Developing Presidential Leadership Amid a Pandemic

By Terrence MacTaggart    //    Volume 29,  Number 1   //    January/February 2021

I never imagined this degree of disruption when I sought and accepted this presidency,” observed one veteran chief executive. He went on to say: “My plan was to restore the luster of this great university. I knew how to do that. Now I need to learn how to lead in a crisis and plan for a very different postpandemic future. All this is new to me.” Versions of these words describe the quandary facing most veteran and first-time presidents today.

Paradoxically, a crisis like the pandemic is an ideal time to engage in leadership development—if leadership growth is fast, realistic, and cognizant of the executive’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to leading through the crisis. Executive growth must occur in real time because the repercussions of the pandemic are damaging and, in some cases, destroying institutions at a record pace. Lofty visions conceived as part of a presidential search process and even strategic plans must yield for a time to more immediate goals relevant to the later stages of the pandemic. Finally, to be useful, effective leadership development should   be tailored to the individual’s growth needs. Objective appraisal of the gaps in the executive’s repertoire when it comes to leading in a radically changed world is the foundation of real growth.

“Leadership development” in today’s environment is best defined as a learning process that enables executives to adapt their skills, behavior, and attitudes to improve their performance amid disruption. Its tools are performance evaluations, feedback, self-assessments, coaching, formal and informal study, consultation with experts and trusted advisors, workshops, and the like.

The capacity of presidents to become more adept thanks to development generally conforms to a standard distribution. At one end of the distribution, approximately 15 percent of executives are unwilling or unable to profit from leadership development. At the other end, the top 15 percent are so well suited to their roles that development helps primarily at the margin. The good news is that about 70 percent of presidents can perform better thanks to intentional development, and another 15 percent can top off their already high-functioning performance.

Now is the Time to Build Leadership Capacity

The immediate onslaught of the pandemic—stage one—featuring fast action, long days, little sleep, and a profound sense of urgency is passing. That stage demanded active leadership over leadership development. Most presidents  were  surprised by the pandemic, though they adapted quickly to the shift to online operations and educational delivery. In those hectic days, time for much more than reading a blog or attending an occasional webinar seemed a luxury difficult to indulge.

Most institutions are now in the second stage. The high tide of uncertainty has receded somewhat. The long-term repercussions for finance, enrollment, educational delivery, physical facilities, and the market for higher education are beginning to be more fully understood. In stage two presidents perceive the need and have just enough time to focus on their capacity building as they seek to understand, navigate, and lead their institutions through the perils ahead.

Success Factors for Leadership Development

Effective capacity building in today’s environment begins with a reappraisal of the contemporary presidency, is tailored to specific institutional challenges, and acknowledges developmental needs of both the board of trustees and the senior team. To ensure its relevance, new learning should be applied in real time and evaluated for effectiveness for a particular president faced with the specific blend of challenges his or her institution faces.

Reimagining the Role of the President 

Leading the academic enterprise today demands that presidents develop their capacity to deliver on these or similar hallmarks drawn from AGB’s The 21st-Century Presidency: A Call for Enterprise Leadership (2017).

  • a realistic view of the college or university’s competitive position and the challenges it faces in sustaining and strengthening it
  • a practical, fact-based, and compelling vision for the future
  • the emotional intelligence to relate to the diverse interests of different stakeholders, to build a high-functioning team, and to work in concert with an engaged board
  • the change leadership skills to transform a legacy-centric institution into one that pursues its mission in a dramatically altered environment, and
  • key personal qualities including integrity, energy, resilience, a positive demeanor, and the ability to sustain one’s own physical and mental health.

Thus, leadership development is most effective when it enhances the president’s repertoire of these insights, skills, and attitudes.

Focus on Change That Makes a Difference 

The goal of leadership development should be the answer to this question: “What are our top priorities for ensuring that we not only survive but thrive.” Sustaining enrollment, balancing the budget, finding a merger partner, pursuing in-depth scenario planning, engaging the faculty, renegotiating union contracts, and monetizing idle assets could be important topics for a president to become versed in depending on the context. Generic leadership development programs offered by renowned universities and centers for development often miss the mark when institutional prosperity and even survival is at stake. Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of what is presented in lectures is retained, versus about 60 percent of what people retain by applying lessons in real world situations as suggested here.

