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As we’ve moved through an academic year unlike any we’ve experienced before, we’ve heard calls for strong leadership and an ability to navigate through the “VUCA” (volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous) world we now inhabit. Certainly, the two of us, having started our roles as provosts in the midst of the global pandemic and the summer of 2020’s racial reckoning, have felt our share of stress as new leaders. But over the months, we’ve also learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when trying to lead during a crisis.
If COVID-19 and the ongoing challenges of structural racism tell us anything, it is that these conditions are long mega-crises rather than brief emergencies, and they will require campus leaders to have more than just a problem-solving mentality. We are currently confronting wicked problems nested in systems and complexities beyond our immediate control.
Perhaps more important, these crises have emotional dimensions far beyond the typical issues that leaders deal with on a daily basis. The pandemic has created unprecedented levels of fear and anxiety around previously simple acts like teaching a class or running a lab. Add in ambiguity and mixed messages around prevention, and then faculty, staff and students across an institution can have significantly different opinions about what is safe. The racial justice crisis is another form of a pandemic, equally emotional and traumatizing in its scale and scope. Here again, members of our community may come at the issues of white privilege, systemic racism and equity-based decision making from very different places based upon their lived experiences.
These mega-crises demand we lead differently. A pattern we have most noticed is the paradoxical nature of leadership in this moment: while some of the old rules may still apply, they come with new meaning and inherent contradictions. For example, leadership, especially in higher education administration, is often thought of as mostly a cognitive exercise; we often don’t talk about topics like vulnerability, care and compassion in our work. But emotions have always played a major part in effective leadership -- and they especially do so now. We call this new form of paradoxical provosting relational leadership, and here’s what we have learned that it requires us as leaders to do.
Put people first, things second. A psychiatrist who provides mental health counseling after traumas associated with some kind of emergency -- a fatal car crash, a house fire and the like -- told us that when first responders arrive on the scene, they often overlook the bystanders. Bystanders are those who have witnessed or experienced the incident but do not appear to need immediate care. As it turns out, however, many of them carry significant trauma and a feeling of being “all alone” as events swirl around them both during and after the emergency.
As leaders, we both learned that, as much as the various crises must be dealt with, we could not overlook the feelings of the people experiencing them. Spending time listening to faculty and staff -- simply being present as they shared their pain, fears and concerns -- was as important as any COVID-19 protocols or budget reports we needed to complete, if not more so. We created virtual coffee hours and Zoom “libation” times to try and meet regularly with faculty members. When possible, we walked around the first day of classes masked up, checking on how faculty and students were doing. In the words of Stanford University education philosopher Nel Noddings, we realized we needed to change our orientation from the abstract “caring about” to the more personal and relational “caring for.”
Recognize that being vulnerable is being strong. One of the central things we learned is that, in times of great strain, a crucial leadership attribute is vulnerability. In Dare to Lead, Brené Brown talks at length about its importance and effectiveness. Time and again, we both experienced moments where the choice in front of us was either to respond defensively with our guard up or to lean in to the emotional moment by being vulnerable. As scary as it was to choose the latter, it was the right decision every time.
Leaning into vulnerability can feel risky if your identity (race, gender, sexuality and so forth) shaping your leadership has been marginalized; you may not have been perceived as a serious, respectable and qualified leader. Vulnerability looks different on different leaders. Still, it is crucial to ask, “Does this historic norm, practice or way of being in the chief academic officer role still apply?” The role does not determine how to lead -- we do.
So what does vulnerability look like for chief academic officers? Sometimes it means creating personal, short, empathetic videos reminding faculty, “I see you, and I am with you.” Other times, it means spending extra time emotionally supporting a faculty member who is upset. Occasionally, it means sharing a poem or meme that highlights compassion for people’s internal lives. It almost always means beginning faculty meetings by telling a personal story about the year’s challenges, or encouraging others to do so, rather than racing through Robert’s Rules of Order to get to business.
Understand that little things matter more. Over the past year or so, we both noticed how little things tended to set people off. Everyone, us included, seemed to have had a reduced capacity to respond with perspective and patience. As a result, we learned quickly that the little things matter. We found that, as leaders, ensuring a faculty member had the PPE they requested, following up promptly to someone’s growing concern or simply sending out more acknowledgments and appreciations to the community could go a long way toward helping people make it through stressful times. The academic leader sets that tone every day. Sometimes helping make the lives of people in the community simply 1 percent better is exactly what we as leaders should focus on. In other words, do sweat the small stuff.
Practice self-leadership. The National Outdoor Leadership School prepares leaders to navigate through extreme situations such as mountaineering and travel in remote wilderness environments. It has also trained astronauts for NASA and sailors for the U.S. Naval Academy. A foundational principle of the school is self-leadership. Much more than just self-care -- although that is crucial -- self-leadership means the capacity to understand and regulate your emotions, needs and concerns within your larger leadership context.
