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Return to Campus: leading back better

08 Apr 2021 | Doug Parkin Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, reflects on the current return to campus challenge and what it may mean to lead back better in the emerging environment for higher education.

Return to campus, address the unknown 

With immediate apologies for the dreadful play on the classic Presley lyrics (Return to Sender, 1962), but as the return to campus happens or continues across higher education how can leaders start to address the unknown? There is both a colossal ongoing management challenge – and this has been the case with numerous gear shifts throughout the Covid-19 pandemic – and alongside this a profound question of leadership engagement.  

A big part of leadership is creating energy and focus around the things that matter, sometimes through direction, sometimes setting the pace, and sometimes through collaborative and participative engagement. It is not one thing. You can’t hang leadership on a single peg, and it is dangerous to even try. Studies have shown that successful engaging leadership uses a collection of distinct styles in unison and that this should be a function of strategic choice rather than personality (Goleman, 2000). All of that said, and following the extraordinary and tragic 12 months that we have collectively experienced, firstly what matters now, and secondly how can that be progressed in a climate of fatigue-fuelled fragility? 

Exploring the theme of ‘leading back better’ this blog will touch on: 

  • the environment for leadership – moving from VUCA to BANI

  • the language of normality – from ‘new normal’ to getting ‘back to normal’ (whose normal is it anyway?)

  • the layers of change that operate at different speeds (lasting change takes time). 

It will also reflect on lessons that can still be learnt from Advance HE’s Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education project (May to July 2020), and look forward to the forthcoming Spotlight Series II for senior strategic leaders: reset, re-energise and rejuvenate. 

From VUCA to BANI 

If you have engaged with leadership development before you may have come across the term VUCA. It is quite a well-known acronym used to capture the turbulent and hard to forecast nature of a business or operational environment. The letters stand for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. VUCA first appeared in the work of the US Army War College in the 1980s and has since been used and readily identified with in many other contexts, including higher education (HE). Unfavourable policy environments, marketisation, internationalisation, press scrutiny, changing fee structures and shifting demographics are some of the factors that have year-on-year heightened the HE sector’s sense of VUCA. But maybe it was ever thus. As Andrew Stanley (2011: 80) says, “uncertainty is a permanent part of the leadership landscape – it never goes away”

But maybe the tears of uncertainty (or, perhaps, ‘tiers of uncertainty’) we have experienced over the last year, personally, professionally and in our communities have taken us to a different place. A place of unknowns that is more fragile and brittle than we have ever experienced before. The futurist Jamais Cascio in a blog called Facing the Age of Chaos (April 2020) has put forward an intentional parallel to VUCA in the form of BANI:

VUCA vs BANI acronyms

Cascio describes BANI as “A framework to articulate the increasingly commonplace situations in which simple volatility or complexity are insufficient lenses through which to understand what’s taking place”.  

Responding to BANI as leaders will require a combination of poise and vulnerability. A kind of sweet spot where we show confidence but not too much. In a fascinating paper from McKinsey (2020), the global management consulting company, exploring how to overcome pandemic fatigue, they put forward the notion of ‘bounded optimism’ saying that leaders “need to display inspiration, hope, and optimism that’s tempered by reality and help their people make meaning out of the circumstances by creating an understanding of what’s happening, and what responses are appropriate”. Social constructivism describes learning as a collective process of making meaning out of the experiences available to us, and in so many ways that is where our institutional communities, staff and students, find themselves now. To promote engagement and lead back better, leaders will need to demonstrate the poise to ask good questions and the vulnerability not to have all the answers (a classic leadership trap). Coming back to the McKinsey report there is a beautiful sentence that captures why meaning matters: “meaning builds confidence, efficacy, and endurance but also can serve as a balm if the outcome takes longer or is different from what is expected”

Another aspect of responding to BANI may be resisting the rush to certainty. Tempting though it may be, a hollow vision at the moment may be worse for engagement than no vision at all. We have to process the past, at least to some degree, before we can start shaping the future, particularly now. This is important for both individual wellbeing and organisational resilience. Discussing current strategic priorities with senior colleagues on a recent Spotlight Session (a short, focused online leadership workshop from Advance HE) I was struck by both the meaning and the values captured in this very human contribution from one participant: 

Our priority is… To get through the next few months whilst really looking after people. 

There were virtual nods of agreement all round. 

Whose normal is it anyway? 

New normal – next normal – back to normal – what is normal? The language of normality has been an interesting conceptual journey in itself over the last year. For some the pandemic landscape brought about by Covid has asserted a fearful normality that would have been unimaginable previously, such as those forced to shield in almost complete isolation. A theatre of cruelty has played itself out in so many aspects of people’s lives. And within higher education the upturned expectations and experiences of students and staff have been part of this drama. 

