Higher Ed Leadership Styles in Crisis with Dr. Risa Dickson | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 036

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Higher Ed Leadership Styles in Crisis with Dr. Risa Dickson | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 036

Higher Ed Leadership Styles in Crisis Episode Summary

Palo Alto University (PAU) has faced several crises over the past few years that ended up serving the institution well in dealing the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Risa Dickson, the university’s interim vice president for academic affairs, said the institution is committed to putting the students first, followed by the faculty in order to move through this crisis. The institution is located in Santa Clara County, which was one of the first places in the nation where the virus emerged.

Getting Ahead of the Curve

Like many private non-profit higher ed institutions, Palo Alto University had no formal risk planning or contingency plans in place to deal with a black swan event such as the COVID-19 crisis. However, several recent challenges prompted institutional leaders to start considering moving to online learning. After these situations happened, Dr. Dickson believed that another crisis would emerge so she and other key staff members were aware of the quasi-structure that had already been sketched out.

Palo Alto was fortunate to be ahead of the curve when the pandemic started to emerge, as its institutional leaders had anticipated what was coming and the need for moving classes online. The week before Palo Alto decided to go online, Dr. Dickson initially contacted the institution’s academic technology director to request a plan for going online, including a budget. Thus, institutional leaders knew early on what the plan looked like, what resources would be needed, and what would be needed to be done to prepare faculty and students to move online for the remainder of the quarter. They were able to address the big issues (e.g., enough Zoom licenses) early on so now they could focus on different issues, such as finding bandwidth extenders.

The institution already had a number of classes online so some faculty were already well versed in Zoom technology. On Saturday, March 7, the Palo Alto president called an emergency meeting where the decision was made to put all classes online over a three-week period. This led to a period of whip-saw changes due to feedback from external sources, but the institution continued moving forward.

An Immersive Lesson in Leadership

Higher Ed leadership styles in crisis require an institution’s leadership to muster its resources very quickly. Palo Alto’s leaders had been through the two previous crises as a cabinet, but still were not totally prepared for how different this crisis was. While often leadership styles depend on the context of the crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic was a universal crisis that is affecting everyone’s professional AND personal lives, i.e., how they live day-to-day. In situations like this, emotions bleed over, and anxiety as well as personalization impact relationships and how an institution can move forward / react to the crisis, especially since individuals deal with fear, anxiety, and panic very differently.

She described seeing two types of leadership styles coming forward. The first group encompasses individuals who are command-and-control leaders or crisis management leaders. These individuals want to know how to move forward, including plans and assignments.

The second group of leaders focuses on ministering to people who are scared and anxious. This group wants to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that stakeholders felt they are being cared for emotionally and psychologically. This style of leadership often isn’t as pronounced during a crisis but is becoming more evident in this pandemic.

The Palo Alto cabinet bumped into situations when both of these types of leaders emerged during the pandemic. Dr. Dickson has a more command-and-control style of leadership whereas the university’s president is much more relational; they were and do work in a complementary nature.

Dr. Dickson observed in the current situation that leaders who embrace command and control tend to get impatient with relational leaders. However, she realizes that the relational leaders are using their skill set to prepare people to come along on the journey through the crisis; this approach is equally as important and valid as the command-and-control approach. She said it was important to identify these types of relational leaders and use their skill set to hold town halls, talk to people, and collect feedback to identify the language that needs to be used.

She pointed out that there is a much stronger human element in this crisis. She gave an example where faculty members are learning to teach online from home which in some cases (given that PAU is in the heart of Silicon Valley) is a one-bedroom apartment with a spouse and two children. These individuals are having trouble seeing how to go forward. They had anxiety about the quick pivot as well as doubts about how to accomplish this task for the next few months.

Strategic Communications

Dr. Dickson has become more attuned to the language being used in communication to stakeholders, i.e., if people are anxious, that comes through in their language. She noted that early on that PAU’s communications and messages were going out to the institution’s community often had language that could cause more anxiety and send the wrong image.

Dr. Dickson also became acutely aware during the pandemic that if faculty are anxious, those emotions come through in their communication to students. She started noting that the institution’s leaders, faculty, and staff are “ethically obligated” to make sure that the language that comes through the institution is not unintentionally agitating people.

Effective Higher Ed leadership styles in crisis situations takes strategic messaging in the proper order. For example, if the communication is about an institutional decision, it needs to come from the institution first before a division puts out information about how to deal with the situation. This strategic use of communication helps faculty and students realize that there is an individual who is in control and who is guiding them.

Dr. Dickson also stated that if institutions send out too many messages, people stop reading them. Therefore, she recommends sending timely and informative messages so that people know if a message comes into their inbox, it’s worth taking the time to read. These messages need to be substantial, clear and clean so that stakeholders know that decisions are being made with their best interests at heart.


