Lessons from the Front Line

By Terrence MacTaggart July 27, 2020 May 11th, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

I’ve been talking with a lot of college and university presidents lately about the crises they face and what they are doing to surmount them.  Some of these conversations occurred in researching my books Crisis Leadership for Boards and Presidents and Assessing and Developing College and University Presidents, both written for AGB (e-books are free for AGB members). These conversations have continued as part of the work of AGB’s Crisis Advisors team. These chief executives find themselves at the center of a vortex of conflicting pressures, opposing expectations, and ambiguity that barely existed eight months ago. Most admit they were largely unprepared for the situation they now face.

Some of these leaders are motivated to excel by the challenges posed by the pandemic. One executive entering his fifth year as president confessed to seeing his work in the midst of this as the most meaningful and important of his career.

The same challenges leave a few—fortunately, very few—dispirited and wondering how soon they can gracefully return to teaching, research, or another line of work. This smaller group feels overwhelmed by the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis: campus closings, the spread of the virus, uncertainty surrounding the future of the pandemic, conflicting guidance or demands from politicians, the simmering anger of many faculty, and conflicting expectations of trustees.

The majority of presidents, however, are competent, professional leaders who do their best to manage the immediate crisis, navigate the conflicting and sometimes hopelessly unrealistic demands, and seek a way forward for their colleges and universities.

During the course of interviews and other conversations, I asked these leaders what they are learning from their experience with the pandemic, what they wish they had known or done before the crises erupted, and what lessons they have to offer. Here is my digest of their answers.

Learn what you don’t know

Learning what you know and don’t know depends on what you bring to the table. A newly minted president who rose from the academic ranks said, “I thought I knew everything I needed to know about the presidency except the fundraising part. And I expected to learn that quickly. In fact, I needed first to get a lot smarter about the business side since financial resources are the sine qua non for everything else.” Another president coming direct from Wall Street was adept at the finances but failed initially to appreciate the importance of academic vocabulary. “It has been like learning a new language on the fly,” he said.

Maintain a triple focus: now, soon, and the future

One especially able president told me that she needed to do three things at once: address the immediate crises that morph almost daily; look ahead three to six months to take the best steps now for the fall and spring; and develop a game plan for 24 months ahead based on the assumption that the pandemic will have receded. She added, “I really need to take time out from the first two to think hard about the longer-term future, and of course to discuss possible outcomes around the campus.” Another, an economist by training, cited John Maynard Keynes’ famous dictum to the effect that in the long run we will all be dead. But he added that failing to look a year or more ahead may mean the end comes much sooner than expected. Several reported that seeking advice from peers, former presidents, and coaching had been helpful in navigating the crises and keeping a sense of perspective on both the short and longer term.  AGB has just launched a new program coaching new presidents and executive leaders.

Speak truth to power

In this case, the centers of power are the board and the faculty. A surprising number of board members, particularly alums, turn out to be staunch opponents of change, although this “problem blindness” or “optimism bias” is beginning to recede as the pandemic refuses to. Several presidents told me that if consulted early and often, faculty members accept the inevitability of painful adjustments and contribute useful ideas. Delivering what they will regard as bad news to both groups, I was told, requires a calm tone, indisputable facts, and often a credible outsider to puncture the illusion that with time “all will return to normal.”

Toughen up

“I had never really fired anyone,” one former dean turned president told me, “I still don’t like it, but unfortunately saying good-bye has become a bigger part of the job.” Mental toughness, but not meanness, is a necessary part of a president’s repertoire. Being direct, honest, prompt, and sympathetic is the fairest way to deliver bad news.  Another executive told me that in the face of very difficult decisions, the president needs to express compassion for members of the academic community who are suffering from stresses that generate worry, fear, and anger. He added, “I need to understand their emotions but not react to them.”

A higher calling

The opportunity to lead an important institution through and beyond a major crisis such as we are now experiencing is in some ways a gift. “On the darker days,” confessed a particularly self-aware executive, “I remind myself that I love this college and the difference it makes in the lives of our students. It motivates me to do everything I can to enable it to survive and prosper.”

Terrence MacTaggart, PhD, is a senior fellow and senior consultant of AGB Consulting.

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