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Looking Beyond COVID‐19: Crisis Leadership Implications for Chairs

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The literature on this subject tends to emphasize the importance of certain characteristics for effective crisis leadership, including agility, clarity, compassion, honesty, preparation, resilience, trust, and transparency.



The posting below gives some excellent advice for department chairs, and others, on managing the department in the current COVID-19 crises. It is by Ralph A. Gigliotti, director of the Rutgers University Center for Organizational Leadership. Email: and is from The Department Chair: A Resource for Academic Administrators, Summer 2020, Vol. 31, No. 1. Copyright © 2020 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. For further information on The Department Chair, call +1 800 835 6770. For further information on subscribing and pricing, please contact Wiley Customer Service at +1 800 835 6770 or learn more at



Rick Reis

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Looking beyond COVID‐19: Crisis Leadership Implications for Chairs

30 June 2020



The coronavirus crisis has seized our individual and collective attention over the last few months. Crises of all kinds, and especially the current pandemic, are challenging moments for academic leaders. In my research on crisis leadership in higher education, I define crises to be “events or situations of significant magnitude that threaten reputations, impact the lives of those involved in the institution, disrupt the ways in which the organization functions, have a cascading influence on leadership responsibilities and obligations across units/divisions, and require an immediate response from leaders” (Gigliotti 2019, 49). The impact of the pandemic on all sectors, including colleges and universities, has been extensive. In short order, college and university campuses announced the transition to virtual instruction, restrictions on employee and student international travel, and new policies for working from home.

The unprecedented activities of recent months, coupled with the uncertainty surrounding the upcoming academic year, further complicate the work of department chairs and other academic administrators across our institutions. For chairs, the challenges posed by the pandemic are plentiful and include concerns related to undergraduate and graduate student enrollment; course registration, delivery, and quality; changes in faculty tenure and promotion processes; the ability to reappoint nontenured and adjunct faculty; the financial health of the department; and the physical, mental, and emotional well‐being of one's colleagues and students.

Effective leadership during times of crisis requires a dual focus on triaging immediate needs while also making strategic decisions that serve the long‐term interests of one's unit, department, or institution. As we make sense of the short‐ and long‐term effects of the pandemic, what follows are considerations for effectively navigating the present crisis while also looking ahead to collectively advance department strategic priorities.

Crisis Leadership Considerations

The role of the department chair is challenging enough in normal circumstances. Crises add much complexity to the work of academic leadership, due in part to the increasingly high stakes, the varying and at times competing expectations from one's primary stakeholders, and the real and perceived loss of control and influence.

The literature on this subject tends to emphasize the importance of certain characteristics for effective crisis leadership, including agility, clarity, compassion, honesty, preparation, resilience, trust, and transparency. Furthermore, as I acknowledge in my writing on this topic, crisis leadership involves more than simply saying the right message(s) to the right audience(s) to uphold the reputation of one's department or institution. Take the time to carefully consider your personal, departmental, and institutional values, and use these values as an anchor to inform the decisions you make as chair.

Treating this moment as a laboratory for leadership development, consider your response to the coronavirus pandemic. Using the following questions as a guide, engage in active self‐reflection to assess the leadership lessons that will help you to navigate these increasingly complex roles:

·       What has the pandemic taught you about leadership more generally and leadership within the context of higher education?

·       In what ways do you feel best prepared or least prepared for managing this crisis and future crises that might impact your department?

·       How would you rate your effectiveness in each of the crisis leadership competencies noted previously, and would your colleagues and students provide a similar assessment?

·       In what areas would you hope to develop to more effectively lead in this current crisis and in any future crises?

Renewal in the Aftermath of COVID‐19

Opportunity, innovation, and reinvention can be found in the aftermath of crisis. In their characterization of organizational renewal, Ulmer, Sellnow, and Seeger (2009) describe the fresh sense of purpose and direction an organization or system discovers after it emerges from a crisis. Based on our experience at the Rutgers Center for Organizational Leadership, what follows are several strategies for engineering and advancing renewal efforts within one's academic department.

Facilitate an effective postmortem. Provide colleagues with an opportunity to reflect on the department's handling of various dimensions of the crisis. Through the use of a pre‐session survey, encourage faculty and staff colleagues to offer honest insights into the strengths and areas for improvement, identify the major themes to emerge from the data, and use these themes to organize a constructive and meaningful discussion on the topic. Ideally, the learning that comes from this session can inform future approaches to dealing with departmental and institutional crises.

Recalibrate, review, and reassess strategic priorities. Determining a path forward after a disruption of this kind seems daunting. Consider leading your department in a review of the unit's mission, vision, and values; the strategic priorities that existed in place prior to the crisis; and the ways in which the crisis might impact the strategic direction of the department. Establish measurable goals and action plans that are collaborative and sensitive to personal and professional obligations.

Assess dimensions of organizational excellence. Using an available external framework, such as the Baldrige Excellence Framework or the Excellence in Higher Education adaptation of the Baldrige framework (Ruben 2020), engage in a systematic review of the department's strengths and areas for improvement, and explore needed changes that may result from the coronavirus crisis.

Honor the emotions and experiences of department stakeholders. Faculty, staff, and students have been affected in different ways by the pandemic, and there will be a need for collective healing in the aftermath of the crisis. In addition to advancing a shared strategic direction for the department, chairs can help advance the healing process by recognizing faculty and staff colleagues for going above and beyond one's job duties during the crisis, acknowledging students for their patience and persistence throughout this unprecedented period, demonstrating gratitude for individuals and offices across the institution who played an important role in the department's response to the crisis and ability to continue with core operations, and honoring those with a direct or indirect connection to the department who perished from COVID‐19.


Unlike past crises, the coronavirus pandemic is unique in its ability to so quickly and dramatically impact all colleges and universities. It is a deeply troubling and disorienting moment for higher education, yet there is also much for us to be proud of during this time. Higher education is not typically recognized for agility and speed, yet the immediate and what some have characterized as heroic response by our institutions is most impressive.

As I write about in my book on Crisis Leadership in Higher Education (2019), it is in the darkness and chaos of crisis where values‐based leadership becomes most critical, most visible, and most desired. This is a moment of reckoning for higher education. Looking ahead, we will undoubtedly see many changes across our institutions, and the crisis could provide a valuable opportunity to reimagine, reinvent, and renew our work in higher education, all the while remaining sensitive to the needs of students, faculty, and staff.

Read a review of the author's book on page 30 .