An effective plan integrates the president’s learning needs with the needs of the institution for executive leadership. For example, a president who came up through the traditional academic ranks now serving at a university shifting to online learning needs to become versed in all that goes into this transition. A president with strong business experience should quickly learn the realities of leading change in an academic organization featuring shared governance and decentralized authority. Closing the learning and capacity gaps promptly can spell the difference between a successful president and an early departure.

Engages the Board and the Senior Team 

Crisis leadership relies on collaborative team performance. Advancing a strong institution during a crisis, or rescuing a beleaguered one, demands an ensemble of expert players adept at different roles driving toward a common goal. Development that enables a relatively passive executive to become more assertive will also change the dynamic of his or her relationship with the board and with the president’s cabinet and direct reports. The board or at least its leaders will need to learn how to become strategic partners with the president. The cabinet will need to develop into a goal-oriented team. Failure of the board or senior team to modify behaviors will undercut the development of a more assertive, future-oriented chief executive.

Is Applied in Real Situation in Real Time 

Crises demand the application of informed judgement based on available information in a timely fashion. This means learning by doing. The good news from a developmental perspective is that learning by doing is far more effective than merely listening to lectures in-person or online with limited opportunity to test the recommendations. One former chief financial officer turned president said “in my old job, I often shared information with others only on a ‘need to know’ basis. Since becoming a president in a very challenging environment I learned from veteran presidents in a workshop that transparency regarding both good and bad news helps me and my team make better decisions. I followed their advice and it works. Now I can’t imagine any other way of leading.

Addresses Mind-Sets as well as Behaviors 

Resistance to making difficult decisions in time to make a difference is too common among executed nurtured in the academy. The academic milieu features multiple sources of authority that in turn results in slow decision-making. Recognizing and setting aside deep-seated inhibitions is often a product of leadership development, although the transition is usually uncomfortable. At a religiously affiliated college, the president—also an ordained member of the clergy—started his presidency with a pastoral mind-set. This created problems in his dealing with a tough- minded faculty union. Thanks to participation in a workshop on unions and collective bargaining, along with advice from an expert, this president arrived at a more functional working relationship with his organized faculty.

Leadership Assessment, Coaching, and Personal Development Plans

Important tools for converting leadership potential into actualized leadership are initial calibration of current performance, the assistance of a coach invested in the president’s success, and the executive’s personal commitment to building his or her capacity outlined in a personal development plan.

Assessing Performance 

The destination of periodic, annual, and comprehensive or 360 assessments is higher performance. Evaluating presidential performance without a plan to close capacity gaps is a job half done. Virtual (or hybrid assessments that combine online communications and some in-person presence) are less expensive and time consuming than traditional multiday, in-person models. Traditional assessments based on abstract leadership traits are far less useful than those focused on the kind of presidential leadership required to meet important, sometimes existential, challenges.

Questions like these should punctuate assessment surveys and interviews. How adept is the president at leading change in the current environment? How fully does the president engage the board as a “strategic partner” in charting the future? Does the president clearly communicate with faculty the perils and opportunities ahead? To what degree does the president appreciate the business side of the enterprise? How effective is the executive in managing and leading through crises?


Coaching is just as critical for academic leaders as it is for developing high-potential corporate leaders, military officers, and athletes at all levels. The ideal assessor, advisor, and coach is a former chief executive familiar with similar institutions, experienced in assessing presidents, and versed in crisis leadership. The assessor has three major functions. The first is to advise the president and the board on a simple, clear, and relevant process for strengthening the president’s leadership. The second is to assess the president’s performance and potential, which includes evidence of past performance, a survey of stakeholder views, and confidential interviews. The third is to propose development options most important for the president to pursue. The consultant may take an active role in the subsequent development process, including coaching.