Reflecting back to the early months of the pandemic, for some there was almost a sense of excitement in the words ‘new normal’. Perhaps at last here was a driver strong enough to displace the status quo in a good way, and a new order would emerge. Then came a more reasoned way of seeing things as unfolding chapters, both unpredictable and yet somehow inevitable, and the term ‘next normal’ took hold. And as fatigue has intensified in the last few months the more familiar phrase ‘back to normal’ has been heard increasingly, as a yearning for everything that we have lost has grown in people’s hearts. This could be termed covalgia, an affectionate desire for life as it was before the virus. 

This actually reflects a fairly natural series of collective psychological responses. The heroic response to a significant crisis is followed by a honeymoon of community cohesion before disillusionment and even grief takes hold. It is then a cautious journey of upward steps, reviewing and reimagining, and working through the trauma to the post-crisis future. In some way, and in some sense, getting back to normal. Models of this kind even include anniversary triggers of the type we are experiencing now, one year on. 

Set against this journey of transition, it is useful for leaders to appreciate two things. Firstly, that those things which are truly fundamental will always reassert themselves. Secondly, the importance of enduring purpose and core values.  

As an example of the first, human beings, like just about all mammals, are fundamentally social creatures, and linked to this learning is above all else a human relationship. Strip away the relational aspect of engagement and all you are left with is dry transactional processing: we give, we get, we walk away. Whilst this may work for a while with some basic exchanges, it is nowhere near enough for leading the complexity involved in research and education. Where successful this involves a depth of intellectual and emotional investment from both individuals and the collective. So, whilst virtual working and learning has served us well to get through the pandemic perturbations of the last 12 months it has not been sufficiently rich or relational to satisfy our natural human yearning to connect. Leaders will need to work closely with their community of colleagues and students to re-establish these important human bonds. 

On the second point about purpose, well, purpose is the point! Without it there is no basis for collective engagement and truly interdependent work and learning. “Purpose—not strategy—is the reason an organization exists,” according to Christopher Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal (1994: 88) and “its definition and articulation must be top management’s first responsibility”. Without such an effective and enduring articulation of purpose, along with the associated core values that enable its expression, there is no organisational basis for deeper connections. At this stage in the ‘return to campus’ story good leaders will instinctively know that the re-expression of purpose may be everything. 

Lasting change takes time 

It takes but a minute to change something but change itself takes time… Welcome to one of the key paradoxes of change: change without change. It is something that can often be a strong feature of the university experience, particularly for those colleagues who have been in post for some time: 

It is not at all unusual to come across ‘change without change’ in universities, colleges, and other educational contexts. To use the Titanic analogy, the deckchairs have been rearranged, sometimes at great cost – financial, relational, and psychological – but the commitment to take the ship in a new direction remains far from evident. And so, the reality often is that very little really changes in terms of firstly the behaviours needed for success, and secondly the mindsets required for the diverse educational community, all staff and students, to thrive.”

Bishop, Gentle and Parkin, 2020: 33

A key question within this is ‘how long is now?’ When someone says that something needs to change now, what exactly do they mean? Well, on one level they may have a very clear understanding regarding what they mean: now means now. But on other levels, such as the levels (or layers) of culture, governance and human nature, now may mean very different things. In the pivot to online teaching that took place across higher education in the UK during March and April 2020 the imperative pressure was to have an immediate, safe alternative to face-to-face teaching (that was the short now). In similar ways research groups and professional teams had to very quickly establish new ways of communicating and collaborating online, for both themselves and others. This was a process of rapid and pragmatic change, building swift trust around decisions made and celebrating the affordances of new technologies, particularly video conferencing.  

The head moved quickly, as did the hand, but the heart will have moved at a slower pace. And this is where the challenge lies. Firstly, understanding if the change is desirable longer term, in full or in part, and secondly transforming the cultural norms, established thinking and behavioural habits that will matter deeply to many of the people concerned (this is the long now). With any change you make there is always a short now and a long now and understanding and balancing both is key to successfully leading sustainable change. A brilliantly insightful model which beautifully illustrates this balance as a series of pace or change layers comes from Steward Brand in an intriguingly titled book called The Clock of the Long Now (1999). As the figure below illustrates, there are fast and, perhaps, rather chaotic layers that innovate, such as the short now of fashion, and there are deeper and slower layers that stabilise, such as the long now of culture and even nature itself. And as Brand says, “the whole combines learning with continuity”

The Clock of the Long Now

The successful return to campus will be a respectful and inclusive combination of continuity and change and leading back better will value stability just us much as disruption, and community just as much as progress. And no matter how fast or urgent things may feel, it is important to remember that “change, like healing, takes time” (Roth, 2013: 512). 

The Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education project (SDCE) 

As the return to campus happens or continues across higher education it is timely to reflect on lessons that can still be learnt from the thinking and planning that went into the re-opening of campuses following the onset on the Covid-19 pandemic (at the beginning of the 2020/21 academic year in the UK [September/October 2020], and at other points in the annual academic cycle in some other countries and regions). To support the HE sector in collectively exploring the complex set of questions arising from the initial crisis, Advance HE launched and facilitated the Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education project (SDCE) which took place between May and July 2020. 

