Leading in a Time of Crisis

Over the last few weeks, we have shared tips for taking care of ourselves and our colleagues. This week I wanted to share advice from several higher education leaders about their experiences leading teams through this time of crisis.

The first post in this series focused on self-care for us as individuals. You can check out the great tips here. The second post encouraged development of resiliency for ourselves and our organization.

Thank you to those who participated in the interviews for taking the time to share your thoughts with us.

In a Time of Crisis


I reached out to these leaders to discuss their experiences leading, supporting, and motivating teams during this pandemic. I hope the advice below is helpful for us all as we continue to face challenges this fall and in the future.

Learning from the Pandemic

My first question focused on what the interviewees learned about leadership during the COVID-19 crisis. Many of them reflected that they learned more about the importance of communication, collaboration, decision making, and empathy.

From WCET’s executive director, Russ Poulin,

Photo by Rakicevic Nenad on Pexels.com

I think I’m still re-learning this lesson every day, but it is about communication. It’s easy to get caught up in the hubbub and forget to communicate. And even if you communicate, sometimes repetition is needed as the message goes out and the receiver is not ready to hear…or, more likely now, is distracted with other important things. I know these things, but still finding the need to remind myself of these realities every day.

The President of WICHE,  Demarée Michelau, shared that no one has a secret guide on how to lead during a pandemic, which I thought was a particularly good point.

While she said she’d learned so many lessons (and that a description of them would probably exceed our reader’s attention) she was able to select two to highlight:

First, leadership in a crisis for me has centered around collaboration – bringing people together to tackle the constant wave of challenges. It was clear from the beginning that this particular crisis was hitting everyone in monumental ways and that we needed to tackle it as a community. WICHE works with many different people in the higher education ecosystem, and while the specific issues they have been dealing with may differ, I have found that WICHE can help best by providing a forum for them to ask questions, share successes, commiserate, and learn from each other. Second, while it’s important to be decisive and clear, you also need to be deliberate and consistent.

Richard Nelson, President of Nicolet College, reminded me of where leaders should look to guide their decisions during a crisis: your institution’s values.

If people know that the values of your college always inform strategies and actions, then navigating uncharted territory isn’t so daunting. The cornerstone for decision-making is established.

Our number one value at Nicolet College is: “We believe in the worth and dignity of the individual, and we therefore commit to treating each person with kindness and respect.” The pandemic brought series of challenges to be addressed without benefit of prior experience or precedent, yet this value clearly told us that health and safety must be our primary consideration in weighing options and making choices.

Sally Johnstone, President of the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and founding executive director of WCET, echoed these sentiments and told me that it is of the upmost importance to put the safety of staff ahead of all other considerations.

Finally, Kara Van Dam, Vice President and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Maryland Global Campus and current Chair of the WCET Steering Committee, told me that the pandemic has “really reinforced the importance of empathy. The complexity of what our team members are having to face – homeschooling their kids, spouses who are essential workers or who were laid off, family members getting sick and sadly in some cases dying – has reinforced the importance to put people and their humanity first.”

So, put people first. Bring them together. And do your best to make your messages clear and consistent.  

Supporting Your Team

These leaders had similar advice for how to support staff during a challenging time or crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Kara Van Dam explained that it was essential to hold weekly check-ins with staff (especially early on). Richard Nelson commented that it was the leadership’s job to “provide the fuel and clear the runway” so their staff could focus on the important work – putting students first. As Sally Johnstone said that her focus was “guaranteeing they have the tools needed to do their jobs,” and specifically called out being patient with team members who were (or are still!) working from home with their children.

The interviewees were all so complimentary of their staff. It’s a testament to how hard our higher education community has worked over the last several months.  Demarée Michelau mentioned that her staff demonstrated resilience and commitment to our work, and Russ Poulin said he is focused on appreciating the challenges that staff are going through and the accomplishments they have despite those challenges.

On the topic of working remotely, all the interviewees remarked that we need to listen to each other and support each other. Leaders (whether on-site or remote) need to be consistent, connected, and caring. Many mentioned the need to use an “outcomes driven” management style, meaning attention is paid to completing projects and being flexible if staff need to work unique hours. Some suggested providing ergonomic equipment to help remote employees work better.

Team Motivation

I asked each leader for principles they use to motivate their teams, especially right now when focusing on single tasks can be difficult. Here are their answers:

  • Stand in the shoes of our students. Better yet, stand in the shoes of those who should be our students, but aren’t. They’re the first in their families to attend college. If they still have jobs, they’re underemployed, working one or more part-time jobs in retail or hospitality. They’ve lost childcare (if they ever had it), are primary caregivers for elders, and are doing both at home. Pre-pandemic, they managed to get by paycheck to paycheck, but basic expenses now consume every dollar before the month is out; some bills go unpaid. We are the doorway to a better life in our region. Let’s kick it open wide.
  • How do we act when the pressure is on?
    • Close our eyes and hope for the best?
    • Long for the good old days and complain about “kids today”?
    • Find someone or something to blame? 

