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Higher Education Leadership in a Pandemic Age – from crisis to connected campus

09 Jul 2020 | Doug Parkin Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, introduces the sixth and final Leadership Intelligence Report from our Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project (SDCE), the Capstone Report.

This blog is an abridged version of the article which introduces the Capstone paper. The full article additionally contains extracts from nine leadership interviews that have been a key part of the enquiry process.

To mark the publication of the final SDCE Capstone Report and to give colleagues an opportunity to join the conversation we have arranged a combined webinar (14 July) and Twitter chat (16 July). Further details are provided at the end of this blog.

Higher Education Leadership in a Pandemic Age – from crisis to connected campus

    Extraordinary times require outstanding leadership.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing higher education institutions around the world to have to make very rapid strategic shifts and gear changes. Our focus in the SDCE project has been on the priority area of student education and experience, but it is important to note in terms of leadership energy and capacity that the full breadth of institutional endeavour has been disrupted and displaced. From research facilities and the administration of multi-million pound/dollar estates through to enterprise initiatives and community engagement commitments, every aspect of our normal continuity has been torn apart by the fault line of COVID-19.   

Leadership is in every sense, a balancing act. Leaders in good times and bad grapple with the balance between freedom and control, achieving the task whilst supporting people, continuity and change, direction and participation, being analytical and being creative, and so on. One of these leadership balances that relates to strategy is the balance between the fast and the slow. Which decisions can be made quickly because fast action is required, the level of complexity is low and the cost of delay would be undesirable? And which initiatives need time and space, high levels of collaborative engagement, and an emergent approach that learns from each progressive step through discussion and the use of multiple talents? Getting the fast/slow balance right is part of the essence of effective strategic leadership. However, the new pandemic landscape has forced the hand of institutions and quick and decisive action has been needed in virtually every area of activity due to the new and imminent risk to health caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. Teaching programmes have been rapidly moved online, alternative assessments have been put in place, campuses have been closed, students and staff have been required to study and work from home, university/college open days have become virtual events, leaders have had to find new ways of communicating… the list goes on. This illustrates that the line between fast and slow decision making has been fractured.

Then, just as those ‘fast’ challenges seem to have slightly abated, university leadership is having to shift gear again to put in place a complete spectrum of new campus arrangements, with social or spatial distancing, in readiness for the start of the next session/academic year, in most cases blended with an online teaching and learning infrastructure. And the slow, the longer-term, the carefully thought through strategies for the next three to five years, they may now seem somewhat lost or unachievable, or at the very least in need of significant review and realignment.

Throughout the SDCE project, the need for balance, the need to re-balance systems, expectations and relationships, has come through strongly as one of the key features of effective higher education leadership in this pandemic age, as we move from crisis to connected campus. Alongside this, transformational leadership (Bass, 1985) has come across as being of central importance in all of these discussions. Rather than transactional give-and-get relationships, the transformational approach to leadership that is about human energy, trust, being part of something that matters, and achieving great things based on purpose and principles, despite both adversity and huge uncertainty, has shown through as the basis for deeper levels of engagement.

The five faces of transformational leadership that have come to the fore in the discussions, interactions and collective learning engagements that have taken place within the SDCE project are:

  • Crisis leadership,
  • Courageous leadership,
  • Compassionate leadership,
  • Collaborative leadership,
  • Creative leadership.

Crisis leadership

    There is nothing like a crisis to define who you are.

The following text on crisis leadership is taken from a blog called Emotionally Intelligent Leadership in a Time of Crisis: fear and reassurance published by Advance HE on 27 March 2020 (Parkin, 2020):

“Few, if any, in this new and rapidly evolving COVID-19 world would disagree that we are facing a crisis. Whilst this is not a piece specifically on crisis leadership, it would be useful to give that some definition. When asked by a young journalist what his biggest fear was in leading the country former British prime minister, Harold MacMillan, is reported to have said “events, dear boy, events”. So, firstly, a crisis is definitely a significant adverse event. Ulmer et al. (2007) go further describing a crisis as a “specific, unexpected, and non-routine event or series of events that create high levels of uncertainty and threaten or are perceived to threaten an organisation’s high-priority goals”. Secondly, then, the two-fold emotional challenge of uncertainty and threat is another feature impacting all parts of the community concerned. The third factor to highlight is disruption. Everything from day-to-day routines and work habits through to fundamental questions of purpose and identity may be disrupted and come into question.

