Covid-19: Leadership During a Crisis—Be the Leader Your Campus Needs

Becky Morehouse

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There is an old English saying worth revisiting: Cometh the hour, cometh the man.1 It means, literally, when a hero is needed, one appears.

In explaining this concept, historians often think of Winston Churchill who became Prime Minister in the early years of World War II. A study of Churchill and other great leaders would reveal that leaders consistently evidenced 10 behaviors in a crisis.

Let’s take a look.

Campus Leadership

1. Be Seen

During a crisis, faculty, staff, students, parents, and others need to hear from their leaders. Take lesson from New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo.

His daily updates during the crisis do much to calm an anxious state and nation. Whether you want to admit it or not, all eyes are on you.

2. Manage Expectations

This is a tough one. As the leader, you need to be realistic about your situation, even if you may not fully understand it. People will demand answers you simply do not have and expect timelines you cannot offer. Always offer hope but take care not to imply certainty and clarity where there is none.

An outstanding of example of frank and honest coronavirus communication can be found on the Grinnell College website.

3. Demonstrate Empathy at Every Turn

Ultimately, colleges and universities are human enterprises. While we can and should be concerned about economic issues, these should always follow concerns about people. Showing that your concern for your people is paramount will allow you to rebound quickly when this crisis passes.

4. Explain the 3 Ws

Before you roll out a plan or action, particularly one that is disruptive, make sure the campus community knows:

  1. What is the issue you are addressing?
  2. Why is action necessary now?
  3. What that action will look like, and how might it affect them?

5. Realize that Candor Increases Credibility

It’s OK to admit that there are some (many?) things you don’t know. People understand that this crisis is still unfolding. Unlike a tornado or flood or fire that has a clear end, no one knows what the end game for this pandemic will look like. Be candid. People can handle almost any truth that isn’t hidden from them.

On April 2, the president of Hamilton College, David Wippman, informed the campus community of some of the financial challenges that are likely ahead. These are uncertain times, and while the news might not be good, people do like to have a sense that leadership is thinking about what’s next—and telling people about it.

6. Communicate Well

This means both transparency and frequency. It also means getting ahead of the rumor mills and filling the communication vacuum. Strong leaders answer the questions that everyone is asking each other but may be afraid to ask you.

Aristotle offered us a verbal triptych that is useful. When instructing his students on rhetoric, he would say of their audiences, when making a major point in your oratory, to “tell them, tell them that you told them, and tell them again.”

Or, as another author suggested, Review, Repeat, and Reinforce. Or thirdly, don’t assume that anyone gets the message the first time, or the second, or the third.2

7. Remember that Leaders Lead

This is the time for action, even just a little action. The worst thing you can do is freeze. People desperately need to see that the organization is moving forward.

8. Celebrate Success

Your faculty, staff, and students are aching for good news. Make sure you are collecting and disseminating stories about the progress you are making.

Show how you are continuing to meet the needs of students, how your graduates are getting hired, how donors are supporting you, how faculty are still teaching. We all need some good news.

9. Manage Your End of the Slinky

Arthur F. Kirk, the former president of Saint Leo University, kept a slinky on his desk to remind himself that one of his most important jobs of the leader was to manage his or her end of the slinky. He would demonstrate this by grasping the top the slinky and letting the other end drop.

If I am steady at the top, he would say, then everything is steady at the bottom. The staff know what to expect and how to proceed. But if I waffle or vacillate at the top, the bottom of the slinky swings wildly out of control. Steadiness matters, he would say. Composure always eclipses crisis.

10. Debrief

Eventually, this crisis will pass. Equally likely, however, is that there will be another. Strong leaders will take the lessons learned from this crisis and rethink what it means to be prepared.

We opened this blog with a nod to Winston Churchill, and we will close with another.

In May 1940, Germany swept across the Low Country, defeated France, and was laying plans to attack England. Winston Churchill became Prime Minster on May 10. With German-occupied France just across the English Channel, Churchill reminded the House of Commons, the people of England, and the United States of the horrible foe they faced. He didn’t duck the truth. He was painfully honest in his appraisal of the obstacles ahead.

But then he said, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties…so that all will say, this was their finest hour.”3 We all need to be a little like Churchill in the weeks and months ahead. This will be our finest hour.

Let’s talk strategies to land the class the Fall and beyond—set up a consultation with Stamats today.


1 Of course, now we would say, “Cometh the hour, cometh the person.”
2 Did you notice I used a little triptych there?
3 Slightly edited quote

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