By Mr Shaun McCabe

“Strategic leadership is accidental, being in the right place at the right time. But if opportunity is essential, so is preparation.” [1]

When the US Army War College in the late-1980s was developing thinking in a post-Cold War era that reflected the more Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA) world, I don’t believe that they could have factored in the current global situation we find ourselves in. Whilst the resulting term, VUCA only really gained currency in the late 1990s, especially after 9/11, it soon translated into strategy for organizations and companies to respond to this new world order. In a nutshell, VUCA has become a model through which planning and policy management can be facilitated in education and attached institutions. VUCA is not a new concept within strategic thinking that has taken place at schools over the past few years, but I believe that now more than ever its relevance is unquestioned.

“Compass over Maps.” [2]

The global pandemic we are facing is a volatile force with which to be reckoned. The speed with which it bred from its genesis in a market in China to entire countries going into apocalyptic lockdown caught most governments unaware.

Changing variables of national responsivity (resources, medical care, funding) and international cooperation (closing borders, limiting travel) have affected the education systems and institutions in all countries. Education in South Africa indeed, the world, was thrown into an unimaginable crisis with lockdowns and national regulations determining movement.

Whilst, it has to be acknowledged this global catastrophe has shown the capacity of many schools (in reality, teachers!) to adapt and go online, it has also highlighted the inequality of education in South Africa from underfunding to a lack of basic needs to the wage-gap – this is not the focus of this article. So, what do we learn from this?

In a country that lacks any real educational direction schools need to do it for themselves with a clear vision.

Decisions made by school leadership teams going forward will need to counterbalance firstly, the turmoil of the economic challenges facing parents in independent education (never mind fee-paying parents at State schools).



It is going to force independent schools to reconsider what is important when it comes to funding within the wider curriculum offered at these institutions; secondly, the challenges facing teachers to take forward what really worked from an online perspective. Teachers have come to appreciate the technical issues faced by learners – forcing us to adapt our methods and pedagogy. Indeed, for the learners themselves, never before has an opportunity presented itself to take ownership of the learning process.

Schools always do plan for the future, but the question will be what will that look like? We have no maps to be able to guide us through this volatility but let our vision be a compass.

“Seek first to understand, then be understood.” [3]

What we have learnt during this pandemic is a lack of predictability which has led to uncertainty. Whilst scientists are beginning to understand the virus and its vectors, vaccines are being developed for an organism that by its very nature will mutate. Whilst schools may develop a vision for a post-COVID world what we can’t say is when we start implanting the plans and policies owing to the changing nature of the social and political landscape. All that schools can do is to respond to available data and create understanding. It behoves school leadership teams to develop strategies that look and listen beyond their functional areas to make sense of this crisis. What will be key to developing an understanding is an engagement, through clear and precise communication, with all aspects of a school: students, staff and parents. There is a certain vulnerability and authenticity that school leaderships teams require – to ask for help, to collaborate with the wider staff and to be seen working and caring.

“Simplicity rules.” [4]

It is stating the obvious that schools find themselves in a situation of immense complexity. Schools are being bombarded with many contradictory ideas both in terms of the way forward for education, the application of safety protocols and opinions of the many. School leadership teams will need clarity to tune out this multitude misinformation and disinformation to make the best decision possible with the most accurate data at hand. School leadership teams need to stay connected to the staff as they are daily interface, between the school and its policy implementation. Perhaps, more accurately they need to ‘tune in’ to the mood and wellness of the staff: “The members of your organization must all share a mindset of commitment to being focused, fast and flexible fuelled by achieving excellence in the five drivers…

anticipating change, generating confidence, initiating action, liberating thinking and evaluating results.” (O’Shea, 2020)

There are a set of agile operating principles that will help shape an organizational agility operating system include a focus on simplicity, speed, synchronicity, fluidity, modularity and scalability.” [5]



With the prevarications of ministers and interpretations on social media of how to interpret the vagaries of regulations has only led to an increase in ambiguity. The resumption of school on 1 June being a case in point, where the scheduled announcement the day before was rescinded and replaced by a communique that did not clarify whether schools could open or not.

Parental anxiety has added to the white noise which has also resulted in schools’ decisions being scrutinized and questioned. of purpose and conviction can make sense of the chaos but it is going to need leadership teams with agility, to connect across the organization and to implement the solutions. What has been confirmed, as a corollary to this, is that teachers are key. With less than two weeks’ notice, teachers were forced to redesign course materials, rethink their methods and reconsider pedagogy all the while learning to function within an e-classroom.

“There are a set of agile operating principles that will help shape an organizational agility operating system include a focus on simplicity, speed, synchronicity, fluidity, modularity and scalability.” (O’Shea, 2020)

Talking about the ‘new normal’ is a misnomer: pandemics are not new, and nothing is going to be normal for a while, if ever. Schools and teachers need to take advantage of the challenges we are facing. The National Education Ministry will now be forced to take accountability for mismanaged funding, a lack of educational resources and poor planning in the roll-out of basic infrastructure in many (rural) schools.

Independent education, acknowledging its inherent advantages, has to take advantage of what is being created. This virus has been the greatest disruptor education has seen and so we cannot go back to what we were as the opportunity exists for us to discard old ideas and ways of doing things – and we need to prepare but, remember, always put your mask on first.



  1. Kessenbaum, N (1991) Speech, United States Army War College, USAWC
  2. Ito, J (2014) ‘Want to innovate? Become a now-ist?’ []
  3. Covey, S Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
  4. Pollard, W ‘How to flourish in a VUCA World’ []
  5. O’Shea, T ‘Navigating the VUCAVIRUS with Agility’ []


Anon. [Accessed 01/06/2020]

Anon. [Accessed 01/06/2020]

Anon. [Accessed 02/06/2020]

Beach, J (1992) Enhancing Teachers’ Skills for Executive Level Seminars, USAWC

Lawrence, K Developing Leaders in VUCA Environment

Johansen, B (2007). Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers