Confessions of a leader in a time of crisis

Simone Buitendijk
University of Leeds
5 min readJan 25, 2021

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This blog has an accompanying audio description, where I read it in full.

The COVID crisis has taught us the importance of strong communities, mutual support, shared values and human-centred strategies. We should ensure we use those lessons to re-focus our institutions on what truly matters to create a brighter future.

Sun shining over North York Moors National Park
North York Moors National Park

On 1 September 2020, I started my first ever job as the overall leader of a university, right in the middle of the COVID crisis. My original plans to be on campus and to get to know people in an unhurried way, had to change. I confess I felt a bit apprehensive about taking on this important role in such challenging times.

“I believe that with the right team work and planning, very few situations require the top leader to be in hands-on crisis mode throughout.”

Luckily, my university turned out to be strong and cohesive, with a keen sense of community and social responsibility. It had been managing the first six months of the COVID crisis admirably, through careful planning and university-wide collaboration, including with the student union. People were exhausted and stressed, but were dealing with the crisis as well as could be expected under the circumstances. That helped me suppress the urge to act like a crisis manager and to find the right balance between trusting colleagues with far superior skill sets to get on with the job and intervening only where necessary. I believe that with the right team work and planning, very few situations require the top leader to be in hands-on crisis mode throughout, taking on-the-spot and far reaching emergency decisions. I believe that my colleagues mainly wanted me to provide executive support from a distance, and only in order to keep the well designed processes flexible and effective. I think this enabled all of us in a leadership position — me included — to feel calmer, in spite of everything.

I subsequently spent a lot of time listening, learning and communicating. I had to rapidly get to know the university community to find out what their dreams and hopes are for life after the crisis, the more since we were finalising the new university strategy. And they had to get to know me, so they can trust me to take them there, while we are all experiencing huge uncertainty and personal stresses at the same time. What has emerged from all the conversations is a clear wish for our future strategy to be explicitly values-based, to create an even stronger human-centred institution.

“If there was ever a good time to define the moral narrative for global institutions’ strategies, it is now.”

My next confession is that the desired focus on values is a huge relief. It will allow me to be ‘human’, which is what my university needs, especially now. I know that I will be a better leader when I can make mistakes; when I can share difficult decision making with colleagues; when leading is team work; when I don’t need to immediately have every answer and can get advice from many people before I take tough decisions; and, perhaps most importantly, when I can feel supported enough to ask for feedback and guidance on a continual basis from different groups in the university and they feel they can give that to me. Only then, ‘my’ university will be everybody’s university, our goals will be truly shared, and we can all be the best version of ourselves.

If there was ever a good time to define the moral narrative for global institutions’ strategies, whether businesses, NGOs or universities, it is now. COVID has taught us the importance of prioritising human values over competition for profits, or for limited, metricised and quantitative outcomes. There is a huge need for explicit and strategic leadership focus on ethics, integrity, transparency, trust, respect, openness, honest communication, inclusion, diversity and equity, just to name a few, not in any particular order.

“The global population needs values-led universities more than ever.”

The wish to recalibrate institutional goals is not brand new, but COVID has brought it to the surface. University leaders have perhaps allowed themselves to drift a bit from values-based thinking and acting. It is time to make our existing values explicit again and relearn to fully and proudly live by them. I am immensely encouraged that my community is willing to embark on that journey with me. I know it will enable everybody, including students and colleagues who are at an early stage in their careers, to thrive, and for the institution to play an even more influential societal role. The global population needs values-led universities more than ever.

Our own university strategy for the next ten years will be based on the themes of Culture, Community and Impact. A culture based on institutional values such as trust, transparency, equality, diversity and inclusion, and based on collaboration instead of competition; a community, of staff and students within the university, and with the wider region; and impact through focus on decreasing local and global inequality. We will use our strong research to tackle tough problems with colleague universities in the Global South and elsewhere; we will review our curriculum and make it student-centred, digitally enhanced and interactive, while treating our students as true partners and preparing them well for the new, global job market; we will focus our digital transformation in research and education on areas where we can have global impact; and we will be part of a growing movement towards a more values-based and open research culture. This will all be underpinned, of course, by the expertise of colleagues in professional and support services, who will understand their essential role in delivering this strategy.

We can only do all these things well if we live by our own values. I am keenly aware there is more work to be done in my university and that senior colleagues and I need to lead by example. We are not yet inclusive and diverse enough, too many voices are not being heard and not everybody is equally empowered to excel. Not all our goals are as shared and human-centred as they ought to be. In other words: we are not yet as academically excellent as we could be. But mutual understanding of our challenges and a clear will are hugely important prerequisites for change.

If as a community we can overcome the present crisis and let it prompt us to re-focus on our shared human values, there is very little we cannot achieve. I will end this blog with confessing I feel ready to try to change the world, in the firm knowledge I can’t and don’t have to do it alone.

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