March 21, 2020

5 Tips to Leading Your Institution Through a Crisis

This content was previously published by Campus Management, now part of Anthology. Product and/or solution names may have changed.

The late Barbara Jordan (1976) once said, “For all its uncertainty, we cannot flee the future.” In today’s environment we can all feel the truth of those words. The quickly unfolding events of the last few days have left us all feeling uncertain, confused and at times afraid. The future is coming at us in a completely unexpected way and that puts all of us who are in leadership roles in a position we do not often find ourselves. Every leader is accustomed to dealing with surprises from time-to-time. It is part of the job, and for many of us, it is a part that we relish. It is invigorating to deal with new challenges and unexpected turns. However, this is different. This moment is a true black swan event (Taleb, 2016). No one could anticipate the upheaval of the past few weeks. Every leader, at every institution, finds themselves in completely uncharted waters.

Leadership during and after a crisis requires a different set of competencies and skills than leadership during other times. There are no easy answers. There are no quick fixes. There are no platitudes to recite or courses to reference. Each leader at each institution must lead based on what is needed at her institution at the time. Care should be taken to note, this does not mean there are not guidelines and frameworks to help us. In fact there has been a great deal of research to inform how we go about the days ahead. From this body of work we can identify 5 critical tasks that leaders must attend to during times of strategic crisis (Boin, Hart, Stern, & Sundelius, 2017, pp. 26-27).

Sense Making
A leader must collect and process information and data that helps managers understand the significance of what is happening. There are an overwhelming number of voices trying to “make sense” of the current situation. Some are right, some are wrong, some are helpful and some are harmful. None of them understand the context of your institution. One of your key tasks as a leader is to help make sense of the noise. It is your task to listen, discern, synthesize and repeat what is important to your constituents in your context. If this task is left unattended, people will supply their own narrative and interpretation and it may very well run counter to what is needed. As a leader, it is your responsibility to help people make sense of the world around them.

Decision Making and Coordinating
This one is where most leaders tend to gravitate naturally and it is important. Our constituents need some one “calling the shots.” There needs to be sense of certainty that someone is looking at the big picture. Your challenge as a leader is to be deliberate and measured. Clearly, you do not have the answers, no one does. However, you must take care to provide coherent and measured directives. Furthermore, you must make certain that everyone understands. This is not the time for shoot-from-the-hip directives and orders. Once you decided on a course of action, take the time to ensure that it is communicated clearly and that its implementation is well coordinated. Remember, your constituents have not had the luxury of living your thoughts along with you. They have not wrestled with it from every angle and thought through each contingency like you. They need to be told and they need help in executing the vision.

Meaning Making
In some ways this is similar to the sense making described above. Where “sense making” is the “what?”, “meaning making” is the “why?” Leaders “must impute meaning to the unfolding crisis in such a way that their efforts to manage it are enhanced. If they do not, or if they do not succeed at it, their decisions will not be understood or respected. If other actors in the crisis succeed in dominating the meaning-making process, the ability of incumbent leaders to decide and maneuver is severely constrained.” (Boin, et al p.30) If you do not control the narrative someone else will. It is vital that you spend time communicating what is at stake, what the causes are and what can be done.

This involves explaining in public forums what is being done and why. In times of uncertainty, people long to know what to expect. While the nature of our current situation makes that impossible in many ways, we can still explain to our constituents what we are doing and why. It is also important to note that this is not a one-and-done exercise. As a leader, you must continually remind people and that you are monitoring the progress. Giving regular updates help people get a sense of control and predictability when those are in short supply.

This is perhaps the most difficult. As a leader you must constantly assess the strengths and weaknesses of your response. Furthermore, you must be willing to take remedial action based on your new understanding and insight. It is folly to believe that the plan you established this week is fully baked and considers all contingencies. Too often leaders craft their vision and plan, with great effort and thought, but once complete, they turn it over for implementation. Crisis leadership does not work this way. In fact, this approach is disastrous in times of crisis. The situation is too fluid, the unknowns are too great and the competing narratives are too strong. You must be hyper vigilant for decisions that need to be reconsidered or actions that need to be rethought. This is does not mean that you should be reactionary and change course at each challenge. However, it does mean that you must be willing to constantly learn from what has worked and what has not.

The days ahead will not be easy, nor will they be catastrophic. All of our institutions have noble missions and all our constituents deserve the best that we have to give and this is never more true than now. At Campus Management, we want to be there to help. If there is anything I can do, up to and including providing a listening ear, please do not hesitate to let me know. In the meantime, seize this moment. Be the leader that your institution needs. Help them understand that we cannot flee the future, but we do not have to be buffeted by it either

Jordan, B. (1976, July). Democratic National Convention. Democratic National Convention. New York.
Taleb, N. N. (2016). The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable. New York: Random House.
Boin, A., Hart, P. t, Stern, E., & Sundelius, B. (2017). The politics of crisis management: public leadership under pressure. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Kevin Roberts

Former Vice President of Operations and CIO
Abilene Christian University