10 Leadership Strategies in Times of Uncertainty

Written by
Mays Imad

Apr 30, 2020

Apr 30, 2020 • by Mays Imad

“She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”—Toni Morrison

When the bombing of Iraq during Operation Desert Storm started back in 1991, I was a middle school student in Baghdad. Prior to the war, my family was one of a few in our neighborhood who didn't think anything bad was going to happen. Thus, we didn't prepare or stock up on necessary items like batteries, candles and toilet paper. After seven days, it was clear that the war would last more than a week. We panicked. The adults argued and blamed one another for not being prepared. My cousins hoarded candles so we could function at night.

Then, one afternoon, my grandmother gathered us together and said: “We're going to be OK.” She made a feast to reassure us that we had enough food to survive. Years later, my grandmother told me she didn't know if we were going to be OK or if we would have enough food to survive (if the war were to go on much longer). While she thought of our options, she calmed us down. Does that sound familiar?

Uncertain Times

In times of uncertainty, we look to our leaders—at home and at work. Even if we know that they don't necessarily have solutions, we want their reassurance that things will be OK. Our faculty, especially adjunct and contingent faculty, look to their department heads, their deans and their teaching and learning centers for that reassurance. Give it to them. The less anxiety a faculty member has, the less their students will have.

Reflecting on that experience as a child in Baghdad, I wanted to be the friend that gave my struggling colleagues reassurance. Here's a list of what campus leaders can do for instructors facing uncertainty.

  1. Accept the known. Accept the fact that you are not going to solve this global health threat and its impact on higher education and our campus. This pandemic is bigger than you and me. As the coordinator of a new teaching and learning center (TLC), I'm overwhelmed by questions I don't have answers to: What about faculty members that don't have laptops? How do I as a TLC coordinator design an online how‐to curriculum in such a short period that is discipline‐relevant? What about adjunct faculty who get sick and their courses are disrupted even more—what is my plan C? What about their paychecks—will that get interrupted? It wasn't until one of my own colleagues reminded me that we are all asking ourselves these unprecedented questions that I found some needed solace in the unknown.
  2. Have empathy for yourself. Don't become frozen because you aren't sure that what you are doing is the best thing or because you are afraid to look back and say: “I should've done so and so.” Remind yourself that you are doing your best. There is no manual or protocol out there that can guide you through this unique crisis. We are all assimilating history that is barely days old.
  3. Communication is more important than ever. Even if you don't have a plan, reach out to your colleagues—you might want to record a video or an audio personalized message. Talk about how you are approaching the situation and how you are keeping their well‐being in mind. Honesty is key; it is OK to say that we are in uncharted territory and we just don't know it. Don't wait to communicate; say something.
  4. Hold “office” hours. Create specialized blocks of time in your schedule where you attempt to answer faculty members' pressing questions.
  5. Encourage your faculty to come forward with their concerns. Your colleagues are likely inundated with questions they have from their students and themselves. Our adjunct and contingent faculty members are worried not only about teaching their courses effectively but also about their stipends and even their job security. While no one can promise that faculty pay won't be interrupted, let them know that you will advocate for them.
  6. Be mindful not to inundate your faculty with documents and resources. They, like our students, are experiencing cognitive overload. There are so many resources about teaching online that our colleagues throughout the country have quickly put together and shared with us. You don't need to forward everything. This abrupt transition (to online and remote teaching) can feel downright intimidating. One colleague told me she didn't know which email to read or where to begin. If you feel comfortable with technology, others might not. Our colleagues are amazing and dedicated teachers who care about doing the right thing and teaching their students well. Some of our colleagues are afraid of technology. Slow down and remind them that this is not about them becoming expert online teachers. The name of the game is student engagement. Regardless of the delivery method, in person or online, some elements are the same in any type of teaching. In both formats, we will have learning objectives and want to actively engage our students.
  7. Empower your faculty; give them permission to be flexible with their course materials. I was speaking with an anxious colleague about how much content she has to cover. I shared with her how I would approach the situation and that if I had three organ systems (the eye, the skin and the heart) to cover in my physiology class and could only cover one due to an emergency, I would make a judgment call based on my expertise (and cover the heart).
  8. Ask your colleagues how they are feeling mentally and physically. We know now that the most vulnerable in the population are the elderly. You likely have faculty members who are in that category and might be scared or might be feeling ill. Physical isolation doesn't mean we forgo communication with one another. Encourage your faculty to check on one another. Remember that many of our colleagues are not used to working from home. They look forward to coming to work and chatting in the break room or the hallways. For some of us, work is a major part of our social life. This new situation of social isolation can be very tough, especially on our extrovert faculty.
  9. Ask your faculty what they need. The Latin phrase Nihil de nobis, sine nobis (“Nothing about us, without us”) guides us to invite our colleagues to the table at the beginning of any discussion about teaching and curricula even in, and perhaps especially during, times of uncertainty.
  10. Remind your faculty that we have a common mission to help students. And although we are walking into uncharted land, we are not alone—as the Persian poet Rumi says: “Friends, we are traveling together.” Remind yourself and your colleagues why we do what we do in the first place. In his book Radical Hope (2020), Kevin Gannon reminds us: “We teach because we believe it matters.” And it does matter. Gannon continues: “Teaching is a radical act of hope. It is an assertion of faith in a better future in an increasingly uncertain and fraught present. It is a commitment to that future even if we can't clearly discern its shape.”

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list, and I invite you all to think about what might help you and others navigating this crisis.

Mays Imad is the founding coordinator of the Teaching & Learning Center at Pima Community College AZ.