Personal and Professional Development Plans 

It is impossible to overemphasize the value of a president’s own growth plan that includes professional and personal elements. Leaving a growth plan to chance usually means it will not occur or become remedial interventions on the heels of a problem or misstep. The board should be aware of the plan and its key objectives. However, the personal portions exist for the president to share only as she or he sees fit. Coaching, workshops, conversations with peers as well as reading the contemporary literature on relevant topics should be part of the mix. Because the stresses on the president are greater than ever, their personal plan should emphasize periodic timeouts, vacations, personal and family counseling if called for, physical exercise, and regular medical examinations all supported by institutional funds.

Mistakes to Avoid

Three common mistakes hinder effective leadership development in crises. The first is an agenda rendered unrealistic by the crisis itself; the second is failure to focus on two or three top growth priorities; and the third is confusion over the from-to path.

Irrelevant Criteria for Performance 

Building leadership development around earlier expectations made irrelevant by the crisis is obviously futile but sometimes persists for want of germane alternatives. Goals, plans, and priorities laid out before the pandemic struck need to be rethought in light of what is now known or expected for the foreseeable future. Some institutions have set aside their a priori assumptions completely. Others drop infeasible aspirations in favor of selected goals, such as improving diversity, equity, and inclusion, that can still be pursued.

Too Many Standards 

Multi-item surveys or questionnaires seeking opinions of dozens and sometimes hundreds of respondents on presidential performance are of limited use when it comes to accurate performance assessment. Responses by members of the academic community not in a position to closely observe the president amount to opinion polls. It is important to know the attitudes of faculty, staff, students, and other stakeholders toward the president. A reasonable level of approval is very important when seeking to advance an institution amid a crisis. But it is far from the sole standard of effectiveness. One such survey, designed prior to the pandemic, identified more than 150 leadership qualities presumed to define effective executive performance. Its results offered the benefits of an opinion poll but offered little useful direction for enabling the president to develop leadership capacity that would help resolve the dilemmas posed by the current crisis.

Failure to Define the “from-to” Path

Failure to clearly delineate what needs to change, the process for enabling the leader to replace less functional behaviors with better alternatives and to apply the changes in a real-world environment produces little of value. In a crisis, institutions cannot afford the expenditure of time, energy, and money in development efforts not anchored to closing specific capacity gaps. The most effective development travels along a clear “from-to” path that begins with a few functional goals and leads to real world application and evaluation. (See Gurdjian, Pierre, Thomas Halbeisen, and Kevin Lane, “Why Leadership-development Programs Fail,” McKinsey Quarterly, 2014.)


As unfortunate as the pandemic is, it provides both the motivation for presidents to develop their leadership skills and the opportunity to apply them in real time to make a profound difference for their institutions. Presidents who accept the challenge of building their leadership capabilities in this fraught time will emerge wiser, more experienced in managing future crises, and better able to work effectively with their boards and their senior teams.

Terrence MacTaggart, PhD, is a senior consultant and senior fellow for AGB Consulting. He has held the chancellor’s position at the Minnesota State University System and on two occasions at the University of Maine System. 


  • Whether it’s the Great Recession or the COVID-19 pandemic, crises are opportune moments to engage in leadership development. Crises provide the motivation for presidents to develop their leadership skills in real time and make a positive difference for their institutions. Executive growth occurs when leaders adapt their skills, behavior, and attitudes to improve performance amid crises.
  • To be effective during a crisis, presidents must focus on change that makes a difference, engage in collaborative team performance, and apply informed judgement in real time.
  • Executive assessment, coaching, and personal development plans are the tools that convert leadership potential into actualized leadership.
  • Mistakes to avoid include irrelevant criteria in performance reviews, relying too much on mass surveys or questionnaires, and failing to clarify specific outcomes for development.

AGB Resources

AGB Consulting offers services to provide coaching, presidential assessment, and presidential development services. Learn more at assessment and

AGB has released a book, Assessing and Developing College and University Presidents: An Enterprise Leadership Approachalso by Terrence MacTaggart.

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