How Crises Make Us Lead (and Feel)

Scott Cowen compares and contrasts the leadership required and shares key insights he gained while leading universities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and during the COVID-19 pandemic.

January 31, 2022
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As a higher education leader who was at the helm of universities during two major disasters—Tulane University in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Case Western Reserve University in the first year of the pandemic—I get asked all the time which crisis was worse. It seems neither sensible nor productive to make such a comparison. What I can do is compare and contrast the leadership each required and share key insights I gained during both crises.

A crisis is a crisis, no matter how different. Still, every crisis is different. Crises differ in who is affected, how they are affected, the human and financial losses, the time frame and resources for recovery, the state of the economy and social conditions at the time, and who or what is responsible for the crisis.

Each crisis also feels different and consequently makes us lead differently. That is especially true for crises that are decidedly different in nature. A localized crisis like a Category 5 storm calls for different leadership than a sectorwide, national or global crisis.

The day after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans in 2005, I wrote the following words from the Tulane University campus: “It is difficult to describe what this situation feels like for those involved. It is surreal and unfathomable.” In the years of recovery and renewal that followed, that sentiment always stayed with me and became a determining factor in my leadership. It was clear to me that the Tulane community was in a uniquely desperate situation. Not only were we coping with a crisis that was unimaginable to most, but we were also in crisis mode while the rest of the country was going about their business as usual. In short, we were at a major competitive disadvantage as an institution, and I felt alone as a leader.

I had no one to talk to who understood exactly what my team and I were dealing with every day, no book to read on how to solve the unique challenges we were facing. None of our peer institutions were dealing with the unexpected major financial losses and brand damage we were experiencing (Why send your child to disaster-ridden Tulane and live in a city that people associate with floodwaters, debris and dysfunction if they can go to another highly regarded institution?). All of that occurred against the backdrop of the long-term evacuation of our community—without Zoom to bridge the distance—and devastating destruction everywhere around us.

In contrast, when I found myself as interim president of Case Western 15 years later, again leading a higher education institution during a crisis, everyone in the world was in it together. The COVID-19 pandemic was threatening lives and throwing wrenches into dreams, ambitions, strategic plans and revenue forecasts everywhere. As utterly challenging and heartbreaking this crisis has been, from my vantage point as a higher education leader, being in charge of a university during the pandemic was less anxiety-inducing than after Katrina. This time, I wasn’t in it alone, and my institution was not five steps behind the competition.

Being in it together is comforting from a psychological perspective, and making decisions is significantly easier when you have others who are in the same situation as you are to look to for guidance. Throughout my interim presidency at Case Western, every meeting with the leadership team began with a benchmark analysis to see how we were measuring up against our peer institutions. By being able to compare and learn from the competition, colleges and universities have been able to control, or at least course correct, any competitive disadvantage during the pandemic.

That being said, the extreme scale and highly unpredictable pattern of the COVID-19 pandemic has made continued progress impossible—regardless of how sound the decision making is. The leadership challenges that the pandemic has posed largely result from the prolonged state of uncertainty and stress, the pandemic’s incessantly shifting and disorienting nature, and the range of attitudes among stakeholders toward both the crisis itself and its solutions.

No matter how we have been looking at it and how hard we have been trying, there has not been a clear and steady path out. When the end of the tunnel is a moving target and many decisions turn out to not bring you closer to the finish line, it can be frustrating. As a leader, you have to accept this reality and simply keep going.

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After Hurricane Katrina, however, despite the very dark first weeks after the storm, we found a definite way out of the crisis. Our first big decision was to close the university for six months, knowing that Tulane or New Orleans could not possibly recover anytime sooner. This closure was unprecedented for a major research university, and while that decision initially raised doubts and fears, it gave us a defined timeline for the overwhelming task before us.

Within a week, we felt sure we could rebuild and reopen the university by mid-January 2006. And our goal was to come back better than before once the immediate threat was over and we had ensured the physical safety of members of our community—which should be the first priority during every crisis that endangers human lives—and had helped everyone get situated by continuing payroll for faculty and staff. (That cost Tulane $35 million per month when the university did not have much money coming in.) We also made sure our students were temporarily enrolled at other colleges and universities across the nation.

We were able to clearly assess within a few months the damage and financial challenges that the university faced, and we signed off on a sweeping renewal plan that ultimately better positioned the institution for the future. We went from survival to recovery and fixed our eyes on the final stage: transformation. We took this course in the realization that we could not and should not go back to the way we were before the storm.

I was acutely aware of what was at stake after Katrina, and my team and I made it our mission to signal to the world that we were a university worth coming to not despite of but because of Hurricane Katrina. The crisis we had been through ultimately made us a more distinctive institution with a genuine commitment to community engagement. It took us about a decade to fully recover from Katrina as measured by enrollment, financial stability, rankings and reputation. (The fact the U.S. entered one of the worst recessions in our country’s history a few years after the storm certainly did not help). Nonetheless, we kept moving forward at a steady pace and reaching crucial milestones along the way. Onward and upward. Either that or close the university or become a shell of what we were before the storm.

The competitive disadvantage we had because of Katrina’s localized impact gave me a laser focus. To set the university on the right course so we could navigate ourselves out of the crisis and catch up to our peer institutions as expediently and effectively as possible, I mostly relied on what I would describe as calm resolve, strategic empowerment and benevolent command and control. I knew how anxious everyone was and that my behavior and actions would set a tone for my colleagues and the future of the university.

