Purpose The aim of this study is to better understand how principals in Turkey perceive and navigate overwhelming stress and to identify leadership practices that enable coping with stress during the COVID-19 pandemic. Design/methodology/approach A qualitative case study was used to gain an in-depth understanding of the stress factors, coping strategies and leadership experiences that the principals faced during the pandemic through semi-structured interviews with 12 school principals. Findings The results of the research showed that the stressors perceived by the principals were reflected in their leadership practices. The leadership practices of the principals in this period were interpreted as their reactions to perceived stressors. In addition, ensuring the self-care and well-being of principals has been evaluated as a prerequisite for successful crisis leadership. Leadership practices that are effective in achieving crisis leadership in the context of the pandemic are explained. Practical implications Implications were made for the development of a comprehensive theory of crisis leadership that focuses on the well-being of school leaders and the development of leadership skills. Further empirical research on how leadership is achieved in different types of crises is recommended. Originality/value Our research contributes to the existing knowledge and school leaders about how crisis leadership is achieved by revealing the complexity and multidimensional structure of school leadership in the context of the pandemic.