Effective leadership means that we know how to adapt and innovate and respond to a changing and fluid environment. This is an integral part of institutional leadership. Always. But the pandemic has raised the bar on this score: in many respects, this is the true test of leadership . . .the capacity to lead in the midst of this kind of crisis and uncertainty.
And what I suggest is that we need metaphors to make some sense of what it means to lead during a time of uncertainty when there are 101 variables over which we have little if any control – that is, when our circumstances are particularly challenging and we have limited leverage points for providing the leadership that is needed for our organizations. One such narrative is that of playing chess without the queen. You’ve lost your queen – either through a mistake or intentionally – and now you are managing the game without your strongest tool in the tool box [to mix my metaphors]. That is how a pastor described giving leadership for a congregation when you do not have the key leverage point for leadership: the Sunday or week-end public gathering of the church.
Another potential metaphor comes from soccer. It happens: someone makes a tackle on a goal-scoring opportunity and they are red-carded and sent off. They were not being mean; everyone knows it is a legitimate play: anything to keep the goal from happening. But, the referee has no choice: if it prevented an obvious goal-scoring chance, it has to be a red card. And now the team is playing with ten players against the usual roster of 11. Every manager who is at all effective in coaching a soccer team knows that this is something that can happen and will happen: you need to know how manage with this significant limitation. If you are up a goal, it means you are going to do what it takes to preserve that lead and win the game. It is all defense. If you are tied, you might be in the same position: you determine you are going to come out of this with a tie. If you are down a goal, you refuse to despair: you ask – how have teams scored with only ten players, and how might it happen, that we can score even though we are playing with one less player than our opponents? It is not the same as hockey, where being down a player due to a penalty means only two things: (1) the ratio is different [5/6 rather than 10/11] so it is all about defense and keeping the other team from scoring; and (2) it is typically only for two minutes before we are back to “normal.” In soccer, it is not two minutes; it is the rest of the game. And the ratio is such that it can still mean “game on”; with the caveat that the opponent has one more player.
Managing with ten players means asking the same questions as you would ask with eleven: what are the major threats? And what are our greatest liabilities or points of potential vulnerability? These were already there, but now you with only ten players, this raises the profile of the greatest threat and the greatest vulnerability – more than would normally be the case. For example, in my organization we are always thinking about cash flow; but now, the approved budget became almost secondary and the question of cash flow primary. We are in defensive mode and the threats around cash flow became a front and centre point of attention and concern. And we need to ask about other threats: perhaps the emotional tenor to our community – levels of anxiety, perhaps – that now need every higher levels of attention: to ask, how do we tend to anxiety questions in this time and in this situation?
But then we also need to ask: does our situation pose an opportunity? Is there a player, who needs to “rise to the occasion” – that is, is there a member of our staff or our team for whom this might be an opportunity to lead or make a noteworthy contribution? In soccer – the player who was sent off was your top defender; now someone else has to be that “top defender.” And finally, and perhaps this is pressing the metaphor too much, the main question is how we can leverage this situation as an opportunity. Setting soccer aside, to ask: what can we tend to, what initiative can we make, that might not otherwise have presented itself? For example, in my own situation, we have decided to use this as an opportunity to profile our urgent need to upgrade our information technology systems and the capacity of our faculty to teach on-line. And our constituency has embraced this. It needed to happen quite apart from the pandemic; but the pandemic situation put this front and centre and thus it became an action item that we need to and are able to address, even in the midst if not specifically in the midst of the pandemic.