Six Months In: Leadership Lessons Gleaned from the COVID Crisis

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Six months ago, I wrote a piece about what I had learned as a university president in the early days of the pandemic. We were less than 30 days into the national shutdown. It was hard to imagine that the pandemic, and our lives on campus, would evolve as they have. The subsequent surfacing of long-unaddressed issues of injustice and the necessary outcry for the dismantling of racist systems further compounded the challenges – and accelerated learning – during this time. Today I found myself wondering what I have learned since April.

As I reflect on those five early lessons, all of them continue to feel relevant. Community, and intentional building of community, be it virtual or face-to-face, is still critical. Clarity about what matters (the mission!) remains relevant. Listening to and seeking others’ counsel continues to be an essential strategy as we sojourn on, and as public health needs shift along with the virus. And, daily, the gift of imperfection is a reminder of our humanity. Those five lessons remain, but the ensuing six months have taught me a great deal more and, I hope, made me a better person and leader.

The lesson of connection

Perhaps more than any other lesson over the past six months, I have learned the value, power, and necessity of connection. Without equivocation, one cannot exit 2020 without recognizing that our globe, our communities, and our lives are connected. The power of connection is on full display as we sit through Zoom call after Zoom call and long to reach through our computers and hug a tearful student or co-worker. As we watch ourselves and our partners in K-12 struggle to educate students who lack the resources to engage in online learning, we realize that our futures are inextricably linked. As we mourn lives and potential lost to racial injustice and march for a better future for everyone, we are witnessing the power of our human connection – and the consequences of sacrificing that connection – on display.

As a leader, the need to honor and facilitate connection has become a cornerstone of my focus over the past six months. At every turn, I remind our community that our fates are tied. Collective responsibility and mutual accountability – concepts rooted in healthy connection – are often repeated phrases on our campus. Today more than ever, we must see one another’s humanity and have our spirits tethered to one another as we confront those things that seek to ravage us. It’s our collective effort that will enable us to persist, and any fractures to that connection weaken us personally, professionally, emotionally, and spiritually. At a time when we must be physically apart, the power of durable connection has never been more apparent.

The lessons of affirmation and compassion

Without a doubt, once a leader recognizes how connected they are to their community, how the success of their institution is intimately tied to the success of the region, and how injustice anywhere facilitates injustice everywhere, our leadership lens and priorities must also shift. Suddenly, we realize that our work requires a new store of compassion and affirmation that we must generously share with those around us.

For example, a faculty colleague recently shared that she finds herself offering more compassion and affirmation in her assessment of students, the preparation of her syllabi, and her pedagogical practice. It’s not about a deterioration of her standards of excellence, but her recognition that we all need to ensure our students feel seen, heard, and appreciated in this challenging moment.

As a campus leader, that is something that I, too, find I need to address daily. To be clear, this is not the inauthentic handing out of accolades or quoting meaningless adages. Instead, at this moment, people are crying out for affirmation: You are enough. I see you. I honor you. We, at least I, have days when I need to know that it’s okay not to be okay. We are hungry for a sense of wholeness when so much feels broken. We need affirmation that we can persevere even when we feel defeated.

Intentionally choosing compassion and affirmation is especially crucial at a time when many of our campus members are experiencing unprecedented levels of fatigue and stress. To make matters worse, few of us have the resources to acknowledge that hard work with raises or other traditional incentives. The scourge of national economic uncertainty is playing out across our campuses, and we witness the toll. While compassion cannot be a substitute for economic stability in the long-term, at this moment, it does recognize the challenge of the moment. It offers a sense of gratitude and stability.

When we share compassion and affirmation, we change the tenor and tone of our communities. We feel empowered. We feel hopeful. We become energized. Courage with compassion allows us to be innovative and creative in our responses to the pandemic. Courage without compassion is a dangerous trait that erodes the very notion of the common good and rapidly undermines our institutional success.

The lesson of communication

I have long been the type of leader who wanted to have all the answers at the ready before I communicated. I tried to anticipate questions, conduct a pitfall analysis, and otherwise be fully prepared when a message went out.

I’ve had to adapt.

While I remain attentive to the words chosen and their possible impact, I have also learned that, right now, people just want to hear from you. They want to know that they are not alone in this struggle. As a leader, we have to be comfortable acknowledging when we don’t know what’s best. There is freedom in saying, “I don’t have a solution, so come and think with me.” People need the reassurance that, while the options may all be less than ideal, I am willing to let you into my thinking. Our teams, especially faculty and staff, need to know that they are heard and supported in their deliberations. Clear, frequent communications create a space where that healthy engagement can unfold.