How, then, should leaders respond? Well, as ever leadership is about balance. On the one hand, there is the pressure to act, to manage the situation, to focus on the task, get things done and make things right. There is something very natural here in organisational terms, as critically urgent situations readily trigger prescribed management solutions. However, the danger is that whilst a crisis may create urgency it seldom renders a predictable or stable landscape. On the other hand, there is the need to support people through the often difficult transitions that are confronted during unforecast and unpredictable change. This is one of the great leadership balances, task-focus and people-focus, and having too much of one without the other is at best problematic.

Writing on the subject of crisis leadership, Tim Johnson (2017) observes that “crisis leaders routinely battle with two biases”. The first he terms ‘intervention bias’ and the second is about abdication. The intervention bias is the drive to do something or to fix things, perhaps before fully assessing the situation – or letting the proverbial dust settle – and this can lead to poor decisions and making inappropriate undertakings and commitments, and also possibly excluding the key people that need to be involved. Abdication by contrast is about not taking responsibility, inaction, unhelpful delay which increases uncertainty and possibly even blaming others. Resolving these two biases is not simple, but the essence of it may lie in doing what really needs to be done in the here and now and then engaging in a process of “constant reassessment” working with others as the situation continues to unfold. In relation to incident-driven crises Johnson goes so far as to suggest that leaders should “resist the urge to do anything immediately”.”

As the piece says, “critically urgent situations readily trigger prescribed management solutions” and that may bring about a more directive or ‘gold command’ (a term used as part of a command hierarchy by some emergency services) approach to leadership. The driver style, as it is sometimes termed, sets out immediate performance expectations or goals, evaluates ideas and contributions in relation to these, and may use incentives and pressures to achieve what needs to be done. This style is fast, authority-based, assertive, and task-focussed.

A directive style used sparingly and in context, and with a clear rationale linked to purpose and ‘why we are doing what we are doing’, certainly has its place, and there can be no stronger rationale than an imminent threat to life and health.

Something to watch out for is that the crisis approach to leadership does not become habitual. Over reliance on it could very well lead to a loss of trust, engagement and collective commitment, and would stifle the creative energies of the university/college community. Similarly, rapid and repeated cycles of crisis leadership could be devastating to motivation and commitment, and so it is important to change gear quickly to more open, involving and consultative forms of leadership dialogue.

Courageous leadership

    “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.” (Aristotle)

One of the greatest pitfalls of leadership is the feeling that you should have all of the answers. An even greater pitfall is trying to portray that you do. True courage is honestly showing your own vulnerability as a leader, and saying openly when you do not know and when the path is not clear. This also links with ideas of authenticity, showing who you really are to others or ‘being yourself with skill’. The elements of authentic leadership have been described as self-awareness, internalised moral perspective, balanced processing and relational transparency (Walumbwa et al. 2008).

In a piece written for Forbes in 2018, Margie Warrell observes that “the heart of brave leadership is the willingness to take action amid uncertainty; to do what is right over what's expedient, and to risk failing and falling short in the process”. On the emotional inside this involves a high degree of psychological risk-taking and resilience. In a fascinating piece of work around this same subject, researcher and author, Brené Brown, highlights the importance of embracing vulnerability as a source of power and choosing “courage over comfort in a culture defined by scarcity, fear and uncertainty” (‘The Call to Courage’ – a Netflix special filmed in front of a live audience at UCLA, premiered on 19th April 2019. Brown, 2018.).

Part of brave or courageous leadership is finding the critically decisive moment in which to provide clarity. Too soon and people will feel disenfranchised and without a voice; too late and the weight of uncertainty can lead to damaging inertia. Being courageous and getting this moment right can be liberating for everyone.

Compassionate leadership

    “A compassionate leader, as well as being a compassionate person, encourages compassion and caring in the wider organisation.” (Poorkavoos, 2016)

The idea of compassionate leadership is an extension of the thinking to be found in relation to emotional intelligence and leadership. Emotional intelligence balances personal competencies, self-awareness and self-management, with social competencies, social awareness and relationship management (Goleman, 1996). Social awareness is also termed ‘empathy’, and this is fundamentally concerned with tuning-into and understanding other people’s emotional makeup and needs, both over time and also their emotional responsiveness in a given situation. The following definitions of emotional intelligence from Peter Salovey and John Mayer (1990) capture this well:

“The ability to monitor one’s own and other’s feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.”

