By Mari Koerner, Arizona State University; author, The Successful Dean
There is no question that leadership is powerful in supporting people to become better in their jobs. But perhaps its greatest power is in creating a culture which sees them as fellow humans trying to make the world better because of their work. Mark Twain captures the imperative of finding out the purpose of your life which, I would say along with most educators, is giving back to their community, country, and even the world.
We live in unprecedented times. Few in living memory have experienced a pandemic and the accompanying economic repercussions. Being in a leadership position, specifically, at the helm of a college, is difficult because others are looking to you for safety and security often in a bureaucratic maze. “People put enormous pressure on you to respond to their anxieties with authoritative certainty, even if doing so means overselling what you know and discounting what you don’t” (Heifitz, Grashow & Linksy, 2009, p.2). It seems the ordinary and everyday confusion and chaos, which was tolerable and, perhaps, even oddly motivational, has now become frightening and overwhelming. The churning and uncertainty caused by the pandemic are set in the context of the ongoing changing of the reality of higher education institutions themselves (Ramaley, 2014; Phillps-Fein, 2019). Happening simultaneously, they confound and confuse the shaping and reshaping, caused by the reality and problems surrounding us, of the institution itself. The challenge is trying to look at our work world through different lens at these new and redefined old problems. Earth shattering troubles and new difficulties require new thinking with newly carved out answers. Where do we find them? Maxine Greene (1978) says that “the potential of meaningful reflective practice [is] to enable individuals to break through the cotton wool of daily life and to live more consciously” (p. 185) and to “create domains where there are new possibilities of vision and awareness” (p. 196). How do we reach solutions or, maybe, calm acceptance? In this context, governance often requires a steady hand and seeing “leadership [as] an improvisational and experimental art” (Heifetz et al, p. 3).
One key and seldom talked about condition for leaders, especially during stressful and troubling times, is self-care. These crises occur for individuals, units (like colleges), universities, and communities. For a leader to be effective, the first and most overlooked element of self-care is time set aside for reflection. “Find sanctuaries where you can reflect on events and regain perspective” (Heifetz et al, p. 7). These sanctuaries may include yoga, meditation, or simply talking to a friend.
The urgency, high stakes nature, and uncertainty of this situation obviously raises stress levels. While we have to be thoughtful about making sense of what’s happening, we, at the same time, have to figure out ways to communicate, act, and make decisions. This is the time to bring on your authentic self.
An authentic presence is crucial to your skills as a leader. In other words, keeping your eye on the prize is harder than it looks. It needs constant inner nurturing and support for your purpose and vision. The all-important question, “What am I doing here?” is a force that drives you when you need the strength to carry on (shoutout to Mariah Carey). This is an ongoing process and it has to be because this is an intense experience that puts you front and center in a high-performance job (Koerner, 2020, p. 76).
Being optimistic is an important attitude and is indispensable to being authentic. Kahneman (2011, p.291) examines optimism in terms of the way it shapes how we engage with risk and act. He argues that “when action is needed, optimism, even of the mildly delusional variety, may be a good thing” (ibid). An optimistic perspective can be inspirational to those we lead. Authentic leadership, positive and optimistic, motivates employees and helps them connect their work to participate in solutions and the welfare of the organization (for case studies on optimism’s effects, see; Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Leroy, Anseel, Gardner, & Sels, 2015; and Seligman, 2002).
Collect and amplify positive messages (Nichols, Hayden & Trendler, 2020). In addition to self-care and remaining optimistic, Nicholas et al remind us that there are two more behaviors that leaders need in a crisis: confidence and transparency. When people feel isolated, their imagination can begin to go wild. Transparency from leaders can help reign that in. Keeping communication open by sharing as much information as you can with as many people as possible, helps to create a feeling that things are going to be OK. And it is important to communicate equitably. No team member should feel like they have less access to you than others.
Finally, an important self-care strategy is to retain your sense of humor. Try to stay lighthearted. The opposite is also true: do not show panic. People pick up on your disposition and will react. Although difficult, remaining a calm and steady influence is important. It is necessary to think beyond this pandemic. We may be wounded but will remain strong. Good luck to us all.
Avolio, B. J., & Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic leadership development: Getting to the root of positive forms of leadership. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 315–338.Greene, M. (1978). Landscapes of learning. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Greene, M. (1978). Landscapes of learning. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Heifetz, R., Grashow, A. & Linsky, M. (July-August, 2009). “Leadership in a (permanent) Crisis.” Harvard Business Review, 1-7.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking fast and slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Koerner, M. (2020) The Successful dean Thoughtful strategies and savvy tips for today’s evolving leadership. NY: Teachers College Press.
Leroy, H., Anseel, F., Gardner, W. L., & Sels, L. (2015). Authentic leadership, authentic followership, basic need satisfaction, and work role performance: A cross-level study. Journal of Management, 41(6), 1677–1697.
Nicholas, C, Hayden, S.N. & Trendler, C. (April 2, 2020). “4 Behaviors that help leaders manage a crisis.” Harvard Business Review, n.p.
Phillips-Fein, K. (2019, January 31). How the right learned to loathe higher education [Blog post]. Retrieved from www.chronicle.com/article/How-the-Right-Learned-to/245580.
Ramaley, J. A. (2014). The changing role of higher education: Learning to deal with wicked problems. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 18(3), 7–21.
Seligman, M.E.P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. NY: Atria paperback.