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Tensions to manage vs problems to solve
The work of leaders in crisis means accepting more AND and less OR
It's been more than a month since the normally sunny September sky in the Pacific Northwest was obscured by a cloud of thick smoke. Thankfully, rain—and the good work of hundreds of firefighters—brought the blazes in this region under control.
There are plenty of people reflecting on the relentless cascade of challenges that have arrived with 2020, and I have to admit that starting an email list about higher ed futures in the middle of a pandemic was probably a bad idea.
Then, add on top of a pandemic layers of economic uncertainty, long-overdue conversations about race and equity, and wildfires. There's no manual for leading well in this moment. And it's hard to think about the future when the urgent needs of the moment require so much agility, change, and adaptation.
But leadership isn’t needed when things are easy. Anyone can manage those moments.
Although we know to "never waste a crisis," the real challenge of leadership today is to clearly prioritize seemingly competing needs. These might be the needs of groups—of students, of employees, of our own ability to sustain and lead with health—or of strategy—looking at the future and managing the moment.
The AND, not the OR
Maybe this is the time to reinvent—to take this moment to reset vision and reframe organizational purpose.
But even if reinventing isn't yet possible—even if the work looks more like supporting employees who are trying to work while also managing their kids' distance learning from home, support parents with health issues and fears about the latest Covid-19 news, provide resources for students and employees who have had to evacuate due to fires, or creating space to address whatever the next week brings—this work still requires adaptive, resilient mindsets.
Right now, our work is adaptive and creative—even if it's just sustaining holistic functioning.
That kind of creativity means living in the AND vs the OR. This moment requires sitting in healthy tensions where two competing priorities may be true. Here are a few examples of the AND of crisis leadership.
We must give people time to breathe. We must run forward and do the job in front of us.
I’ve heard one prediction that we’ll be back to a pre-pandemic “normal” sometime around November 2021. That doesn’t mean we’ll flip a switch between “this” and “back to normal.” Instead, we’ll likely, hopefully, take small steps toward a safe reopening.
But it will never look exactly the same. Too much has changed. What does this mean for our field? Or industry? Our community? And how do we prepare for that now?
In a recent staff meeting, I shared a riff on this tension with our team. We’re in a weird place of both needing breaks and needing to serve students with excellence. We have to take breaks individually and keep serving students organizationally.
Students need us now more than ever. Although everyone is stretched, we also have students on our campuses who need the resources, connection, and opportunities we provide. If we're in this, we're in it.
At the same time, we have to find moments and days to care for ourselves and our families. While we ramp up together and find new ways to serve students, we must support each other and find ways to buffer this marathon where everything we do requires something different than it did a year ago.
The future is uncertain. Creativity comes from psychological safety.
With the “unprecedented” (that has to be one of the words on the pandemic BINGO card) change in this moment, we have to try new things. We must level up, work hard, pursue excellence. And in the middle of it all, we don’t know what this will look like in the end. There’s uncertainty. There’s doubt.
And, if we’re going to do this well, our teams need space to be honest about that doubt, to share where they are struggling, and to share what’s not working well in their areas. In the work to build, we must also create the openness to share failures and learn from them together.
This takes a leader. This takes a team.
The future is too complex for any one person to solve. It's part of the reason that teams are more important than ever.
And yet, teams don’t emerge without intentional planning, oversight, and leadership. Great leaders create great teams. It takes a leader to convene and create an environment where great teams can do their work.
William Gibson said, "The future is already here—it's just very not evenly distributed." (or something close to that). The future is uncertain. It always is. To move forward, we need leaders who model consistent values, competent vision, and care for the people, organization, and mission.
Here are a few interesting, helpful, and challenging articles I’ve found recently.
Racism continues to persist in higher education and traditional diversity initiatives that focus only on support resources and tolerance training continue to fall short in making lasting change on college and university campuses. The purpose of this scholarly paper is to present a model for change within higher education that distributes leadership and institutional power across racial lines and enlightens the White community about systemic inequities.
In a complex and uncertain world that demands constant learning and agility, the most apt and adaptable leaders are those who are aware of their limitations, have the necessary humility to grow their own and others’ potential, and are courageous and curious enough to create sincere and open connections with others. They build inclusive team climates with psychological safety that foster constructive criticism and dissent.
If you find yourself or your team struggling to prioritize, investigate if any of these frequently-cited conditions or causes are at play:
Do you really know who you are serving? If you’re organizing your own personal to-do list, have you stepped back to ask yourself what really matters to you?
Is your strategy lacking any clear articulation of tradeoffs? Strategy, after all, is about making choices.
Is there someone above you or your team that is driving an unrealistic sense of urgency? First, be sure they themselves have defined their strategies in terms of tradeoffs (based on an understanding of your customers) and then work to make the cost and consequences of those unrealistic expectations transparent.
Have you fallen into a pattern of fire-fighting? The act of fighting workplace fires, i.e. rallying to answer an urgent need, can be addicting.
In those early months, I, along with most of the rest of the country, was using “surge capacity” to operate, as Ann Masten, PhD, a psychologist and professor of child development at the University of Minnesota, calls it. Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely.
Why Higher Ed Futures? (Add your voice)
In this newsletter, “futures” is intentionally plural. With any challenge, there is more than one way to move forward. A thriving educational system will require a network of focused, differentiated colleges and universities that meet the variety of student needs.
My hope here is to avoid binary thinking and create a community where people passionate about higher education can think, dream, and challenge assumptions together.
If you have an idea that challenges or refines the thoughts above, please reply to this email and share! With your permission, we may include it in a future email.