5 Leadership Lessons Hidden in the Coronavirus Crisis

Neon sign spelling the word Change

Especially for those who are deliberate planners by nature, the rapid velocity and pressure of the current crisis can be turbulent. In this article, the president of the Hollins University offers higher-ed leaders the perspective of five leadership lessons or gifts that we can (re)learn in the midst of this chaotic moment.


by Mary Hinton, President, Hollins University (recently President of the College of Saint Benedict)

Existing in a Space of Chaos

I am, by nature, a planner. As a college president, and in many other jobs I’ve held, strategic planning has been central to my work. Visioning, thoughtful deliberation and the opportunity to engage in proactive scenario planning and pitfall analysis are my favorite types of work.

Suffice it to say, this year has challenged my nature in every way.

Like many leaders, I find myself not only needing to rapidly think through what is best for my own campus community but also needing to react quickly to declarations and decisions coming from the federal and state governments, the state department of health, and other college leaders. For nearly everyone, and especially for those of us who thrive on deliberate planning, this season has been punishing. This crisis has made us keenly aware that every moment is fragile and subject to rapid change.

As we continue to exist in this space of chaos, I find myself wanting to identify the gifts of this leadership experience. Surely, there must be at least one.

At this moment, I can see several reminders emerging, each with the potential to be a gift in the midst of chaos.

1. The Gift of a Renewed Focus on Community

The most immediate reminder, and what I think will be the longest lasting gift of this time, is recognizing the absolute necessity of reaching out to and supporting one another in our communities. Yes, we all had difficult group moments and have had to be very flexible in our thoughts and actions. Yet, I am fortunate that, through it all, the people I know and with whom I work have chosen to reach out to and support one another. We’ve chosen to lift one another as opposed to turning against each other. I’ve also witnessed students choosing to support each other: at both the College of Saint Benedict and Hollins University, student senates have allocated precious dollars to help fellow students travel home. Alumnae, friends, faculty and staff have generously joined them in the effort.

During this time of chaos, our community has also expanded. Every minute, every hour, every day over the past two weeks, campuses had to make decisions on behalf of, and with, an expanded community. This is trying and difficult as it widens the impact of a potential wrong step. But I saw new faces and heard new voices. Our community grew. And, that expanded community has chosen to say yes to support, yes to hope and yes to action at a time when much of the world is choosing to turn inward and strike out. There is no doubt about the gift of community at this moment.

2. The Gift of Clarity on What Matters

This situation also yields the gift of clarity about what matters. While little feels especially clear right now, I believe all colleges and universities have demonstrated that what matters most to us is the education, safety and well-being of the people – students, faculty and staff – entrusted to us. For many institutions, the financial peril of choosing to suspend normal operations and have students return home is real and will have a long-lasting impact. However, I don’t know of any campus leaders who hesitated to make those calls solely for financial reasons. Whatever path forward we chose, we acted because we believed it was in the best interest of our students. At a time when the value of higher education is under intense scrutiny, this moment has powerfully illuminated that we not only educate but also care for our students and the communities in which we dwell.

3. The Gift of Strategic Surrender

Yet another gift is that of strategic surrender. I believe most college leaders would say that at some point in the early months we may have thought that COVID-19 would not impact us. While that now seems naive, it has been amazing to experience and engage the gift of strategic surrender. To be clear, no one gave up. However, we did listen to local and global experts and then decide how we could relinquish what we know and cling to as “normal” to strategically surrender to what needed to be done. We did not surrender our power or authority, but we did surrender our autonomy in order to act on behalf of the common good.

4. The Gift of Listening

We have also all benefited from the true gift of listening. We have had to, with intentionality, effort and openness, hear other's voices during this time. We have, on multiple occasions, asked for, needed, and relied upon external input. I don’t believe that we can cease the exercise until all voices are heard and raised hands are lowered. We have a duty to, with compassion, hear the hope, flaws and vulnerability in all proposed options and solutions. There is a gift in learning to listen genuinely, with bravery and purpose.

5. The Gift of Imperfection

Finally, and to appropriate the title of Brene Brown’s book, we experienced the gift of imperfection. None of us, no matter how we chose to proceed, did this perfectly. But we all did it the best way we could. A quote from Inside Higher Ed’s "Dean Dad" that I have often looked to is: “One good often conflicts with another, and choices are inevitably made among flawed options, in imperfect conditions, with limited information.” That has been our life for the past few weeks, and it will be, going forward. Conflicting. Flawed. Imperfect. However, as long as we keep our students and community at the center, we can persevere and, even with our imperfections, move forward.

It is a difficult time, friends, and the journey is not yet over. For those who have contracted COVID-19 or who have family or friends who are ill, the gifts may be harder to find. I hope you have a speedy recovery and receive a great deal of support and kindness. But the rest of us can seek the leadership gifts of this moment. Once we are on the other side of this crisis, we must do thorough debriefings and identify and internalize the meaningful teachings this experience holds for us. But even now, in the midst of incredible uncertainty and chaos, let us also look for, experience, and share the gifts.

I wish you courage, strength, and grace as we go forward.

Mary Dana Hinton is the President of Hollins University and was the President of the College of Saint Benedict during the first five months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Image credit: Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash.


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