4 lessons from university leaders on crisis thinking and resilient leadership


4 lessons from university leaders on crisis thinking and resilient leadership

A crisis such as COVID-19 poses countless urgent decisions that are difficult for leaders to prioritise, often at the expense of long-term strategy. Over the last few months, I sat down with more than two dozen university leaders for a roundtable discussion on avoiding the pitfalls of crisis thinking and building a culture of resilient leadership on campus. During our discussion, I drew upon EAB’s research on leadership and strategy and participants’ experiences to explore important strategies for building resilience among campus leaders.

There are four central takeaways for building a culture of resilient leadership.

“Our executive team is managing the crisis day-to-day—hundreds of operational decisions. We’re frankly exhausted.  But what worries me most is that the urgent is crowding out time for strategy—are we prioritising the right things? How do we survive at the end of this, or not end up being a shell of our former self?”

University Leader

Large Research University

1. Resilience must be practiced to be effective

In moments—or months—of crisis, institutional leaders bear the responsibility of shepherding their enormous flock of students and academic staff to a place of stability and safety. It’s no easy task, and one that is only made more difficult by crisis thinking, the destructive thought and decision patterns that hinder a leader’s ability to think and strategise clearly under pressure. Leaders with cognitive flexibility, better known as resilience, overcome crisis thinking by holding a strong sense of purpose, an openness to question fundamental assumptions, and mindful thinking outside of their daily responsibilities.

The leaders present at our meeting discussed how it can be difficult to accept that they are not immune to stress-induced whims or short-sighted strategy at times of crisis. However, they learned that crisis thinking is something that no one is safe from. Even the strongest leaders recognise that a resilient, open mindset is not an innate personality trait—it is made strong and effective through practice.

2. Irrelevant urgency doesn’t have to be the bane of strategy and progress – if you can see it

In our discussion, leaders spent time reflecting on their own thought patterns during a crisis to identify the patterns that plague them the most often. When asked which of the crisis thinking patterns they encountered most often, the participating university leaders called out irrelevant urgency as their most common pitfall (though noted they wouldn’t be hard pressed to come up with examples for each of the five).

The 5 Crisis Thinking Patterns

Irrelevant urgency severely slows down decision making by elevating less strategic decisions to senior-most leaders. One university leader described the two-hour meeting they had with a colleague to determine the best brand of hand sanitiser to distribute across campus. This type of task—so menial yet somehow pressing in the moment—should have been delegated to someone besides the university leader to free up their time to focus on larger strategic priorities. With mindfulness of crisis thinking pitfalls, leaders can avoid this type of irrelevant urgency and claim time back for important strategic decisions.

3. University leaders don’t want urgency to dominate their to-do list

Almost all participants agreed they struggle with irrelevant urgency. Yet, they also stated they were ready to pivot back to long-term strategy and could not allow COVID-19 to continue to dominate decisions. 88 per cent of university leaders planned to focus on long-term projects in the near future. They were also confident that their teams can balance long-term progress and COVID-19 response. That being said, 85 per cent of university leaders agreed that their leadership team is likely to prioritise urgent decisions over strategically important decisions. Leaders have a strong vision for institutional success but struggle to implement that vision amid a crisis such as COVID-19.

4. Pre-pandemic priorities are still top of mind

Despite the vast upheaval to higher education’s delivery model during COVID-19, university leaders overwhelmingly agreed that enrolment remains a top (if not the top) strategic priority. This focus underlines a clear sentiment among the university leaders at the session: Top priorities did not change or go away during the pandemic—they were simply made more complicated.

To help provide support on this topic, EAB recently revealed the results of research focusing on the top strategies for leveraging existing institutional resources to meet international student needs and expectations—resulting in more sustainable enrolments along the way. Click here to download the presentation slides.

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