How to Lead in Turbulent Times

Hunkering down
is appealing but
it’s counterproductive.
It lets the organization
protect itself instead of
moving forward.

Dr. Penny RueDr. Penny Rue

Higher education is being tossed by a whirlwind of changes, from budget reductions to fundamental questions of meaning and purpose. Leaders need to engage the entire campus community for a creative response. The impulse to retreat in the face of change can have the opposite effect.

Dr. Penny Rue, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of California San Diego, discussed “The Challenge of Leading in Turbulent Times” at the NASPA annual conference of student affairs professionals in Phoenix AZ in March 2012.

Fast-changing information technology spreads news of events almost before they happen. College students are far ahead of their parents and faculty in keeping up with the changes.

We experience this reality every day:

  • News of a crisis in the residence halls reaches some parents before you learn about it.
  • By the time your brochure comes back from the printer, it is already out of date.
  • The class of 2016 had a Facebook group in place before they started freshman orientation.
  • “Facebook is for old people :)”

All these changes set up a tension between providing strong leadership and empowering others on campus. The more uncertainty people experience, the more they want the security of someone to follow. “Followers expect leaders to know what they are doing,” she told WIHE.

But cockiness is off-putting, and followers being overly dependent on their leader is counterproductive. Leaders perform a balancing act. “Is it a tightrope or a piano wire?” she asked. Because of gendered images of leadership, she believes the high wire is tighter for women than men.

Embrace discomfort

When Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky published “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis” in the Harvard Business Review in 2009, the economy had recently tanked. Everyone was impatient for life to get back to normal.

What we think of as normal won’t come back, they wrote. In its place will be urgency, high stakes and uncertainty. When the immediate emergency passes, it will leave a new normal in its wake, just as a person who has survived a heart attack is in a different situation from the one who never had one.

Leadership in an emergency has two phases. First is to deal with the immediate crisis, equivalent to stabilizing the heart patient in the emergency room. In the second phase, leaders need to address the underlying causes and build capacity for a new reality.

This second phase is tricky because people are now anxious. The crisis is continuing and most people just want to get back to normal. Proposed changes meet with resistance. (Only about one in five heart surgery patients quits smoking, starts to exercise or changes their diet after surgery.)

People clamor for reassurance, tempting their leaders to go back to old ways instead of making the needed changes. The old ways no longer work. Turbulence creates opportunities for change but it comes at a price.

Like the people around them, the leaders have never been here before. They can’t provide certainty or make sound decisions unilaterally. They need everyone’s help in discovering what works. “In this context, leadership is an improvisational and experimental art,” Heifetz wrote.

Rue showed an image of the diamondback terrapin (a kind of turtle) Testudo, mascot of the University of Maryland, where she got her doctorate. The natural response of a turtle under threat is to pull back into its shell. Universities have the same tendency to hunker down.

“Hunkering down is appealing but it’s counterproductive. It lets the organization protect itself instead of moving forward,” she said.

She summarized Heifetz’s key strategies for change management:

  • Embrace disequilibrium. Leaders must be willing to embrace discomfort. Orchestrating it to make it productive is another balancing act. “You have to keep your hand on the thermostat,” she said. If there’s too much discomfort, it provokes a fight-flight-or-freeze response. But if everyone is too comfortable, change won’t happen.
  • Depersonalize conflict. Focus disagreement on issues instead of parties, while keeping in mind that the issues affect real people.
  • Create courageous conversations. Hard topics need open discussion. Protect dissenters from group pressure to shut up.
  • Confront loyalty to legacy practices. It has been said that the status quo is the only thing that can’t be vetoed. Just because this is how it’s always been done is not enough reason to keep doing it this way.
  • Distinguish essential from expendable. Which practices are central to your mission? Which can you leave behind without changing your reason for being?
  • Run numerous experiments. You’ve never been here before; you don’t have enough information to solve problems with a detailed, grand strategic plan. Try one thing and another, with lots of mid-course corrections.
  • Accumulate micro-adaptations. Most change doesn’t start with a big centralized initiative. It emerges from lots of little initiatives across campus.
  • Distribute leadership responsibility. Turbulent times call for less hierarchical leadership and more use of collective intelligence. Everyone is needed to help find solutions.

