At this time of an unprecedented global pandemic and the now overshadowed challenge of Brexit, it’s important to avoid platitude or glibness when talking about how leaders should be responding. We can take as read that senior figures are very aware of the level of challenge that the current environment is presenting, hour by hour. However, the following from Peter Drucker has particular resonance right now, “The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday's logic.”
Ronald Heifetz, one of the originators of the Adaptive Leadership approach, goes further, maintaining that in chaotic and unprecedented times, leaders cannot be seduced by the familiarity of business-as-usual solutions and must let go of existing plans, hopes and dreams to do the uncomfortable, but essential, work of facing in to the difficult realities. Once they have come to terms and engaged with the new reality leaders can begin the work of focussing organisational attention and effort on constructing a more appropriate way forward. And this process can’t happen soon enough.
There’s no doubt that many of us are in this difficult space right now, caught between the unfolding shock of new circumstances, and the pressing realities of how to deal with them.
Doing Being Ordinary
While all eyes will be on leaders and managers to offer calm direction in difficult times, they are also human and subject to the same psychological processes as anyone else. The exceptional Sociologist Harvey Sacks talks about the strong cognitive bias in all of us to ascribe quotidian explanations to the extraordinary in a process he calls, “doing being ordinary”. Our brains are configured to fold the new, novel or shocking into a business as usual mindset. In a more normal operating environment this is a problem for leaders, but in turbulent times, when leaders need to get to grips with reality quickly, this is a real risk.
Institutional culture can also sing a siren song to leaders, entrenching them in ideas that certain activities or directions are off the table as, “not the way we do things around here”. For those of you currently engaged in the some of the previously unthinkable elements of moving all teaching and learning online will know, all bets are currently off regarding how and what is required activity in order to meet the current need.
At this moment, we have a picture of leaders, potentially isolated in their own homes, dealing on a personal and professional level with an unfolding and radical situation like nothing we have ever experienced. At the same time, we might see leaders needing to face difficult realities and being subject to psychological processes that want to pull them back into the familiar territory of “yesterday’s logic”.
Powerful Questions to Ask Yourself
Perhaps you should consider asking yourself some brave questions along these lines:
What realities are you not currently facing? For example, that the institutional strategy might, in fact, need to change, and now!
What might you need to let go of in order to move forward? For example, an important personal project in which you have invested time and energy, but now needs to go on the back burner
What parts of your culture are holding you back? For example, does your institutional culture need to become more comfortable with failure and error in order to encourage experimentation?
Notwithstanding their isolation, leaders cannot answer these questions alone. They also need to put in place the conditions to hold the provocative and challenging conversations that can move them out of their comfort zones and into their uncomfortable reality. This requires dialogue with their teams, colleagues and mentors to begin this work along with a whole new way of communicating to balance challenge, accountability and trust.
One difficulty though in reaching into a familiar culture with these questions is that the answers might themselves lack diversity and be, y’ know, too familiar. Thinking from beyond one’s own culture, and getting distance from yourself, is one good reason why working with an executive coach can be helpful. Finding a source of productive challenge and a form of reality-check, in an environment of support, is worth its weight in gold. For objective, fresh and honest conversation this might be one of the best strategies to employ.
Lisa Sofianos is an Advance HE key associate, executive coach and facilitator
If you are interested in engaging a coach, Advance HE have a team of qualified coaches who are experienced in working with HE leaders and managers. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.