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The COVID-19 pandemic made this a tough year for students, faculty and administrators. Higher education administrators were left virtualizing nearly all operations, while staff and faculty were learning to adapt to teleworking. As with most crises, the situation was fluid and ambiguous, and it remains so to some extent. In the absence of certainty, people speculate and catastrophize. This is why leaders must provide stability and inspiration during crises, by connecting with their organization through words. If done correctly, leader messaging can inform, reassure and inspire staff to remain anchored in uncertain environments.

We reviewed correspondence sent by higher education leaders (presidents, provosts and deans) to their staff and faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic. We identified several research-backed themes of authentic leadership through words.

Authenticity starts with being realistic, humble and admitting vulnerability. Modeling discomfort can inspire psychological safety, in which employees feel safer to speak up in adverse times. For example, consider these leader messages that are honest about the challenges of COVID-19:

  • “We all wish COVID didn’t exist, but it does and this semester will be different. But, there’s always opportunity in uncertainty and adversity.”
  • “We do not yet know the full impact this fiscal year will bring. Yet we anticipate that under every scenario, we will be in a very challenging financial environment.”
  • “I’d like to tell you that it is going to get easier over the next few months. Unfortunately … the pandemic is not going away. Our university is facing significant financial challenges … To be frank, it’s going to be a difficult year.”

Following are additional ways leaders can demonstrate authenticity in their messages.

Reach Out With Empathy

In uncertain times, people want to feel understood and that they are not alone. Note how these leaders express empathy to their faculty and staff:

  • “It is a profoundly painful, scary, and disorienting time … the gravity of this virus and the toll it is taking are physical, social and psychological in addition to the extraordinary financial harm it is causing to so many.”
  • “This has undoubtedly been a challenging summer both physically and emotionally -- for many of us, the challenge of a career.”
  • “I understand this news adds tremendous stress to an already immeasurably difficult time; we are all learning a lot about what it takes to model the flexibility and resilience we are trying to instill in our students.”

When a leader’s communication style is more empathetic, employee readiness to commit to new tasks and goals is increased. A simple way to increase an empathetic style in your words is to use the pronoun “we” more than “I.”

Show Gratitude

Leaders are often future-oriented and thus find it counterintuitive to look to the past. However, taking time to show staff and faculty that you notice past accomplishments can reap benefits in the future. Consider these examples:

  • “I need to acknowledge how different this year has been. Not only did all of you make a monumental effort to pivot to online learning last spring, but since then, you have worked harder, been under more stress and resolved more difficult challenges than any summer in our university’s history.”
  • “I thank everyone who worked so diligently this summer to create new ways of researching our incoming students through virtual videos and meetups.”
  • “I remain inspired by your resilience, passion and creativity in these trying circumstances.”

Gratitude improves organizational climate and can be infectious. If people feel like they bring value to the team, they are more motivated to take productive risks, which is often needed in a crisis.

Express Confidence in Your Team

Leaders can subtly signal expectations and calls to action through expressions of confidence, as demonstrated by these examples:

  • “I know that should such an unfortunate necessity arise again, our faculty and staff will be prepared to make the adjustment, to return to online-only teaching and to support our students in every way possible.”
  • “I know there are so many who are looking out for each other, supporting each other and helping each other confront the many challenges of this crisis together.”
  • “Preventing the spread of COVID-19 is a shared responsibility, and I am confident that each of us are willing and ready to do our part to protect the community.”

This kind of messaging infers employee competence by expressing high expectations and confidence that these expectations are being met. This inspires motivation and signals trust. A leader is expressing, “I know you are doing the right thing.”

Signal Greater Mission

In a crisis, it’s easy to turn inward to survive. Reminding staff and faculty of the big picture is vital for revitalizing focused energy. Note how these leaders foster interconnectedness among their staff and faculty through the institutional mission:

  • “We’ll have to be highly disciplined … we’re not going to reverse the trajectory of scholarly excellence that we’ve collectively built.”
  • “Each of us has an opportunity to be a force for good, and we should never discount the role we play in creating hope and opportunity in every state of this nation, and in countries all over the world.”
  • “Let’s all set the example for our [students] and lead them to be their best. No one should just try for the minimum. Thanks for all you do.”

Many college leaders are likely working harder than ever to ensure their staff and faculty are getting a paycheck by keeping their institutions running. The many hours of virtual meetings and coordination to restore normality where possible are a testament to how much college administrators care. However, from the point of view of faculty and staff, that caring is only felt if the message is heard, and in this challenging time, repeatedly heard. In the end, taking time to communicate authentically can make a difference to your faculty and staff during a crisis.

Yasmine L. Konheim-Kalkstein is an associate professor for the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership and serves as the lead character integrator for the United States Military Academy.

Kimberly G. Brutsche is a major in the U.S. Army and assistant professor of officership for the Simon Center of the Professional Military Ethic at the United States Military Academy.

Tiarra J. McDaniel is a captain in the U.S. Army and instructor of officership for the Simon Center of the Professional Military Ethic at the United States Military Academy.