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Leading through coronavirus: strategy, sweet spots and shifting to sustaining

06 Apr 2020 | Jo Chaffer Jo Chaffer presents the first blogpost in her multi-part series supporting strategic thinking and action for higher education leadership through the global COVID-19 pandemic.

This new series of blogs gathers intelligence, practice and action from across the world to critically examine the options and opportunities for university leadership as we shift through crisis to the new ‘normals’ that a fundamentally different operating environment keeps churning up. Specifically, we examine strategy-as-was through the lenses of the COVID-19 pandemic and response, to explore what still holds true, what doesn’t and ‘what next’ into the short, medium and long-term futures.

This series brings together personal reflections and insights from university leadership in the UK, Australia and Central, South and East Asia.

In each blogpost we offer critical questions and tool kits we have found to be effective. And most importantly we seek your comments, feedback and ideas to keep growing all of our practice to be the best we can be.

We aim to provide challenge and support to bring enough calm and confidence to keep evolving.

This first piece takes a look outwards to what others are doing (and why); adds a smattering of helpful tools and models from leadership practice /research, then asks what can we usefully draw from this for our own here-and-now.


‘What’s on your mind?’

The killer question adopted by Facebook is where we start. It’s also where we stay and where we focus. Where we are now, with what has just come and what is happening around us is the place of greatest certainty, the most ‘known’, practically, emotionally, relationally and in most other ‘-ally’s that come to mind.

The evolving now is where it’s at and the best, possibly the only, place we have to do the leadership that is needed for our people and our organisations. The complex, big picture world ‘out there’ is uncertainty personified, unpredictable and unfathomable beyond most of our imaginings and falls largely into the ‘out of our control’ realm of thinking. The people we are with and their perspectives, the place we are at, the practices and experiences we bring with us into the now … these are within our realms.

To get into the now: notice what’s on your mind – name it, face it and when you’re done, let it pass. For a moment or two …all clear? Now you’re sitting (un)comfortably we’ll begin…



Crisis Covid-19

The first actions of crisis have been to keep people safe, reduce and remove contact between all of our people. The responses, reporting and ‘noise’ of higher education has been around the rallying to shift teaching and learning resources to online and other non-contact forms of delivery and engagement. We’ve heard of some marvels, some great leaps forward and some of the struggles too as providers surged to support students through a new, remote type of experience.

Australian universities, initially at the receiving end of fairly derisory comments on strategies ‘over-reliant’ on Chinese students (up to 20% of income in some cases), have seen those views about-turn as they suddenly gained first-mover advantage in the dash to get virtual. This space is no longer available for the UK’s research-intensive HEIs with similar overseas-income based business models who are still at the pinch end of the pandemic and reportedly feeling “very vulnerable” financially. Timing? Luck? Maybe; maybe not.

Timing and luck come into the mix of leadership perceptions, however, it is more useful to focus on the aspects of doing leadership that lay within our control. Actions such as looking outwards, asking different questions and weaving together many different incomplete perspectives – the stuff of active, liberal leadership….

How we act now, how we are with our people (and this means all of our people – gardeners, hourly-paid lecturers, post-docs… not just those balance-building undergrads and internationals) will I suspect determine how we are viewed and how we are judged as the crisis phase shifts into new normal. Some US colleges have gone into overdrive reaching out to help students feel taken care of, connected and part of the community. The media has had more than enough stories of students kicked out of accommodation with nowhere to go, no money, no visas and no support to recognise that not all have followed this path. How we act now is about building and retaining trust, one of the few currencies in our control and perhaps the most essential in rebuilding from here on up.

The list of actions that universities have taken to adapt, from setting up new departments in days to releasing facilities, equipment and people for frontline deployment is endless and already well-documented. These are not simple things to make happen and the effort involved has been extraordinary. However, they are simple in the immediacy and clarity of what is needed: here is a problem, innovate, authorise and action a solution.

The new normal

When we step back out of the frame to try and gain some strategic perspective on the higher education picture now and into even a very near future, simplicity disappears and is likely replaced by a fuzzy, erratic and unpredictably explosive murk. Unpleasant, noxious and overwhelming to try and navigate. Universities are complex, multi-layered beasts to lead at the best of times but at least we have a grasp of the why, what, how and how much of them in relation to the rest-of-the-world. How do we do lead, how do we think and act strategically when that world is no longer as we know it and still changing?

The imperative is to start to move towards a new normal: we cannot persist in crisis mode for long, it’s exhausting and, worse, we are likely to become inured to it. Students, staff, stakeholders and partners are currently extending generous lassitude as they accept our first steps in online, in reduced hours, in unfulfilled contracts and payments. That won’t last long.

The shiny newness of the physically isolated/virtual hyper-connected world is being replaced by boredom, frustration and a sense of our vulnerability. We are already hearing the first compensation and fee refund claims; hearing the ‘too much screen time’ cries; the tech fail narks; home-life boundaries melted away and legalisms buzzing about. And politically the US / Europe-China blame games continue to escalate.

The longer we sit in uncertainty, the greater the ambiguity, the more anxiety rises. And, as we’re all aware, one person’s mild anxiety can amplify to a furious free-for-all if left unchecked in the cauldron of social media. There’s a bundle of evidence from out there that suggests of the choices for leadership at such times, stepping into the ambiguity with purpose and confidence is a far more successful strategy than trying to process it out or avoid it.