An open, strong, and embracing communication strategy matters even more when difficult decisions are being made and shared. At those times, one may be tempted to use communication to protect and deflect. However, it’s vital (albeit counterintuitive) that at our most challenging moments, communication be used not only as a tool of conveyance but as an invitation to lead and support. In the face of significant changes to academic calendars, suspension of beloved campus traditions, or even such drastic conversations as institutional downsizing, communication must be open and personal. Take the time to meet with concerned constituents and, in those most difficult conversations, acknowledge the sense of loss, instability, and vulnerability in this shared experience.

Ideally, our leadership communications support a strong sense of connection. Additionally, I have learned that our communities need a voice they can trust. In a world where so much changes, where necessary public health guidance evolves right before our eyes, and where we have more questions than answers, our communities want to know that their leaders will maintain focus on those things that matter most and that we are unafraid to talk about them. Our communities need to know that we are willing to put ourselves out there and share what we know, as imperfect as it may be, to emerge in a better place. We need to be worthy of our community’s trust.

The lesson of imagination

Early in the pandemic, I would have found it difficult to imagine life on campus as it is now. When I wrote the first piece, many campuses’ goal was to figure out how to navigate the next few weeks: Would there or wouldn’t there be commencement? When could students return to campus to retrieve belongings? Our answers to those questions needed to be thoughtful and straightforward, but they were tactical questions. Today, it is clear that the significant questions facing college and university leaders are not tactical, but strategic and generative questions. Some institutions are asking existential questions about how to survive. Others, like ours, are seeking ways to emerge from the pandemic stronger than when we entered it. I hope we are all asking what we must do, as leaders, to confront systemic injustice.

In a world filled with unknowns, the one thing we do know is that most of us will not, cannot, return to who and what we were six months ago. Indeed, our future will be filled with complex, adaptive challenges to which there are no easy answers.

Therefore, as a leader, what I need now, more than anything, is to cultivate and nurture my and my community’s imagination. Daily we should ask: What are the conditions under which our imaginations are unleashed? What type of community do I need to support, and what space must I hold, to allow our collective creativity to flourish? By creating and maintaining that space, we can ask critical questions such as: What great future awaits us? How can we get there? What are we willing to reimagine?

The power and necessity of imagination are only enhanced in more difficult circumstances. Suppose you are addressing questions of institutional survival. In that case, it is essential that the leader, and the entire community, has the space and permission to free their imagination to plan for a sustainable future. Thriving tomorrow will not result from us becoming an expert at doing what we have always done in slightly modified ways. We will thrive tomorrow because we enabled our collective imagination to take us in a new direction.

The lesson of leadership

If I have learned nothing else during this time, I have learned the value of leadership. While leadership may be positional, it can also be attitudinal. We all know those on our campus who may not have a leadership title but to whom others gravitate for support and encouragement. At this moment, all of us must try to be that person. The person who sees and cultivates another’s potential, who is willing to not only encourage another to learn or grow but who is ready to learn and develop themselves. The person who provides hope and encouragement when things are challenging. The person who brings light and joy into darkness.

These abilities are especially important as we support our communities in confronting injustice. The work of inclusion is long, difficult, and uncomfortable. As a leader, it is our job to not only help envision but to do this work. Leadership towards justice does not mean delegating the hard work of the heart to others. It means confronting our own biases and, often publicly, demonstrating what it means to sit with discomfort and learn from it.

As we continue to navigate the complexities of this moment, I think we sense a rare opportunity to articulate the kind of leadership we want and need. We want leaders confident enough to recognize their limitations and who seek and trust the wisdom of those around us. I think we have learned that we want leaders who are open and transparent in their messages. We want leaders who know that our imaginations can either free us or severely constrain us. I think we know that we not only want these leaders but that we must become those leaders.

Our desire to be great leaders is not ambition in service of our own agendas or egos. Instead, this moment demands strong leadership. Each day, difficult decisions are made that impact not only the livelihoods but also the lives of those we lead. A leader not only makes those decisions, but they create the environment in which they are made. They determine if the integrity of those impacted is respected or compromised. Skills like connection, compassion, affirmation, communication, and imagination are not “soft” skills leaders deploy to make work easier. They are the habits of mind and key skills that will separate successful leaders – and institutions – from those that will struggle.

As was the case six months ago, we cannot deny the difficulty of this moment, and the demands only seem to increase. What it means to be a leader, and to lead, has changed along with everything else. Yet one thing does remain precisely the same from six months ago: I wish you courage, strength, and grace as we go forward.

More from Mary Hinton:

This is an unprecedented time of crisis, uncertainty, and yes – the opportunity to reinvent ourselves in better service to our mission. We will need to harness the intelligence and creativity of individuals throughout our institutions. To help develop the leadership we need and to come together (virtually) to brainstorm solutions to complex and pressing challenges, we would like to partner with you. Academic Impressions has nearly 20 years of experience in providing the best practical PD in the higher-ed sector, and we work with hundreds of member institutions to develop their leaders, faculty, and staff. Find out more about an Academic Impressions membership.