The answer is none of the above. Instead, we liberate our minds, test our ingenuity, and have some fun. When the old ways start to fail, the time is ripe for innovation and for strong organizations to shine. And just for good measure, we banish phrases like “We’ve always done it this way,” “We tried that once and it didn’t work,” or “They’ll never let us do that,” from our lexicon. They’re toxic to creativity and innovation.

  • Take extra good care of yourselves. You’re doing great work under unfamiliar and often trying circumstances. Even though leisure, entertainment and travel options are limited, take your time off. All of it. Unplug and decompress. Even superheroes need some down time.

– Richard Nelson

  • Reach out and stay connected. 
  • Treat each person as a unique individual. Some of your team are fine, and others may need short deadlines to keep them motivated.

– Sally Johnstone

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on Pexels.com
  • Prioritize what is truly important. Don’t try to do everything you planned to do before this hit.
  •  Look for silver linings. Cherish the additional time with family.
  •  Stay informed, but don’t fall into the vortex (“doomscrolling” is the new phrase, I believe).
    When you need to step away, do. Read a book, take a walk, do a puzzle, connect with friends and family (even if over Zoom).

– Kara Van Dam

  • I’m mindful every day that I have to lead by example. I set the tone for the organization, so I need to be hopeful, resilient, and patient.
    • I need to be hopeful that we will find our way through this, and that we, as higher education, will use this as an opportunity to address equity gaps, examine quality, and tackle affordability.
    •  I need to be resilient because at our core, that is who we are in the West. Higher education is the key to a successful recovery, and we need to start planning for it and engaging in it so that we’re better on the other side than we were before.
    • Finally, we need to be patient with one another. Someone’s cat might walk across a videoconference or someone might have an off day, but giving our colleagues the space they need to recharge and get back to the work at hand is critical for us all to be successful.
  • Some days, though, leadership and motivation mean just being willing to be personal and show that things are not perfect. I have children engaged in remote learning in elementary and middle school so I might be a little preoccupied during a meeting. My dog has had more haircuts during the pandemic than me, and it’s really starting to show, but that is the reality of COVID-19. No one has that secret instruction guide on how to successfully lead an organization during a pandemic, but being authentic is likely one of the steps.

– Demarée Michelau

  • Understanding. For our staff, they are doing their best, but sometimes they need help. It’s okay to ask for help.
  • No surprises. If you need help because something unexpected happens, let us know ahead of time, if possible.
  • Recognition and celebration. We started the “Gnorman” award, which is a traveling gnome who goes to someone who has done outstanding work. Each recipient shares Gnorman’s adventures over about a month, that are highlighted (with pictures) in our Travels-with-Gnorman Slack channel.

– Russ Poulin

Helping Others Face Challenges

What do we, as employees, need from leaders during not-so-great times? Here’s the advice I received from our interviewees:

  • Understanding. They need someone to listen.
  • Decisiveness.
  • To be honest and forthright about the challenges the organization is facing, even if it is difficult to hear.
  • It’s difficult to overestimate the value of honest and frequent communication from campus leaders.
  • Clarity. Leaders need to interpret and share what they see. People want to know what’s in store for their college, for their work, and for them. Clarity, of course, is in highest demand when it’s hardest to come by, as it is today.
  • People want leaders to demonstrate and inspire confidence.
  • The demonstration of empathy and support.
  • Decisive decisions.
  • They need to know they are in a safe place to share their challenges and get the support they need.

In Summary

Just like there isn’t a secret instruction book for our leaders right now, there definitely isn’t a magic spell that will turn our days “back to normal.” No matter what your individual circumstances are, dealing with a global pandemic, isolation, extra or different responsibilities, or even being ill or having someone close to you be ill – it’s no wonder we all need additional support and help right now.

I’m so thankful for the support, understanding, and flexibility from our leaders during this time. To say it’s been challenging seems like an understatement. I feel lucky to work for an organization that tries every day to make sure its staff is doing okay on a personal level while also supporting us in accomplishing our professional goals.

I hope this series on care in a time of crisis has been beneficial for you. I know we are adding one more thing to your plate – we advise you to take care of yourself and others and how I wish we could stretch time or change circumstances to actually make that possible for you. My hope is that we have left you with some ideas to help you and your teams meet today’s challenges, and if you have a bit of time left tonight, I hope you are able to take a few moments for yourself. And, to take my own advice, I’m going to go do just that.


Lindsey headshot

Lindsey Downs
Assistant Director, Communications and Community
WCET
ldowns@wiche.edu | @lindsey0427


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My name is Lindsey Rae Downs. I am the Assistant Director of Communications and Community for WCET, the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies. I work remotely from beautiful Helena, MT.

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