Leadership in Any Crisis

Being clearheaded, purposeful and determined is, in fact, a prerequisite for successful leadership in any crisis. When I began my interim presidency at Case Western Reserve University, calm resolve proved just as useful as it had in the crisis years at Tulane after Katrina. Part of it is the sharpened ability to see clearly what needs to be accomplished, what realistically can be done and how goals should be prioritized.

I’ve also identified other areas that college and university leaders must consider during whatever crisis they confront. Those areas include:

Decision making. Because of the dizzying number of decisions with far-reaching implications that needed to be made swiftly, I found it fundamentally important after Katrina to trust and empower members of the leadership team and others who were essential to strategy execution to make decisions. At the same time, the big decisions—the ones that determine an organization’s future and frequently engender strong reactions from stakeholder groups—always rest with the leader. I rapidly made many major decisions and learned to grow a thick skin, because they were not always appreciated and sometimes perceived as top-down.

During the pandemic, however, I experienced leadership as more decentralized. Information and feedback were flowing in all kinds of directions, and the various stakeholders were more intimately involved in the decision-making processes. That may partly be because 15 years lie between the two crises and we live in a much more communicative and connected world. Also, leadership in general has become more collaborative and less hierarchical.

Yet the contrast in my decision-making approach also goes back to how the crises made me feel. If you’re feeling isolated, left behind—that time is not in your favor and you are fighting for bare survival—it can not only be tempting but also necessary to approach leadership with a command-and-control mind-set; it promises efficiency and rapid progress. In our situation at Tulane, it matched our desire to display strength to the outside world after we had been nearly destroyed.

Leadership style. As Katrina was forming in the Gulf of Mexico and taking aim at New Orleans, I wore a polo shirt and shorts when I announced to the new freshmen that instead of settling in on campus, they would be packing up and going back home for what we then thought would be a four-day evacuation. That “Don’t worry; everything is going to be OK” outfit quickly became my “We’re in survival mode; let’s roll up our sleeves and work past the point of exhaustion” uniform once the storm hit.

For my first meeting as interim president at Case Western, I also showed up in a polo shirt and encouraged my colleagues to dress down as well—but for different reasons. We have all been in this state of crisis for a long time; everyone was tense and exhausted. So I told them, “Let’s relax a little.”

It became very clear to me during the pandemic that the more relaxed I was and the more people around me felt they could relax, the easier it was for everyone to gather strength for the work ahead, connect with each other and have open, productive conversations about what we needed to do. I have found tremendous value in a leadership style that helps people loosen up. Being in emergency mode for as long as we have been due to COVID-19 is not sustainable. Resilience requires recovery.

Creating moments of relaxation and dressing casually are obviously only small steps in easing stress and tension. Such strategies can only have a long-term impact in combination with robust mental health programming and benefits, as well as permanent flexible work policies that make it easier for people to do their jobs when and where they can do them best. But it is worth emphasizing, as self-evident as it may sound, that a leader’s distinct presence can either support or contradict efforts to meet people’s needs during a crisis.

Both after Hurricane Katrina and during the pandemic, it was imperative to demonstrate purpose, resilience and optimism. But, interestingly, whereas one crisis weakened my institution in a way that I felt my leadership had to demonstrate perpetual strength, the other crisis made me feel safer in showing vulnerability.

Communications. Being in it together during the pandemic translated for me into a leadership style that was more emotionally transparent. While transparency and emotional intelligence have, of course, been popular topics of leadership literature for decades, being emotionally transparent is still not considered best practice in management and leadership circles yet. But both are indispensable to the practice of crisis leadership. The pandemic has left me little doubt that providing a space for openly acknowledging and reflecting on our emotions is part of effective leadership during times of great anxiety and uncertainty.

As interim president, six months into the pandemic, I immediately settled into a routine of sending personal messages to the entire university community every couple of weeks. They were messages of hope and resilience, intended to uplift people and bring them together, but in many of them, I shared personal experiences and reflections. Sometimes, I talked about excruciating times in my life: grappling with grief after losing my wife and learning to move on, or having an emotional breakdown at a Houston hotel gym after Hurricane Katrina when I first saw footage of the flooded neighborhoods and people seeking shelter in the New Orleans Superdome. (In line with my leadership style after Katrina, I never publicly talked about this experience until I stepped down as president of Tulane nine years later.) Other times, I shared happy childhood memories or my values and goals in life—No. 1 on that list being to love and be loved. I was amazed by the response to those communications. The outpouring of appreciation made clear how hugely important it was to connect on a deeply human level.

At Tulane after Katrina, we focused primarily on disseminating information and status reports and sharing our vision for what Tulane could become. We tried to lower anxiety by keeping people in the loop, providing a realistic picture of present challenges and, most of all, focusing on the future. All of this is crucial, but the pandemic taught me that being transparent about our emotions as we grapple with the present reality and plan for a brighter future is another effective form of crisis leadership.

Emotional transparency allowed me, my colleagues and those I served to find comfort in our shared humanity and build common ground during an uncomfortable and divisive time. Letting oneself be fully seen beyond one’s actions and thought process as a leader facilitates social connection and encourages self-reflection—both of which are highly productive responses to the pandemic as they fuel perseverance and transformation.

Crises are bound to happen—whether self-inflicted or inevitable, internal or external, impacting a few people or everyone. How we lead through them depends in large part on the nature of the crisis. And when one strikes, a leader should first understand how that particular crisis makes them feel.

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Scott Cowen was Tulane University’s president from 1998 to 2014 and served as interim president of Case Western Reserve University during the 2020–21 academic year. Currently, he holds the title of president emeritus and Distinguished University Chair of Tulane University.

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