A Journey or a Destination: Leadership in Uncertain Times

Lindsay S. English
Leadership Abstracts

After a turbulent year of quarantining and remote teaching and services, daily and professional habits have changed in higher education. COVID-19 has transformed us and our institutions. New realities have provided a unique opportunity for us, as institutional leaders, to reflect and learn more about our leadership philosophies, styles, and skills—particularly as we lead our institutions into a new and dynamic landscape.

Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C), like many institutions, has struggled through this transition and is just beginning to fully explore its potential under these new circumstances. As we reflect on experiences during the pandemic and look ahead, we must ask ourselves what we have learned and how we can use this knowledge to create a more just and equitable learning system for students, faculty, and staff. What resources and systems do we need to remain successful? What trends do we want to bring with us, and which do we want to leave behind?

There are numerous articles and research studies that point to the leadership skills that can be gained while navigating a crisis. Our experiences during COVID-19 have and will serve us well in the future. Perhaps our journey through this transition is just as important as the destination.

Tri-C President Alex Johnson presents in his book, Change the Lapel Pin, a fundamental system that incorporates three essentials of leadership—education, experience, and exposure—with skills and competencies that personalize leadership. Throughout the book, he emphasizes the importance of reflection and its role in honing our skills. Experiences leading an institution through a crisis helped Johnson build his model. He served as Chancellor at Delgado Community College in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. It was, in many ways, similar to the turbulent times brought by the pandemic. Lessons learned then informed his leadership today.


In the aspect of a pandemic, educational elements take on expanded meaning. Traditionally, one might think of attaining degrees or participating in professional development. With COVID-19, it also meant comprehending ever-changing information and science from many different sources. We were receiving information from various government entities—federal, state, and local—and had to reconcile this information and institute appropriate responses or restrictions. It was very important to stay informed and knowledgeable about the virus, how it is transmitted, and what actions we might take to mitigate its spread.

Tri-C’s Legal Affairs and Government Affairs/Community Relations departments provided daily updates to the executive team and to the college community via emails and the college website. Because information changed on a day-to-day basis, fear of the unknown threatened to grow. Leadership made the important decision to share information with the college community regularly.

Prior to the pandemic, the college had a strong commitment to transparency and open communication. This expanded to include sharing information specific to COVID-19. The college began scheduling regular virtual town halls to provide updates and new information, and to answer pre-submitted and live questions in real time. Town halls are offered to both students and faculty/staff, and representatives from Legal Affairs and Government Affairs/Community Relations are regular presenters. This practice will very likely continue post-pandemic and help to strengthen the college’s culture of transparency and open communication.

Experience: Expertise and Perspectives Gained

Our experiences shape our leadership approach, and the lessons we learn by leading our institutions forward can transform us. At Tri-C, we drew on our experiences to make decisions and develop strategies. The college serves an area in which the poverty rate ranks among the highest in the nation. Based on the needs in our community, we reacted quickly to provide students with the resources they needed to continue toward graduation.

As we moved to remote learning in March 2020, the college partnered with organizations to provide free or low-cost computers and laptops. We provided expanded tuition assistance and financial support for student expenses, and access to the Internet and hot spots through our campus parking lots. In addition, our experiences taught us the importance of faculty professional development, but the move to remote learning accentuated this need. While our institution provided online courses prior to the pandemic, our systems and faculty were not prepared for a move to 100 percent virtual teaching and learning.

We drew on our experiences again to make decisions and develop strategies to support our faculty. Traditionally, we offered many face-to-face faculty development workshops. These succeeded due to faculty interaction, best practice sharing, and support for one another. During the pandemic, we moved these sessions online and expanded the number of offerings. We also recorded sessions so they could be available to faculty on demand. Faculty led most sessions, which helped create a shared commitment and enthusiasm for developing new skills. This, too, has forever changed our institution. The success of moving faculty development online is sure to influence future strategies.

Exposure: Observing Others, Interacting With Others

Learning gained by observing others took on an expanded meaning during the pandemic. Active participation in state and national organizations and interactions with other institutions were essential, particularly as we developed immediate tactical plans.

The Ohio Association of Community Colleges (OACC) provides the opportunity for Chief Academic, Chief Student Affairs, and Chief Financial Officers from across the state to meet regularly. These meetings are typically held monthly, but during the pandemic they took place more frequently. For example, Chief Academic Officers met weekly during the height of the crisis and just recently moved to a bi-weekly schedule. The opportunity to share ideas for institutional responses and learn from one another proved incredibly valuable.

From an internal perspective at Tri-C, finding new ways to interact with each other became much more critical as we worked remotely. Under Dr. Johnson’s leadership, we expanded the president’s cabinet to include administrators responsible for tactical implementation of strategies. Furthermore, through his approach of shared dialogue and transparent communication with all constituencies, he chaired monthly meetings with the Joint Faculty Senate Council and faculty union; eld monthly meetings with mid- to high-level directors, deans, and vice presidents; and created a new policies and communications task force.

Through these efforts to remain connected, we learned to be more deliberate in our approaches and sensitive to the needs of others. We recognized the need to be responsive to all members of our community as we worked to solve urgent problems and make quick strategic decisions.

The Journey

As we are all well aware, the global public health crises caused by COVID-19 has presented new challenges to higher education on a local level. The need for leadership to respond to unforeseen and multidimensional problems and consequences never seemed so critical.

More than ever before, we saw the power of strong, effective, and inclusive leadership. Effective leaders over the past year inspired trust while promoting safety, transparency, and inclusivity and offering a reassuring presence. These traits can be strengthened by reflecting on the education, experiences, and exposures we bring into our leadership positions, and those we experience today as part of the pandemic.

Dr. Lindsay S. English, Ph.D., is Vice President, Learning and Engagement, at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.