Designed as an opportunity to engage with key facets of the question ‘when we open our campuses, HOW are we going to do that?’ the SDCE project engaged 300 senior educational leaders from the UK and around the world through collaborative dialogue and generative thinking. The conversations and the open sharing of insights and ideas that took place during the SDCE workshops were extremely rich and resulted in a series of key publications, the first five for Advance HE members and the Final Capstone Report available to all:  

  1. SDCE Project - Leadership Intelligence Report - Induction

  1. SDCE Project - Leadership Intelligence Report - Space and Place 

  1. SDCE Project - Leadership Intelligence Report - Design and Delivery

  1. SDCE Project - Leadership Intelligence Report - Quality

  1. SDCE Project - Leadership Intelligence Report - Inclusion 

  1. SDCE Project - Final Capstone Report

High levels of uncertainty remain regarding the degree to which campus environments, student learning opportunities, and educational provision will need to be socially distanced as we look towards the remainder of 2021 and beyond, and a straight, linear path back to normality is extremely unlikely. There is also a wealth of experience and learning within the sector, now, that can be drawn upon and shared, with the safety and quality of life and learning of every student and staff colleague driving our decisions.  

Looking back through the SDCE reports, there are a wealth of examples, practical ideas and guiding principles that are still of high value today. There are numerous lessons that can still be learnt from their pages for the ongoing ‘return to campus’, whether or not you have looked through them before. Regarding leadership specifically, and as an example, the following are some headline strategic approaches taken from the Final Capstone Report (Parkin and Brown, 2020: 67 and 68): 

  • Ensure that a method of continuous reassessment is an integral component of your decision-making processes, 

  • Balance providing clarity of direction with freedom to act, 

  • Bring everything back to purpose, and linked to this set out a core set of guiding principles, 

  • As regards inclusion and wellbeing, aim to bake-in solutions in a sustainable and joined-up way, rather than just bolting them on, 

  • As this SDCE project has sought to exemplify, use co-creation and collaborative enquiry as your basis for engagement with both students and staff, 

  • Aim to employ a human-centred design methodology to combine innovation with problem-solving, 

  • Make risk assessment a reflex, 

  • As regards governance, what is your ‘corporate’ source of truth (to evidence decision making and provide an audit trail)? 

  • Come up with you own distinctive vision for a ‘connected campus’, 

  • When the Covid-19 shadow passes where will you be as an organisation? Explore scenarios of where you would you like to be, 

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate! 

This remains an extremely powerful set of advice for ‘leading back better’, and as the Final Capstone Report concludes (page 68): 

“Emergent change leadership approaches will be needed. However, have faith, energy and conviction. There are answers. There are solutions. And you will find them. You are experts in your own context!” 

Spotlight Series II for senior strategic leaders – reset, re-energise and rejuvenate 

To support senior strategic leaders during these turbulent, challenging, uncertain and time-pressured months, Advance HE has been running a series of short, focused, high-impact Spotlight development sessions. Following the success of the first set of sessions, Spotlight Series II will launch on 6 May 2021.  

Designed to turn the spotlight on a range of topical development challenges for senior leaders in this ever-changing world, each Spotlight session will have its own clear focus (available individually), and those who wish to embark on a journey with us across the whole series can do so at a discounted price (all four sessions). These half-day, impactful, online workshops will support senior leaders to reset, re-energise, and rejuvenate as the sector moves forward and we look collectively to lead back better:  

  • 8 July 2021: A Spotlight on Creativity“People are naturally creative, resourceful and whole” (Kimsey-House et al., 2011: 3) 

Doug Parkin will be facilitating all of the sessions in our Spotlight Series for Senior Strategic Leaders (Series II). Find out more about the Spotlight Series designed to support new, aspiring and established senior institutional leaders.



Bartlett, C. and Ghoshal, S. (1994). Beyond Strategy to Purpose. Harvard Business Review, November-December. 

Bishop, M., Gentle, P. and Parkin, D, (2020). Overcoming ‘change without change’: co-creation, creativity, and sustainable change. In Potter, J. and Devecchi, C. (eds), Delivering Educational Change in Higher Education: A Transformative Approach for Leaders and Practitioners (SEDA Series). Oxon and New York: Routledge. 

Brand, S. (1999). The Clock of the Long Now. New York, NY: Basic Books. 

Cascio, J. (2020). Facing the Age of Chaos. Available at (accessed March 2021). 

Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership That Gets Results. Harvard Business Review, March-April. 

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

McKinsey & Company, 25 November 2020. Overcoming pandemic fatigue: How to reenergize organizations for the long run. Available at (accessed March 2021). 

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. and Brown, G. (2020). Creating Socially Distanced Campuses and Education Project, Final Capstone Report: Leadership – Communication – Partnership – Wellbeing. York: Advance HE. Available at (accessed April 2021). 

Roth, V. (2013). Allegiant. London: HarperCollins. (Film 2016) 

Stanley, A. (2011). Next Generation Leader. Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books. 



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