“The ability to perceive and express emotion, assimilate emotion in thought, understand and reason with emotion and regulate emotion in the self and others.”

As we know, unwelcome or unexpected change can cause people to display uncharacteristic emotional responses and the leader’s attunement to these is key to supporting personal transitions through well-functioning relationships. More recently, the psychological discourse has in some areas moved away from or ‘beyond’ the idea of empathy, an intuiting of another’s feelings that could be no more than ‘fine feelings’ or worse, used in morally dubious ways such as to manipulate, and towards instead ideas of kindness and compassion.

“The act of feeling what you think others are feeling – whatever one chooses to call this – is different from being compassionate, from being kind, and most of all, from being good.” (Bloom, 2018)

These are fragile times and without compassion “it is so easy to be regarded as perhaps a bit soulless” (SDCE leadership interview extract) with a focus on bricks and mortar and technology rather than people. In every sense that has importance as the COVID-19 pandemic landscape unfolds it is people that matter (staff, students and others), and everything else exists to support them – that is the truth of the socially distanced campus.

Collaborative leadership

    If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. (African Proverb)

The term co-creation is sometimes used quite liberally, almost as a kind of democratic ideal, and its meaning can feel loose and vague. However, if ever there was a time for co-creation, that time is now. The challenge of rapid change across differentiated disciplines, programmes, courses and contexts to meet an uncertain educational landscape needs the collaborative energy of the whole institutional community (students and staff). It also needs high levels of agency, creativity and accountability from both teams and individuals. Collaborative leadership is fundamentally about appreciating the talents of others as this quote from Steven Spielberg (2011) nicely illustrates:

“When I was a kid, there was no collaboration; it’s you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.”

Collaborative engagement is also an essential prerequisite of firstly ‘collective commitment’ and flowing on from that ‘mutual accountability’ (Parkin, 2017: 115). Without the investment of head and heart, without people having a voice, without opportunities for creativity and shared learning, collective commitment and all the human energy that flows from it is likely – if not certain – to remain elusive. Just because the pace of change is rapid, it does not mean that collaborative engagement and co-creation cannot move equally rapidly. We do not have to remain in crisis mode.

One of the ten points put forward by David Archer and Alex Cameron as part of their manifesto for collaborative leadership is to use collaboration where it fits the situation. They emphasise that “collaboration is a business decision not a moral choice” (2013). And collaboration often works best within a reasonably clear framework, and this is something that leaders can look to provide during periods of large-scale, complex and disruptive change.

Creative leadership

    People are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. (Kimsey-House et al. 2011)

In all of the reports in the SDCE series two things have come across powerfully. Firstly, the highly innovative and creative solutions that colleagues right across the higher education sector have managed to develop and implement in response to the COVID-19 outbreak and the various crisis measures that have been necessary. Secondly, the enormous creative challenge that lies ahead as we look to transform learning and teaching into something that is stable, sustainable and high quality for both existing and new students in a socially distanced and COVID-reactive world.

Leadership always takes place in a context, and there can be few environments more suited to creative, transformational leadership than higher education. The academic endeavour is at its core a creative one. Even very technical and rigorously precise research has a creative basis. From the most complex curriculum review challenge to the most wicked interdisciplinary research question, creativity and positivity unlocks human potential at every stage. It ignites ideas, inspires, and develops focus, commitment and energy. And leadership can and should complement this by being creative and using creativity as the basis for communication, positivity and engagement.

Transforming creative ideas into actions begins with getting the environment right, and this is the essence of positive, creative leadership. In the complex and challenging environment of higher education leadership can so easily become impoverished – lost for time, lost for ideas, lost for direction and lost for commitment. This is even more the case now with the severe perturbations in the system brought about by COVID-19. Fresh approaches to collaborative engagement, as described in the previous section, through a combination of creativity, positivity and shared learning, bridging communities, may hold the answer.