Coordinating work in a crisis can be hard to do remotely. Dr. Dickson has started twice-a-week Zoom meeting with her immediate staff where they put everything on the table. She uses this opportunity to tell staff that this is something that they need to do, even if it’s something they normally do not do or there may be less coordination. She believes higher education leaders need to work with their teams to move things forward so people don’t feel alienated or hunker down blaming other people.

She finds that her team is working together really well, despite frustrations. In a time of crisis, she believes leaders can’t give too much positive feedback. Leaders also need to say verbally that it’s safe to check-in. Agendas also are really important right now because people have a lot of noise in their heads.

Dr. Dickson encourages individuals to share what’s going on personally for 30-seconds during these weekly meetings; however, she notes that at times individuals are not self-aware so leaders may need to rein in people’s comments without making the person feel shut down.

Trust is important and leadership style in crisis situations needs to have been built before a crisis occurs where people’s anxiety and fear can get the best of them, causing them to attack each other. Strong leaders need to be able to intervene in these moments to say, “Stop! We’re not doing that right now!” They need to kindly call people out while also still acknowledging anxiety. Dr. Dickson said she is doing a lot of this with people she works with to make sure they’re not getting hung up on their own frustrations.

People also may conflate the check-in with the business that needs to get down. Dr. Dickson encourages people to stay in their lanes and focus on the task at hand at that time. Therefore, if the time is presently being dedicated to talking about an individual’s emotional state, the discussion does not need to veer into work-related discussions about challenges in setting meetings, etc.

Going Online

When PAU put together the protocol in anticipation of the possibility of going online, the leaders knew that the majority of the faculty was going to need significant training since they didn’t know how to teach online. The leaders tapped institutional experts to develop a resource guide and created mandatory training for faculty.

Many faculty had to learn how to meet course-learning outcomes in a new format in a way that wasn’t going to drain them. They also had to learn to teach in ways that didn’t rely on a three-hour Zoom class.  The campus provided resources to help the faculty learn to do this in a humane and efficient way because they only had 1-2 days to get up-to-speed.

During a crisis, the institution needs to prioritize what it can tackle in a crisis. Dr. Dickson was committed to serving the students first and then the faculty. For example, students were worried that they would lose their work-study or jobs on campus. Dr. Dickson sent a list out of students who had financial aid, work-study or campus jobs and asked supervisors to verify that those jobs could be done remotely. If those jobs couldn’t be done remotely, the campus committed to finding jobs for these students that could be performed online.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

Dr. Dickson suggested takeaways for higher education leaders:

  • There is a very important place for both a command-and-control, military-type leader and a relational style of leader in this type of crisis. It is important to identify who is good at each type of leadership style and what roles these individuals should play in navigating the crisis.
  • Clarity of roles is important. People need to stay in their lanes but also know where they need to hand things across to someone else. For example, academic technology is in Dr. Dickson’s area of responsibility while technology is part of facilities. They had to learn how to work together to make sure that everything is being taken care of.
  • People must have a lot of grace with each other. So many individuals are facing a new paradigm of work and everyone needs to give others a break by understanding that everyone is under pressure. You also need to honor your own self-care as well as others’ need for space for personal self-care and to take care of their families and loved ones. Otherwise, this will lead to anxiety and high levels of stress.

Bullet Points

  • As soon as a crisis begins to emerge, begin taking action steps to develop a plan of action and budget. If possible, tap into previous institutional experiences that might offer some previous lessons that can be updated and adopted.
  • In the COVID-19 pandemic, two different types of leaders are emerging. The first is command-and-control leaders, who want to think about plans and next steps to accomplish goals. The second group is relational leaders, who help stakeholders come to terms with what is happening. There is a place for both types of leaders in an institution. Identify who these people are and then find the best use of their leadership talents.
  • Communication needs to be very strategic. Be concise, clear, and thorough. Make sure that institutional messages come out before departmental messages that offer steps for implementation. Be very cognizant about the language being used, which can cause increased anxiety and stress.
  • Remind faculty and staff that they are “ethically obligated” to be clear and kind in their communication. The way they communicate can bring additional stress to students and other stakeholders.
  • Working remotely can be a challenge. Schedule regular meetings and have an agenda. Offer time for individuals to share what’s going on personally, but be willing to rein them back in kindly. Don’t mix personal time with business time; keep both separate in a meeting.
  • Encourage individuals to stay in their lane while working on their assignments. With that said, find ways to effectively collaborate across areas when needed.
  • Prioritize what’s important. Dr. Dickson committed to putting students first and faculty next in her decision-making.
  • Help faculty be prepared to teach online. Also, understand that there may be personal issues that challenge their ability to do so effectively. Help them work through these challenges.

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