Leadership in a global pandemic

What a grand title for a blog post! I’ve had an item on my to do list for, well months really, a while to do a reflection about what I have learnt about leadership during the pandemic. I guess the reason why I have not really progressed this is that I keep thinking that I will do that reflection when the pandemic is over and …. here we are in October and I think it is fair to say it is not over. Far from it.

Autumn

That said, though, I think we have moved through various phases in the pandemic and September seemed to mark a bit of a change in life in the pandemic. At the beginning of September, I think that many of us were thinking that September would be the return to some kind of normality – children back to school, starting to return to the office more frequently, lifting of various restrictions (hopefully) and a cautious return to normal. September, for me, always marks a time of new resolutions and the start of something new. Working in academia, you certainly have that back to school and feeling of new hope, new opportunities, new connections and intentions, new learnings. Despite covid, I would say this September was no different in terms of hope.

A very long list!

Sadly, though, at the beginning of October, that dreaded second wave seems more of a reality. Instead of returning back to normality, the new normal seems now to be working at home and daily restrictions in different parts of the UK. Schools may still be open, although the novelty of the covid-schooling seems to have worn off, well at least with my children, and we’re all having to accept the reality of being in this for the long haul. This does feel very different from the rollercoaster and at times terrifying situation we were in in April. There is much less adrenalin now. Anyway, this post is supposed to be about leadership, so here are a few things I have been thinking about leadership during a pandemic.

  • Empathy is so important. Everyone is facing such challenging situations – this was particularly true at the beginning of the pandemic. People who might have felt uncomfortable about permeable boundaries between their professional and personal lives were suddenly having to take public conference calls in their bedrooms. So many boundaries were changed and challenged. Showing understanding and being kind and compassionate have been core leadership skills. Personally, I have really valued the kindness and consideration others have shown to me.
  • Taking time to listen. During the first early days and weeks of the pandemic, it was such a relief to be able to talk to others about how bloody hard everything was! And also listen to others stories. Listening is such a core leadership skill and again the pandemic has really brought this home. Giving time for people to vent, laugh even cry or just have a good rant about the sometimes absurd situations we find ourselves in has been hugely important.
  • Acknowledging the madness! A global pandemic is not business as usual. Taking time to recognise that we are living through crazy times, which impact on every part of ALL our lives, I think has been really important. That is not to say that we have to throw all projects, targets and goals out of the window, but that we have to recognise things are dramatically different and will be for some time. I have found this much more motivating to accept that we have to adapt and change, not try to carry on as normal (what even is normal now???)
Who knows what’s on the horizon….
  • Working collaboratively and encouraging others to act. Facilitating the conditions in which others can act has always been a core leadership mantra of mine and in a global pandemic this has been even more important. There have been many, many, many times when I literally could not work on things due to childcare, capacity and so on, however, I have been endless grateful for working with colleagues who can pick up and run with projects and ideas and achieve great outcomes. Brainstorming ideas, sharing problems and just working collaboratively to support each other have been hugely important when facing the vast challenges we have been facing. None of this could have been done alone.
  • Storytelling and creating a narrative. The pandemic has tested the resilience of all us and particularly those of us who like to plan! However, although we may not be able to plan or even imagine what next week will look like, we can create a narrative and story around the work we are doing to help motivate us and keep us on track. For me, throughout the Spring and Summer it was getting to September successfully and ensuring that I could do whatever I could to help my Directorate support the University deliver learning and teaching online or on a socially distanced campus in September. This was the touchstone for everything I did. Now the narrative has shifted. It is about evaluating what we are doing, understanding the experiences of staff and students and what we can change. It is also thinking about term 2 and how to support everyone’s wellbeing in accepting we are in this for a longer time than we may have expected. The narratives may change and adapt over time, and story telling is such a good way of helping us meet the challenges we face day to day.
  • Crisis can reinforce existing leadership styles, rather than leadership styles adapting to the situations unfolding. I think we have seen this in many different parts of life, that a moment of crisis can be a real test of leadership, although not in the way we might think in terms of people changing their leadership preference, instead it can entrench existing leadership behaviours, regardless of whether they are actually the most appropriate for the context.
  • Decisions need to be clear and communicated well. Hard decisions may not be popular and sometimes when made rapidly and in such a rapidly unfolding situation like the pandemic they may not have been the best decision, however, we can learn from them and move on. The last few months have reinforced for me the importance of reflective practice and applying that reflection to ensure that the next time we face a similar situation, we can approach it differently. I guess one good thing about the pandemic is that there are plenty of opportunities to keep making decisions!
  • Stepping up. There have been many times where I have stepped up over the past months, and frankly, been terrified of the consequences, yet taken the plunge anyway. Not for any kind of “glory” but just because it seemed the right thing do to. I don’t say this in any kind of “yay me” type self congratulatory way, just that when I did these things it reminded me of the values I held and reinforced how working to improve the student experience by supporting staff was absolutely central to my leadership practice. The pandemic has certainly clarified my values and reinforced why I am in this role.
  • The importance of relationship building – there are so many aspects of remote working I love, and a lot that frustrate me. I do miss the “office” conversations though and these are often hard to replicate in a free flowing way on MS Teams. However, nevermind how stressed and busy I felt over the past few months I really have tried to spend time building relationships. The great thing about working remotely has been sharing things that would not have been shared – who has dogs or cats in their homes walking across the camera, seeing people’s kids or funky wallpaper, breaking up a conference call to alert the family to a fox chasing a chicken in our garden and so on. These things have really helped alleviate difficult situations and build working relationships which I think will outlast the pandemic.
Teaching with social distance

Due to some long standing publishing commitments I had, I have been reflecting a lot on leadership and my role in the past few months. Reading the above, reminds me of the leadership practice I admire and try to follow, namely that of Kouzes and Posner. I was fortunate enough to be teaching the developing leadership module until August and reflecting on leadership with colleagues on this module was also really helpful in engaging them in sensemaking and critiques of the leadership they were experiencing and how to embed this learning into this own practice. The pandemic may be far from over and I am sure there will be leadership challenges to come, yet I feel heartened that reflecting on my experiences over the past few months have coalesced a lot of my leadership values. If I had to summarise, by working collaboratively and showing compassion we can meet those challenges living through this pandemic will bring.

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