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Strange times indeed

01 Jun 2020 | Suzanne O'Brien Aurora facilitator Suzanne O'Brien discusses the specific challenges to women during the crisis and explains why the Aurora programme will be just as important as ever post-pandemic

Strange times indeed. So much has changed and so quickly. I have never experienced change at this speed or on this scale. It doesn’t seem real that just over a month ago I was in Dublin delivering Core Leadership Skills to a room full of wonderful, engaged and engaging Aurorans. It was a fantastic homecoming for me, and a powerful reminder of how important it is that we have this forum to express our passion for Higher Education, for leadership, and for equality. Lockdown doesn’t change that. Those group events will happen again and I look forward to that. 

In the meantime, we are each of us learning to navigate these unchartered waters of a new ‘normal’. I spend most of my life working away from the office, so the official transition to working from home wasn’t a problem for me. I know it isn’t that easy for everyone as many of us have children, partners and family members we need to accommodate. Working out who sits where, and who gets to use the laptop/PC and when, can be extremely challenging!

I empathise with those of us who are not enjoying confinement. I remember a time when being at home without any outlet would have felt like a slow death.  For those of us enduring these hardships, I wish you strength and resilience, and hope for a better tomorrow.

The first two weeks of ‘lock down’ were really hectic for me and it was a case of scrambling to put mechanisms in place to deal with the fall-out. Like most of you, I hardly had time to breathe, too busy dealing with this new reality. I didn’t find the flurry of well-intentioned emails urging me to find a new hobby, have fun online, download an exercise app etc. in any way helpful. In fact, I found them perplexing as I had less time available to me, not more, and I know I’m not alone in that. 

For many of us, continuing to work while having to provide home-schooling has been extremely difficult. This is made more stressful where we are supporting vulnerable family members or friends, further compounded where our partners are key-workers engaging daily with a world compromised by coronavirus. May we all stay safe and well whatever our circumstances.

Now that we have established a new normal, the invitations to fill my free time with fun activities seem to have been replaced with more ‘worthy’ calls to action. My inbox is inundated with invitations to webinars to help me acquire and/or develop the skills required for leadership in a pandemic. So far, I haven’t followed up on any of these; my time is finite and I am not convinced that coronavirus requires anything (substantially) different from my usual leadership. I continue to use the tools from my REAL Leadership Toolbox:

  • Reflect – what is working well, or not so well, or not at all for me?  What can I change to improve my situation? 
  • Engage – colleagues have vulnerable relatives, financial worries, cancelled holidays and one mentioned that her partner is (practically) living in the shed.
  • Act – deciding to furlough staff was a difficult decision, but to delay would have been an expensive mistake.  Migrating to online delivery was difficult but essential.
  • Look – the future has accelerated towards us; meetings and lectures are online, should this continue post-pandemic?  Is there likely to be a recession and if so, what does that mean for education, construction and for charitable donations?

However, I have started rereading The Leadership Challenge, Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner, and I plan to finally(!) finish reading both The Gendered Brain, Gina Rippon and Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez – all of which I use to inform our leadership work. In the context of needing to navigate these unprecedented times, determined to stay grounded in reality rather than conjecture, it may be timely to finish Hans Roling’s Factfulness: Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. 

Change is always challenging, but even more so now when our usual routines are disrupted, and we feel adrift from family, friends and colleagues. It is compounded by the terrible human cost of this pandemic and some of us will suffer the grief of losing loved ones. But some things remain unchanged such as working with you on Aurora and I can’t wait to deliver the remaining sessions for 2019/20, and to working with the 2020/21 cohort.

This is so ‘right’ for me and sits comfortably with my sense of purpose; I believe in Higher Education and its capacity to transform lives. I believe in our leadership and our ability to transform lives. Our leadership is needed now, more than ever, to help our students and our institutions and society weather significant turbulence generated by coronavirus, and the precarious financial position of some of our institutions.   

We can “be the change you want to see in the world”.  I want to make the world an equal place and with Aurora I am part of something bigger than myself, part of a powerful continuum of change.  We are individuals, with a shared humanity, and we are equal.


Suzanne is a new facilitator for the 2019/20 cohort of Aurora. An experienced non-executive director, currently she is Vice-Chair of the Board and Chair of the Finance Committee at Cross Keys Homes, the largest provider of social housing in Peterborough, and Chair of The Fifth Trust, a Kent-based charity that supports adults with learning disabilities.


Aurora is Advance HE's leadership development initiative for women and those who identify as a woman. It is run as a unique partnership bringing together leadership experts and higher education institutions to take positive action to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions in the sector. Due to Covid-19 all Aurora events have been postponed until autumn 2020. To find out more click here.


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