I was talking to my son about Australian gum trees and how their survival depends upon the cycle of devastating bush fires that sweep large swathes of the country every year. The tough seed pods of the tree can only germinate in the heat of a fire. The ash of the burned forest nourishes the shoots and the space cleared by the devastation allows the young seedlings essential access to sunlight.
It doesn’t take a trained psychologist to understand why that image of something new born out of catastrophe has stayed with me in the current circumstances and it has propelled my thinking into the territory of Post Traumatic Growth (Tedeschi and Calhoun). This is the idea that alongside the loss and horror of trauma, is a potential for lasting positive transformation. This potential doesn’t lie in the traumatic event itself, but in the psychological shifts that we make as we struggle to accommodate the new reality.
It’s important to accept that we have all experienced some level of trauma during the pandemic. Some of us have faced huge challenges. Even if we consider that we have been relatively lucky, we have had to face the frightening unknown without any of our usual support and comforts. We are all engaged in exhausting levels of emotional labour as we struggle to stay motivated and professional in our work, just as we feel overwhelmed and fearful. Despite this, the sector has demonstrated immense levels of resilience and if we understand resilience as the ability to carry on in the face of difficulty then this in itself is a great accomplishment. But what if there is the chance for something longer-lasting and transformational about how we have managed to endure, that we need to articulate and build into the post-Covid HE sector?
Working online and at home has allowed us a unique opportunity to understand the realities of people’s lives as they’ve struggled for space in a house share, or valiantly tried to home-school and work full-time, or balanced being a carer and a university employee.
We’ve show compassion to people who were relative strangers in the past. We’ve seen comfort win over sharp suits, confronted lockdown haircuts with humour, leant on each other for support and shared tribulations. We’ve sacrificed freedoms to help others. Traditional notions of professionalism and gravitas have been deeply questioned.
The reality is that we will be dealing with unwinding trauma for a significant time in workplaces and perhaps the answers to how we will do so lie in what we have learned in the past year.
The real challenge for senior leaders is not just how to embody the humane and empathetic leadership that is required now, but to create systems and cultures that reflect this. How do we make kinder institutions that leverage the learning that we have made during the pandemic and allow weary people to function and thrive? And how do we make sure that this unique opportunity does not pass us by?
Perhaps a starting point is to consider how you might answer these questions about your institution:
- How have our priorities changed?
- What do we value now?
- How have our relationships changed?
- How do we want to operate now?
If you are looking for a place to reflect on these questions and, more importantly, to act upon them in your institution, then you might consider the Advance HE Strategic Leadership Programme (SLP), where dynamics such as these are explored, challenged and rendered actionable.
SLP is an open programme for HE leaders looking to enact strategic projects in their institution, across the sector or beyond. If the pandemic has given you a resolve for change then we look forward to meeting you.
Lisa Sofianos is a senior associate and coach at Advance HE, and co-facilitates Advance HE’s Strategic Leadership Programme along with a number of other open and bespoke senior HE leadership programmes. She works internationally and across all sectors in the fields of organisational development, change leadership, strategic leadership and authentic leadership.