal journey. She could not assume that they would behave as she would normally expect them to yet she couldn’t keep in mind everyone’s individual responses. She admitted she might have downplayed the sensitivity of the situation, especially with some genuine family crises and strong union intervention with her middle leaders. When they revolted, she was completely shocked.

Conscious incapability –This situation offered a real test to her leadership. No one had time to prepare for the lockdown, either mentally or physically. She had not realised how important personal contact to the staff was, she had been so busy dealing with children, families and the premises, that she had not engaged the staff as well as she might. She found her middle leaders were being led away from the vision and ethos of the setting by a strict health and safety focus, to the detriment of everyone’s wellbeing. The demands being made on her were beyond her control e.g. the R rate in the UK.

Conscious capability - Once she identified key staff who held most influence, Saima enlisted her trusted deputy and between them they made a conscious decision to telephone each person individually. She acknowledged that teams were using social media to create informal support groups and that her leadership communication needed to be stronger. Saima found out how each person was, what was worrying them, what they needed from her and ways forward. The direct personal communication started to make a difference as each staff member felt ‘kept in mind’ and the refocusing of the core purpose of their work came back into view.

Unconscious capability - Saima recognises she is already leading and managing the staff much better and she has embedded some good practice. There are individual check-ins and regular online meetings for all staff. She has reclaimed the trust in the staff. Saima noticed that as they started to come into school as lockdown eased in the summer term, their confidence and commitment was rebuilding.

Saima knows there is still a long journey ahead with both maintaining the confidence of the team and responding well to the Covid-19 guidelines. She is keeping in touch with her staff over the summer and making sure the school is open for practitioners to prepare their rooms for a full reopening in September, should they choose to come in.


Top tips for new leaders:

  1. Explore where you are on the capability learning cycle, every new challenge could put you back to unconscious capability. Accept this is part of your learning.
  2. Remember to awaken your capability rather than dwell on feelings of being out of control.
  3. Reflect on your own behaviours during the Covid-19 pandemic – they have probably surprised you at times, and it will support you in valuing your staff’s unexpected responses too.
  4. Be transparent with staff about the challenges you all face – listen and learn from each other. Active listening is a great skill to prevent issues spiralling out of control. If people are heard, they are more likely to come on board.
  5. Use consultation as an approach to moving your actions forward. This should be at all levels. Make sure your senior staff are on board first. Problem solving together leads to ownership by all involved.
  6. Be mindful of the use of social media amongst staff. Rumours and inaccuracies can fly between informal groups of anxious staff and create much unsettlement. You may not know what is being said. Clear messaging from you as the leader is essential.
  7. Regular checks with individuals from you as the leader are important. Make time and effort to engage with every member of staff before their return – this helps them feel valued and connected to the core purpose of the nursery’s work. They are worth it.
  8. Take a break yourself – remember you have a responsibility to look after your own wellbeing, so that you can be available to lead others effectively. How do you relax and have fun? Make time for this, it is an investment in your leadership.



    Schratz, M & Walker, R (1995) “Research as Social Change”, London, Routledge
    NPQICL booklet, “Leadership concepts and analytical tools” (NCSL) originally designed by Pen Green Research Team (2004-08)

Ruth Mercer

Ruth Mercer is a coach and consultant, with a career background in early education. Ruth is committed to creating a positive learning environment for staff, children and families. She has a successful track record of 1:1 coaching for leaders and group coaching across the maintained and PVI sector. She supports leaders and managers in developing a coaching approach in their settings through bespoke consultancy and introductory training on coaching and mentoring for all staff.

Ruth is currently writing about coaching with a playful approach.



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