Some 20 years ago, at a point of expanding responsibilities in my career, a senior colleague offered a piece of professional advice I’ve never forgotten. Observing the frequency of issues landing on my plate and the escalating demands on my time and capacity, she reminded me that, while the specific timing of the challenges might not be in my control, my response to them could be. “The best thing I can tell you,” she said, “is to pick a pace.”
In that moment, bringing a deliberative pace to a senior administrative role—that is, working hard but with balance and perspective—struck me as both profoundly enlightened and utterly unrealizable. So much of the work of a higher ed administrator arises from sudden shifts— a protest, a regulatory change, a complaint from an unhappy alum—and is reflexively followed by calls for immediate response. As much as I wanted to buffer myself and my team from round-the-clock emergency mode, pushing back on this cycle seemed to require political cachet I did not have.
Over time, I’ve come to recognize that pushing back is not the only option, and emergency response is not the only operating mode. With forward-looking investments in culture and planning, leaders can replace a cadence of frantic action with a pace that is appropriately responsive while also realistic and sustainable for themselves and their teams. Three habits of mind, ideally in place and well rehearsed before the unexpected arrives, can go a long way toward sustaining human capacity and institutional momentum in the face of frequent challenges.
Sort emergencies from false urgencies. Without a doubt, true emergencies occur on our campuses. The COVID pandemic, student mental health crises, fires and acts of violence are just a few examples. External events, such as natural disasters, directly affect our students and faculty members around the world and often require rapid institutional response.
Some “emergencies,” by contrast, are moments of false urgency. They are the long-delayed policy approval that has to be added to the meeting agenda at the last minute, the funding proposal that needs to be created out of whole cloth in a single weekend, the statement that needs to be issued immediately because a student petition is gathering steam. Unlike true emergencies, such situations don’t put health or safety at risk. Expecting off-hours responses to false urgencies risks squandering the dedication and resilience of key team members— qualities we need for actual emergencies, especially at a moment when many higher ed units are already shorthanded.
Normalize the discussion of priorities. In higher education, power dynamics among staff, faculty, administrators, presidents and boards too frequently suppress important conversions that could help all parties distinguish the urgent from the important. To be effective, leaders and teams need to establish a shared vocabulary around urgency. It should be normal, safe and expected for parties at all levels of the institution to ask clarifying questions about priority. One option might be to borrow a rubric from medical triage: “Is this situation red (treat immediately), yellow (observe) or green (wait)?”
Distinguish opportunity from distraction. In a volatile political and media environment, disruption, while not schedulable, is inevitable. Advancing an institution in such a climate requires that leaders protect the time they can control for the highest-value work. That is not to say there isn’t room for serendipity—an approach from an unexpected donor, say, or an invitation to form a new educational partnership. But the relentless demands on teams’ time make it ever more important to ask rigorous questions about the opportunity costs of shiny objects that come into view: Is this initiative more “nice to do” than “need to do”? Adapting a popular expression to a fundraising context, “Is this a gift that might keep on taking?”
As is increasingly the case with pandemic management, some things that we once viewed as emergencies—petitions, protests, online activism—are now, in a sense, endemic. Many—not all—will merit a response from the institution, and such responses usually can be anticipated and planned.
No leader can change an organizational culture overnight, but operating at constant overload pace is unsustainable. The campuses that will thrive are those that commit to accomplishing important, transformational work without declaring “emergency” most days.