What does this mean? It means actively seeking information, facing into it, naming it, making choices, taking decisions based on what we know (and what we don’t) and doing what is needed to keep leading into today. It means vulnerability-courage, hearing the hard stuff, keeping questioning, asking ‘what else?’ and making good-enough-for-now choices. Then repeat again tomorrow. And so on……

Keep stepping in and stepping back, dancing the dance towards sustainability…

What strategies, tactics and tools do we have to help us?

Forget predicting the future: it doesn’t work, no matter how good the tea-leaves or how many billions of dollars you throw at it (as evidenced by oil companies and the price of a barrel). Some strategists suggest scenario planning – great if you at least know some of the variables and their range of impact and influence. I suggest we ‘know’ one or two but are such a long way into ‘unprecedented’ terrain to be beyond talking about risk. What we are considering are fundamental uncertainties, the ‘don’t know what we don’t know’ end of the analytics curve.

Learning from the past: maybe. There have been wise words shared about universities in the aftermath of hurricanes, earthquakes, all-out strikes and other massive disruptions. Some good tactics and tools and also not quite ‘enough’. Many of the events the authors describe were either time-limited (the thing happened, we now have to recover), or scale limited (we’re hammered but shops are still open, planes fly, economies rumble on). COVID-19 and the response is everything and everywhere (currently 107 countries have shut their HE sectors). It needs these tactics and more.

If the future is a blur, the past limited in its lessons – that leaves the present and those aspects of strategic leadership that do not change regardless:

  • why we exist (our purpose or guiding principles)
  • what we believe in and guides how we act (our values)
  • what makes us inimitable (our uniqueness).

The big W’s will (or should) underpin our decision-making: does this action help us serve our purpose, does it align with our values? If yes, then consider it. If no, it’s not who we are – reject. Does this action serve and strengthen our uniqueness?

For some universities the purpose, values and uniqueness will have served you well for centuries, for others they may now be tested and may be found to be wanting. Question them, keep questioning everything until it feels right (‘feels right’ could be deploying some fast and furious heuristics; it could be checking-in with your teams and your teams of teams…).

We also have all of the tool kits and techniques that have served us well in the past. We just need to use them critically, differently and possibly daily.

Sending out tentacles, keeping antennae buzzing for intelligence from inside and outside, from domains on the edges of our vision is essential. And also impossible for one or two acting alone. A ‘team of teams’ approach, given direction-enough and freedom-enough to keep seeking and analysing has been widely used from country invasions (McChrystal) to financial management. Could it work for you?

What tools did you use in your strategic planning? Balanced Scorecard, SWOT, PESTLE, PROFIT...If they worked for you in the past they will likely work for you now. But use them differently. Use them daily. Use them version-lite. Use them on whiteboards where yesterday’s intel and thinking can be erased as it becomes redundant and today’s latest news can be added instead. Keep adding layers, looking for patterns, inviting everyone in to do the same (fish-bowling). Keep questioning.

Whilst COVID-19 is sucking up all our attention also reserve a few eyeballs and ears for the smaller, but possibly undiminished ‘regular’ threats and opportunities that occupied our minds before all of this. Hackers are still after our data, loans getting cheaper, corporate alliances still worthwhile...

Create the habits, the structures and rituals that provide a safe-enough place to step out of command and control and into critical and deeper noticing, thinking and decision-making, safe-enough and problematised-enough: search out the sweet spot for ongoing, collaborative strategising to keep stepping forward confident-enough and purposeful-enough, sense-making and –breaking over the shifting ground beneath our feet.

Learn the art of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, with not knowing, with being “in mysteries” as Keats portrayed it. This barely visible ‘reflexive inaction’ is the yin to the yang of the high-octane, high-vis, big-action leadership of the crisis days and, I would argue, a craft of leadership that could very well sustain us and maybe even make us better, in all senses of the word.

A last note

Let’s not forget that many leaders don’t have any choice at all: for example, university leaders in Uzbekistan and Myanmar whose sectors are centralised with very limited operational and academic autonomy have their actions wholly directed by their respective governments, down to individuals’ daily leadership duties.


I have drawn on a huge amount of sources and voices for this blog piece. The nature of the blogs means we don’t provide footnotes or bibliographies. However, if you would like to know more about any of the ideas or information presented I am happy to share.


In the next blog we have thoughts from university leadership in the UK, Asia and Australasia to share. We asked them to respond to three questions:

  1. What is COVID-19 (and government measures) revealing about your existing strategy: specifically your purpose (mission / vision) and values?
  2. What blind spots (gaps / weaknesses) and sweet spots (strengths) in your strategic approach is the pandemic revealing?
  3. Beyond the immediate crisis, how do you expect the answers to (1) an (2) to change strategic approaches and action in the mid to long term future?

If you’d like to respond (anonymously if you prefer) we would love to hear from you and include your reflections in the next blog. Please get in touch with by 12 April.

Advance HE's Leadership Summit 2020 - Leading with Humanity ran as an online event on 10 June due to Covid-19. The summit provided the opportunity for colleagues to share, debate and network to ensure a strong sector for the future. 


We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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