The Little Dutch Boy is the tale of a boy who finds a hole in the dike and saves the town by plugging it with his finger. Given the current massive scale of the transitioning courses into #KeepTeaching modes, all higher education professionals are understanding that story, except it sometimes feels like we do not have enough fingers (or toes) to stop the tsunami of work required. That’s especially true for those of us working in distance learning, as “magic” answers are often expected.

It is helpful to pause for a second to think about leadership challenges that we are all facing. While not a complete list, here are some lessons that I have learned.

And many of them involve pausing and taking a breath…and thinking.

Triage, Triage, Triage

I often joke: “How come these people keep emailing me, don’t they know I have been in meetings all day?” an ambulance travelling quickly on a roadThere is always something new and people would like immediate help.

Now more than ever it is important to take lessons from the medical community about taking hard choices. Taking a moment to pause and sort priorities will make all the difference. Looking up “triage” on Wikipedia, I find this START (Simple Triage and Rapid Treatment) Model.

Triage separates the injured into four groups:

  • The expectant who are beyond help.
  • The injured who can be helped by immediate transportation.
  • The injured whose transport can be delayed.
  • Those with minor injuries, who need help less urgently.

Not sure what they are expecting, but I believe “expectant” is a euphemism for the dead or dying. Those tasks can wait. It is obviously critical to identify those with “immediate” needs and to get them help. The problem is that many of those in the latter two categories WANT immediate help. For those, you need to figure out who you can ask for understanding and who simply won’t get help due to priorities. There will be hurt feelings, but you must decide and lead.

Rethink and Reorganize Staff Efforts

These are not normal times and we need to change our priorities. If you have staff who are conducting business as usual, it is time to assess their skills and make them part of the solution. Where are the needs that must be filled and how can those staff members best help?

This is also very helpful to staff as they, too, want to be part of the solution. I’m a movie buff and think of the scene in Sense and Sensibility in which Alan Rickman’s Colonel Brandon character is excluded from helping the ailing woman he wishes to marry. He volunteers for a task by saying: “Give me an occupation Miss Dashwood, or I shall run mad.”

For anyone who has been experiencing staving off a flood, there is great comradery in the simple tasks of filling and stacking sandbags. Everybody must pitch in and it is important that leadership identify differentiated roles and set staff to doing them. We also have to empower staff to make suggestions about where they can provide the most value.

As we get into action with our new roles, it is important to keep communicating so that we are actually stacking those sandbags where and how they will have the most effect. Inevitably, we will outrun the short-term plan. We just need to forgive and periodically reassess both the situation and the necessary tasks.

Take Care of People

Among your staff you may have people suddenly home with one or more children needing attention, someone out with a serious non-COVID illness, staff with a serious condition that is under control but places them on the vulnerable list, people dealing with a parent in assisted living who needs to be moved, staff fighting anxiety, a pregnancy in the family, extremely ill animals not getting enough attention, stress caused by feelings of isolation, and a host of other non-work issues. While many of these are not unique to this time period, they do get amplified in the stress of this new reality and, quite frankly, the fear of the unknown.

Find humor. Give praise. Connect across the distance. Listen!!

We are all in this together and we can emerge that way too.

A Final Thought from a Public Health Professional

A final word from my lifelong friend Gerrit Bakker, Senior Director, Public Health Preparedness, Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

His Association works with the public health offices throughout the U.S. and his particular task is dealing with planning and responding to health emergencies such as the current one.
He sent this update to a few of his friends: “The work is relentless, my team is in our eighth week of non-stop response…small paper boatsWe are all exhausted and depressed but still putting on foot in front of the other. This is after all what we prepare for. Take care, my friends, be safe and stay connected, we still have a way to go.”

There is much more to go. It is up to you to lead us there.

I am happy to be on faculty for a second year at OLC’s IELOL. To develop as a leader in online learning, come join us.

Russ headshot
Russ Poulin
Executive Director
WCET (the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies)
rpoulin@wiche.edu  @RussPoulin


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Image Credits

Leader boat Photo by KOBU Agency on Unsplash
Ambulance Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash
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