Much research, scholarship and advice are devoted to the topic of crisis leadership. Even before the pandemic, you could find copious articles, books and webinars intended to guide leaders through upheavals that ranged from acute and unanticipated emergencies—like Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 11 and social and political campus protests—to slow-burning crises, such as plunges in enrollment or the unfolding of a campus scandal.
One concept that emerges clearly in the advice regarding crisis leadership is the need to act with speed, setting aside collaborative leadership styles in favor of decisive approaches. But as academic leaders know, quick action is not a traditional hallmark of academic decision making. Moreover, female-identified leaders know as well that fast-paced decision making is not a trait that is well received when enacted by women. As women academic leaders operating in a time of crisis, we face significant challenges, and time is not on our side. (Throughout this piece, I use “woman” and “women” to discuss biases and stereotypes that are applied along a male/female binary and that accrue to cisgender and transgender women. Many of the challenges that I identify as ones faced by women also apply to nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people.)
When it’s relatively stable on campuses, strong academic leaders of all genders rely on the tenets of shared governance. Faculty shared governance is most effective when its processes are well established and widely understood. Faculty and administration alike share a clear understanding of which decisions are properly addressed through shared governance and which are not. Proposals move through various representational bodies, aimed at reaching solutions that may not achieve 100 percent consensus but at least garner majority approval and incorporate feedback along the way. Trust is built through the repeated implementation of those processes.
But when crises occur, the need for fast action kicks into gear. The Harvard Business Review advises leaders managing a crisis to “decide with speed over precision.” A March 2020 report published by McKinsey & Company notes that in an unprecedented crisis like the pandemic, there was no opportunity to have had a plan in place, yet “some moments during the crisis call for immediate action.” Further, the authors describe the ways in which “during a crisis, which is ruled by unfamiliarity and uncertainty, effective responses are largely improvised.” Improvisation requires thinking on one’s feet, making quick decisions and implementing them with confidence.
Clearly, crisis leadership is diametrically opposed to shared governance processes, which are, by their nature, slow—they require methodical, considered and iterative work. Put very simply, strong academic leadership takes time.
Certain leadership styles incorporate fast-paced, action-oriented methods—even outside times of crisis—that can be effective in academic settings. But many women in leadership more often rely on what researchers describe as “transformational leadership,” defined as being inclusive and collaborative and bringing the team into the vision for the future. Transformational leaders mentor their team members and model the behaviors they expect from those around them.
To be sure, that approach can be highly successful, and in normal times, women often excel in academic settings, which tend to demand inclusive leadership. But as Alice H. Eagly notes in her article “Female Leadership Advantage and Disadvantage: Resolving the Contradictions,” strong leaders do not exhibit “fixed behaviors” but rather tailor their style to the context and situation. During a crisis, Eagly writes, “a leader who is typically participative may become highly directive because emergency situations can demand quick, decision action.”
When crisis leadership must be enacted in the academic setting, clashes are likely to occur. I expect that many academic leaders will feel a flash of recognition here, as so many of us faced vocal and impassioned responses to decisions over the last few years, including when and whether to shift to remote learning, what our vaccination and masking policies would be, how to respond to the fiscal realities precipitated by drops in enrollment and more. Many of those decisions provoked deeply polarized responses. The decision to suspend in-person commencement on our campus in 2020 and 2021, for example, brought high praise from families concerned about safety yet, at the same time, deep anger from students and parents who felt they were missing out on a central milestone of the educational journey.
Navigating such decisions has often felt like walking on a tightrope—constantly precarious, with unknown outcomes. This balancing act can be exacerbated for women in leadership. Many of the traits associated with strong crisis leadership—assertiveness, confidence, directness—are highly valued and publicly lauded when displayed by male leaders, yet those same traits can lead to bias against women leaders, as behavioral scientist Pragya Agarwal wrote in a Forbes article. On levels that are often unconscious and implicit, colleagues can react quite negatively to women leaders who exhibit those same characteristics. In a crisis like the pandemic, all leaders are called upon to shift their leadership style, and yet the response to these changes may differ along gender lines.
Venture capitalist Ben Horowitz’s well-known article titled “Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO” offers some valuable insights from the corporate setting that are applicable here. Horowitz compares the traits of leadership that lead a company to success during periods of prosperity and relative calm with the leadership behaviors that lead a company through emergencies and challenges. Ultimately, he asks, referencing The Godfather, can one person be both a great “peacetime” leader and a “wartime” leader? While most leaders are strong at one or the other, the answer is, yes, an individual can be good at both. Horowitz writes, “Mastering both wartime and peacetime skill sets means understanding the many rules of management and knowing when to follow them and when to violate them.” Although Horowitz does not address gender differentials here, it’s reasonable to assume that the challenges to successfully moving between the two modes are heightened for women leaders.
Horowitz goes on to say that most studies of successful CEOs focus only on “peacetime” leaders. Less understood are the qualities that make a successful “wartime” leader. Within academe, we would be well advised to assess the ways that gender expectations influence our assessments of women leaders in times of crisis. Many campuses have embraced antibias trainings for faculty, staff and administration. Understanding how gender impacts the reception of leadership styles—in times of calm as well as times of unrest—would be a productive addition to the curricula of such trainings.
As we wrap up our second full academic year within a global pandemic, many of us are hopeful that fall 2022 will be the semester when we can fully emerge from this time of crisis leadership. Academic leaders who have shifted their leadership style will then return to the deliberative and inclusive methods of shared faculty governance. Women academic leaders in particular will face the need to assure our communities and constituents that the decision-making approaches of the last few years were necessitated by the context of the pandemic and all it wrought in academe, and campus communities should consider how gender bias may have played a role in their expectations of us as women leaders through these past few years of crisis. As we return to best practices of shared governance, we will be able to put time, once again, on our side.