From crisis to connected campus

    A leader connects people with purpose… and purpose with people. (Parkin and Nestor, 2016)

From the directive imperatives of crisis leadership to the participative engagement of collaborative leadership, the journey to a connected campus is going to involve a complex map of twists and turns. It will be far from a linear journey, navigated in forecastable stages, and inspiring and maintaining collective commitment will need all of the faces of transformational leadership described here. So, what do we mean by a connected campus? Well, enticingly it is a term that has a range of interpretations, some of which are as follows:

  • A physical and digital campus with close interconnections,
  • A campus with a coherent and interconnected curriculum portfolio,
  • A campus which is connected with place and community,
  • A campus in which there is a strong alignment with the vision and purpose of the institution – ‘we know what we’re about’,
  • A campus with a multitude of connections with employers, enterprise agencies and a multitude of other stakeholder groups,
  • A campus that is a place to belong and where people feel a strong sense of connection,
  • A campus environment where there are close bonds between students and staff, and the sense of a single community,
  • A campus where people are empowered to discover and develop their own connections,
  • A campus that is no longer fragmented and disconnected as a result of COVID-19.

In whatever way it is achieved, and however it is defined to fit the unique context of the higher education institution concerned, a connected campus is the goal of socially distanced education.

Read the report

Webinar and Twitter chat

To celebrate the publication of the final SDCE Capstone Report and to give colleagues an opportunity to join the conversation we have arranged a combined webinar (14th July) and Twitter chat (16th July).

  • Webinar - "Higher Education Leadership in the Pandemic Age – from crisis to connected campus"

    • For Advance HE members
    • Tuesday, 14th July 2020
    • 08:30 - 10:00 BST
    • Hosted on Zoom
  • Twitter Chat (same title and focus as the webinar)

    • For everyone
    • Thursday, 16th July 2020
    • 15:30 - 17:30 BST
    • Using the hashtags #AdvanceHE_chat #LEADHE

The six questions that will frame the Twitter chat conversation will be as follows:

  1. What do you see as the most significant leadership challenges facing the sector in preparing for the reopening of our campuses and in the longer term?
  2. What style and approach do you see yourself and others bringing to these leadership challenges to achieve what needs to be done (so far as we know) at the same time as ensuring inclusion?
  3. How should leaders be approaching the challenge of communication? Are there any good practices that you would advocate or pitfalls to be avoided?
  4. What should be the approach to working in partnership with others – individuals and stakeholder groups (particularly students and student representatives)?
  5. When rapidly transforming strategy, how alongside this can leaders help organisational culture to evolve in a supportive and enabling way? How can we enhance community and belonging?
  6. In these exceptional times for HE, how can leaders balance looking after people and their wellbeing (kindness, compassion, humanity and empathy) with at the same time finding direction and making clear choices?



Archer, D. and Cameron, A. (2013) Collaborative Leadership: Building Relationships, Handling Conflict and Sharing Control, 2nd edn. London: Routledge

Bass, B. M. (1985) Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations. New York: Free Press.

Bloom, P. (2016) Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. New York: Ecco Press.

Brown, B. (2018) Dare to Lead: brave work, tough conversations, whole hearts. London: Vermilion.

Goleman, D. (1996) What Makes a Leader? Harvard Business Review, June

Johnson, T. (2017) Crisis Leadership: How to lead in times of crisis, threat and uncertainty. London: Bloomsbury Business.

Kimsey-House, H. Kimsey-House, K. Sandahl, P. and Whitworth, L. (2011) Co-Active Coaching: Changing Business, Transforming Lives (3rd Edition). Boston, USA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Parkin, D. and Nestor, R. (2016) Connected leadership: connecting people with purpose. Available at [accessed 25 June 2020]. London: Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (now Advance HE).

Parkin, D. (2017). Leading Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: The key guide to designing and delivering courses. Oxon and New York: Routledge.

Parkin, D. (2020) Emotionally Intelligent Leadership in a Time of Crisis: fear and reassurance. Available at [accessed 25 June 2020).

Poorkavoos, M. (2016) Compassionate Leadership: what it is and why do organisations need more of it? Horsham: Roffey Park Institute.

Salovey, P. and Mayer, J. D. (1990) Emotional Intelligence. Imagination, Cognition, and Personality, 9(3): 185– 211.

Spielberg, S. (2011) The Adventures of Spielberg: An Interview. New York Times, http:// 2011/ 12/ 20/ the-adventures-of-spielberg-an-interview/?_r = 0

Ulmer, R. R., Sellnow, T. L. and Seeger, M. W. (2007) Effective Crisis Communication: Moving from Crisis to Opportunity, 2nd edn. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Wernsing, T. S. and Peterson, S. J. (2008) Authentic leadership: Development and validation of a theory-based measure. Journal of Management, 34(1), 89-126.

Warrell, M. (2018) Brave Leadership: Seven Hallmarks of Truly Courageous Leaders. Available at [accessed 25 June 2020]



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