Cultivating high degrees of emotional intelligence, reflective thinking and self-discipline are vital for successful leadership through crises -- especially extended ones. “Hitting the wall” and burnout are real threats over the long haul. We have both learned what works for us (hint: daily walks on top of exercise whenever possible) and what doesn’t to maintain as healthy an emotional and physical state as we can. Every leader in a crisis must, again paradoxically, focus on themselves in order to take effective care of others.
Rather than separate and prioritize, connect and equalize. Our two institutions, like all those in higher ed, had specific challenges related to the pandemic, racial injustice and financial stress. We recognized that we needed to remind our constituencies that we are, in fact, a community and must expand our thinking beyond the individual and work together to meet those challenges.
We are often told, as leaders, to “triage” in crisis environments. This is usually good advice. But remember that medical triage actually means deciding who gets care first and who might not receive it at all. Rather than isolating, prioritizing and deciding, the paradoxical form of relational leadership we learned was one that highlighted connecting, equalizing and sharing -- and treating each person as part of the whole.
Parker J. Palmer in The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life notes, “Good teachers possess a capacity for connectedness. They are able to weave a complex web of connections among themselves, their subjects, and their students so that students can learn to weave a world for themselves.” Teaching as the metaphor for connectedness is one that faculty understand.
Take humor seriously. The stereotypical image of a leader is someone who is serious and carries the literal weight of the office around. But another paradoxical lesson we learned this past year is that, during a crisis, sometimes a lighthearted approach is essential. If you need an example, Ted Lasso is the leadership comedy fable of our year. No spoilers here -- just know that the American football coach who goes on to lead a British soccer team, Ted Lasso, is aspirational with his laser focus on building a team and developing people; winning is a byproduct. By taking a dysfunctional and down-on-their-luck team and showing them how to “believe,” Ted Lasso reminded us to do the same. Paradoxically, showing that you can laugh both at yourself and with others permits people to do the same. Finding the humor provided just the perspective needed to make it through.
Humor’s twin is joy and delight. To create cultures of appreciation, we began team meetings with lightning rounds of who or what had a success (large or small) and followed up with an appreciative email. We sent doughnuts and pizzas to campus units that were working unusually hard. At the end of the day, if you can’t find or create joy in your work, even in a pandemic, then something is amiss.
Be still. The traditional notion of leadership, marked by normative gendered and raced ideas of who gets to be a leader, is someone in charge and doing things -- deciding, strategizing, delegating, implementing and analyzing. Again, these are all good and necessary elements of successful leadership. Yet we learned that it pays to sometimes do nothing in a crisis, to be still so you can assess the situation more accurately with less bias or baggage. It’s important to resist the temptation to “fix” things and instead choose to be present -- to hold the space open.
First responders are trained to stop and look around before jumping into an accident scene. We both learned (the hard way several times) that being still and stopping for a moment, even as every iota of your provost being desires action, is a crucial aspect of relational leadership.
In most situations, we were reminded of the helpful behavioral change analogy of the “Elephant and the Rider.” Psychologist Jonathan Haidt demonstrates how two sides of a person always battle for control: 1) an emotional side (the elephant) and 2) an analytical, rational side (its rider). The rider (reason) is small on top of the big elephant (emotion). Leaders have to always address emotion and reason in tandem while never forgetting either. Stillness provides the time and space to do that.
Head toward trouble. Relational leadership means being authentic and true, no matter how difficult the context. When the hard thing needs to be said, say it. When the tough decision needs to be made, make it. Healthy, functional communities rely on the leader to make tough calls and hard choices as much as to demonstrate compassion. Without the support of other senior leaders, especially the president, chief academic officers might understandably resist or delay hard decisions. Such decisions are uncomfortable. But when multiple crises intertwine, avoiding conflict is no longer an option.
Heading toward trouble also requires discernment and checking your motivations. As Felicia Murrel asks us, “Do I wield my power to force control, to shape the narrative and determine what will be and how it will be? Or do I allow myself to be honest about humanity’s failings and the abuse of power, seeing the ways in which I too could become like that which I oppose?”
Play the infinite game. It’s clear we can’t go back to normal after this pandemic; both of us are at liberal arts colleges where the future will undoubtedly look quite different. As leaders, we are asking our communities to be more innovative, entrepreneurial, visionary and creative than ever before. People often think highly challenging and disruptive contexts require leadership traits and attributes such as “strength,” “determination,” “action orientation” and “command and control.” In certain situations, that is definitely true.
Yet this long mega-crisis is more like what James P. Carse refers to as an “infinite game.” To Carse, an infinite game is one with no clear end or indication of “winning.” While we may eventually move through this global pandemic, other crises will be right around the corner. We will never “fix” or be done with issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion. We will never be done with transforming the liberal arts. Leadership in this contemporary context is not about “getting back to normal” or even “getting through it.” It simply is.
In her essay “The Pandemic Is a Portal,” Arundhati Roy notes, “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew … It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world.”
We shared this quotation with the faculty on our respective campuses. We can’t -- and shouldn’t -- go back to more stoic, removed, cerebral academic affairs leadership. Relationship leadership is what higher education needs now. Through it, we can pass through this portal creating post-pandemic institutions that are more holistic, sustainable, equitable and joyful. We can, indeed, imagine another, better world.