• Dominic R. Burkett

Leadership in a Crisis Part II: Dynamic Leadership for Institutional Survival

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

The survivability of an institution in a COVID world requires more than just a tactical response to the Fall 2020 challenges. The impact of COVID on students and staff, financial and sociological, will extend into 2021 and beyond in unprecedented ways. With more institutions on the brink of collapse, due to factors ranging from student enrollment to endowment management, it is important to identify how success is both temporarily and permanently redefined in this tumultuous time. It is also important to differentiate how that success is measured between the institutions themselves and those who lead them.

A specific line of inquiry must be engaged for institutions under duress. First, priorities must be identified by differentiating between pre-COVID strategies and aspirations, returning focus to core objectives. They must determine which short and long-term objectives are most applicable for or most threatened by the dangerous present. Realigning the hierarchy of strategies is paramount, and informs decisions of fiscal and organizational management that follow. For example, decisions surrounding the maximization of an endowment’s full potential are rarely more pressing than for an institution who is determining how to correct a struggling operating budget or resist closure.

A separate line of inquiry surrounds leadership in times of duress, as they are measured by slightly different parameters than the institutions themselves. Judgement is subjective and based on more than just survival, but also on a leader’s decisiveness, voice, and risks taken. Each can also be judged by their understanding of changes in various capacities such as stakeholder motivation, and expectations. Finally, how conversations on strategy hierarchy and objective postponement are driven by leadership shapes the institution’s future as well.

Leadership roles are trials in patience and flexibility. Leaders succeed by being dynamic, defined by their ability to adapt to accomplish goals and leave their institution better than they entered it, with the resources and circumstances present. The following four priorities are recognizable in the actions of dynamic leaders:

Protective of Human Capital

Poor leadership dismembers even the greatest teams. Retention of students and staff requires an attentive individual willing to empathize, rationalize, and provide swift recourse to the various factors eroding persistence and growth. Dynamic leaders make as much use of affirmative language as they do active listening via assessments and inquiries in order to retain high functioning organization and people. How a leader decides to adjust to protect their human capital from position insecurity, pandemic, and other risks in times of tumult significantly impacts how they are perceived in the long-term.


Alongside institutional goals exists a leader’s vision for how to accomplish them. Communication of vision and clarifying aligned purpose throughout an organization is imperative and difficult in the ever evolving and time-sensitive environment of higher education. Dynamic leaders not only embrace open, consistent, and clear communication but continuously evolve to meet changes in knowledge-sharing needs.


Remaining ahead of the knowledge curve while in a leadership position can be just as taxing as the role itself. Ingesting data on internal and external factors - including the wide array of stakeholders, peers, wider industry, global marketplaces, and risk that impact daily changes in expectation and possibility - is enough to keep even the most organized and diligent leader(s) busy. Dynamic leaders continue to identify avenues and channels to glean new data regardless of circumstance.


The incorporation of new data into proactive, independent solutions specific to their own context or institution is where dynamic leadership shines brightest. The ongoing challenge to rapidly develop new solutions occurs internally and externally, as the dynamic leader who is hungry for change takes into account different approaches, perspectives, and possibilities to meet challenges that arise.

As tremendous challenges emerge each day, institutions of higher education require more dynamic leadership to increase their chances of survival.

- DB



Williamsburg, VA​​

Arlington, VA

Copyright 2020 Marquee Consulting

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