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Leadership in a Time of Crisis

Case studies to inspire us now and to teach in our classrooms later.

March 24, 2020
 
 

I was on two college campuses as they were closing -- Michigan on the day that the president of that university gave the directive, and Otterbein as it was emptying out.

What struck me at both places was the manner in which leaders approached their work: calm, focused and determined. President John Comerford at Otterbein talked me through not just the sequence of decisions that he had to make, but also the enormously complex and totally unprecedented procedures that he was guiding his community through.

It reminded me a little bit of being on a flight going through turbulence. I’ve experienced about a thousand of those, and it occurs to me that I’ve never heard a pilot’s voice sound anything but calm and composed. It’s that steady voice that eases nerves, directs focus and gives people the feeling that they will get to their destination, safely, eventually.

You ever notice how people take the pilot’s lead after they speak? It’s often subtle -- a little smile that communicates “Things are gonna be OK” -- but it’s real.

The plane in smooth air is a couple hundred people thinking individual thoughts. The flight in turbulence with a trusted leader is a community offering each other mutual support.

We can feel good about the strength of our union because there are a lot of responsible pilots in America today. They occupy governors’ mansions and mayors’ offices and college presidencies. They are in the cockpits of hospitals and in the pulpits of churches. They are community leaders in neighborhoods hosting social distance sing-alongs and organizing phone trees for elderly residents. They are journalists and scientists publishing truth that will save lives. They are educators figuring out how to create community learning environments with students in 50 different locations. They are skilled civil servants running government agencies that you never hear about until the emergency arrives. They are student affairs professionals helping international students get home and homeless students find safety.

For the past week, I have been reaching out to faith leaders of all backgrounds on Twitter, asking them what resources they are pulling from their own tradition. It has been a source of great hope how deep people are going right now, pulling from the great wells of spiritual and religious wisdom. That is part of what we can draw on as we pilot the plane, guide a campus community and be leaders in our current moment.

I hope we can return to campus in the fall and that any program that promises to develop leaders puts before its students’ questions like this:

When the crisis hits, how will you lead?

  • Will the steadiness of your voice and the depth of your preparation create a sense of community and resolve?
  • Will people be prepared to take actions they never before imagined taking because you have earned their trust?
  • Will you have the knowledge base and skill set to guide us to our destination safely, eventually?

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