Will COVID Define Your Legacy as a Leader?

The current pandemic has put many leaders’ careers on the line and will significantly define their professional lives. In academia, the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been and the definition of success more uncertain. In the following interview, WittKieffer senior partner Dennis Barden considers the career implications of leading in the COVID era.

In your recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, you quoted Michael Jordan, who said, “Leadership has a price.” What is the price of leadership during COVID-19?

Barden: If we have accomplished nothing in the last six months, we have put the lie to the old adage that the politics in higher education are so vicious because the stakes are so low. That is definitely not the case now; the stakes are about as high as they can get. And the viciousness of the politics has followed suit. Leadership in the academy right now means working your way through an equation with no constants, only variables, and no correct solution. In the current political climate of higher education, then, every solution is a wrong one.

And wrong solutions lead to very significant career consequences. The price of leadership in today’s higher education environment will thus, in far too many cases, be the sacrifice of one’s own career.

What defines leadership success in these times, when many organizations are simply trying to cope rather than grow or advance their missions?

Barden: For a very great number of institutions, survival will be judged a success by many constituents. I worry, however, what sacrifices institutions will have to make in order to survive. There will be reductions in force, of course. I worry more about institutions selling their very souls for the sake of existence. Single-gender colleges are perhaps the quintessential example. If they open themselves up to all comers regardless of gender, it may (or may not) save them from extinction, but are they the same institutions going forward as they had been historically?

Just how sacred are missions? Values? The old saw “no margin, no mission” is certainly true, but is mere existence sufficient? If so, to whom? Perhaps the single most difficult aspect of leadership in higher education is the fact that every constituency – practically every constituent – defines success differently. There is no single objective – like augmenting shareholder value for a corporation – that provides a fundamental guidepost for decision-making or a metric for success.

Do you think that many executives today are set up for failure, in that the odds are stacked against them or “success” will be hard to quantify?

Barden: Leaders are set up for failure as we currently define it, but we don’t have to define it that way. While academics revel in wrestling with big, hairy, challenging problems – is there a God, how did the universe get this way, is there a preventative for COVID-19, etc. – they also crave leadership decisions that are completely satisfactory to all (or, at least, all in their own constituency). Few of higher education’s chronic issues can be resolved that way, and it seems likely that none of the problems it faces in the current moment have any hope of a universally embraced solution.

Can we not find a way to judge leadership on a basis other than the absolute? Particularly during the pandemic? Boards could decide for example, that survival trumps identity, that student success is more important than scholarly productivity or that the arts are more important than athletics. Or vice versa. Perhaps if boards were more clear, forthright and courageous in defining institutional priorities, campus communities would be more circumspect in judging the success of the leaders charged with addressing those priorities.

A man can dream, can’t he?!

Related to COVID is the concurrent conversation over race and structural inequities in society. Is this also an issue by which many executives will in large part be defined?

Barden: Success in higher education leadership will certainly be defined in part by how leaders and their institutions respond to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion, but that is really nothing new. Over the course of my search career I have observed – and I believe data would bear out – that search committees, hiring officials and boards have become much, much more sincere in requiring broadly inclusive searches and serious about truly diversifying their leadership teams. At least in terms of hiring, much has been and is being done on this front.

Happily, the sheer number of highly qualified and well experienced leaders from diverse backgrounds has grown very significantly, as well, thus accommodating what is an increasingly robust recruiting environment . . . at least in terms of institutions’ desire for diverse leadership options.

As we move into the new normal, leaders will very likely be faced with pressure not only to eschew racism and bigotry but to lead institutions that are anti-racist. This is an emerging movement that will very likely gain momentum. Once it has become better defined and thus better measured, leaders will be held to account for those programs, activities and behaviors just as they are now judged on any number of fronts, including diversity, equity and inclusion.

Given the outsized importance of how leaders perform during the current pandemic, what career advice can you offer?

Barden: Have courage. Do the right thing. Make the tough call. Do so with as much input and consensus as you can garner, but move. Move up, down, or sideways. Find the opportunities in the current environment, especially the opportunities for change, and seize them. Keep your board on your side and stay true to your institution’s mission and values. Take reasonable risks understanding that you may experience failures.

In short, lead.

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