Leadership in a Crisis Part I: Key Attributes for Leading During COVID-19
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
An argument could be made that at no other time in recent memory has an event altered the concept of American education. For centuries the U.S. educational system prided itself on providing the very best pedagogical experience in the world – in person. While face-to-face instruction has served as the bedrock of our domestic education system, the widely desired online and hybridized models proposed for decades have yet to be widely implemented on any large scale.
Moreover, those institutions offering online programs have often been the recipients of backlash from “on-campus only” schools, as the idea of an online degree and its associated instruction lacking the same rigor, experience, and quality as traditional forms of teaching has long been perpetuated. Further complicating these methods has been the notable rush to transfer in person/face-to-face instruction towards wholly online formats amidst a global pandemic.
“Institutions facing financial, economic, and staffing shortages cannot accommodate the demand of shifting entire programs/departments online, particularly during uncertain social and economic backdrops.”
This issue (institutional variability/equity aside), lies in the fact that some schools have not had sufficient time to fully idealize, construct, and implement/test their online services. More importantly, institutions facing financial, economic, and staffing shortages cannot accommodate the demand of shifting entire programs/departments online, particularly during uncertain social and economic backdrops. Questions now center on what leadership can do to mitigate these circumstances, both on a short and long-term basis.
One possible solution? Dynamic leadership. Those steering the proverbial ship of primary, secondary, and post-secondary institutions must curb their long-term goals and objectives that draw vital resources needed in the present moment. Placing them "on hold" in order to mitigate the most pressing issues within the current landscape stops the bleeding and increases short-term flexibility, allowing leadership to adaptively respond to a variety of issues. Failing to do so may not only have short term implications and consequences, but also have detrimental effects over the long-term, manifesting in other forms years later prohibiting opportunity for future growth.
So, what's involved with dynamic leadership? Wearing multiple hats (and changing them frequently). Listed in greater detail below are three attributes we see successful leaders exhibiting that embody the fundamentals of dynamic leadership, particularly during the current crisis.
Terms generally reserved for investing/portfolio management often involve “top down, "bottom up” and “due diligence.” While these principles typically apply outside of education, the same technicality is now required of all executive leadership. Pandemics have shed light on how schools must simultaneously perform both macro and micro levels of analyses in order to survive. COVID-19 has revealed which institutions have been quietly operating through proactive strategies, and which have been operating reactively. Those functioning proactively will emerge from the pandemic in much higher strata, remaining flexible, meeting the needs of their students, staff, faculty, and perhaps most importantly, their financial needs. The pandemic has illustrated how developing a strategy is no longer a macro or micro endeavor, but a macro and micro endeavor, and is accomplished only through a top-down, bottom-up approach focusing on multiple levels of due diligence.
Connecting with key bases
Even when times are well, it is often difficult for large (even small) institutions to effectively identify and communicate with their stakeholders. Students, faculty, staff, and alumni all represent critical pieces to the institutional puzzle. However, during a crisis, these stakeholders should be prioritized based on unique and specific institutional need(s). How student scholarships and grants will be affected translates to alumni giving and external stewardship, whereas moving face-to-face instruction towards digital formats prioritizes students and faculty. Properly identifying the key stakeholders during specific time periods of crises and the necessary requirements to satisfy these groups is integral to the institutional mission, particularly during chaotic circumstances. Identify your bases, cater to their needs, and focus on forging stronger relationships with these groups for the well-being and longevity of the institution.
Today, financial planning is arguably the most critical objective for many institutions of education. Proper management of monetary resources; from planning and allocating operational budgets, paying salaries, leveraging debt, or investing financial assets are all key pieces to the bottom line pie. During times of crisis, this pie quickly diminishes, or, it’s eaten altogether leaving the institution scrambling for solutions. Leadership must work smarter, not harder by eliminating waste and excess spending, identifying areas where budget reduction can be implemented or reduced altogether. These activities may be accomplished through outsourcing costly internal operations, delegation of responsibility, or consolidating multiple departments/offices. Leadership must use this time as not only a real-world training exercise, but as an opportunity to more thoroughly analyze the position of their bottom line, identifying inefficiencies and reallocating resources towards the greatest area(s) of need.