Disperse leadership

Distributing leadership responsibility requires a model of leadership that’s hard to show on an organizational chart. Experiments and micro-adaptations can start anywhere on campus and grow from there. In “Student Affairs as Change Agents” (NASPA Journal 2003), Kathleen Allen and Cynthia Cherry describe university organizations in the information age as fluid systems, not hierarchical structures.

Email, blogs, social networking sites, twits and tweets are promoting a new era of collaboration and connection. The Internet has no vice-chancellor or board of regents.

Technology is pushing higher education toward new ways of relating, leading and learning together. Top-down management of discrete units worked in the machine age, when university structures were invented and locked into place. The knowledge age calls for a different dynamic, crossing boundaries and acknowledging interdependence.

“The only way we can survive in turbulent times is by unleashing the creativity and energy in our organizations,” Rue said.

She recommended three assumptions about change with implications for campus leadership:

1. Change can be initiated from anywhere. Regardless of your position or job title, you can initiate change from wherever you are.

2. One person can make a difference. With persistence, you can influence structures that are large and complex.

3. Change is organic and interconnected. The system is not a stack of building blocks but a web or net of interconnected threads. You can pull on the threads at any point to influence the shape of the system.

Turbulent times challenge leaders in different ways from the old transactional models. “We need commitment from people when we can no longer offer them much security,” Peter Block writes in Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self Interest (1993).

To be a steward is to hold something in trust. It is to accept accountability for the larger good through service rather than control. It means letting power spread into wider and wider circles instead of trying to concentrate it in the leader’s hands.

“Leadership is being deeply accountable for results while letting people define success for themselves,” Rue said. Building capacity in our organizations requires participation and empowerment.

Turbulent times call leaders to be willing to:

  • Work on themselves first.
  • Keep intimate contact with those around them.
  • Acknowledge their doubts and limitations.
  • Bring their limitations into the dialog.

Promote connection

Like clothing, the boundaries that leaders provide for their followers must not be too loose or too tight. Michael Fullan defines the risks of the too-loose-too-tight dilemma in The Six Secrets of Change (2008). When your leadership is too tight, micromanaging or demanding sharp accountability, people are alienated. They turn passive or rebel.

But when you decentralize creativity too far, the result is drift or inertia. The creativity doesn’t get aligned toward a central purpose. The solution is to get peers talking to one another. Encourage creativity all over campus while setting up structures for peer interaction.

“It’s empowerment within guardrails,” Rue said.

Drawing on Fullan, she highlighted three practices for effective change leadership:

Connect peers with purpose. Strong leaders foster continuous peer interactions. According to Fullan, change works best “not when rank-and-file workers fall in love with the hierarchy—those in charge at the top—but rather when they fall in love with their peers.”

Build capacity. Effective leaders develop the strengths of individuals and the group as a whole. Capacity involves new skills, new resources and new motivation. People are learning all the time, not just through professional development programs but through their work. Sometimes it happens through trial and error.

Practice transparency. Transparency means a clear display of results and what is being done to achieve them. This doesn’t mean posting personal data for punitive ends, but providing the information to evaluate experiments and learn from the results.

Take care of yourself

“Perhaps the most important thing a leader can do when buffeted by trouble and turbulence is to keep ‘an even keel’ as the storm rages,” Rosemary Mathewson, Jared Bleak and Amelie Villeneuve write in “Leading in Turbulent Times” (Duke Corporate Education 2008). When everyone around you is upset, you need to be able to steady yourself and calm others enough that they can function.

Maintain focus and discipline, with a steady commitment to larger goals. Show confidence that all of you working together can find your way through the problems. Sustain your values and admit your doubts without provoking anxiety.

Allow yourself to be flexible, ready to make mid-course corrections when things don’t work the way you expected. Strength includes willingness to adapt as new information becomes available.

Keep developing. Leadership is a form of continuing education. Just as top athletes keep exercising and training, so should campus leaders keep building their personal capacities.

Crisis leadership will push you to your limits. Self-care is essential to give you the energy and perspective needed to do your job.

To take care of yourself in turbulent times:

Balance optimism and realism. Keeping them in healthy tension will save you from slipping into denial on one side or cynicism on the other.

 • Practice healthy physical habits. Eat well, exercise and get enough sleep.

Reach out to touchstones. Do what works for you: meditation at your home altar, half an hour by a reflecting pool or a long walk in the woods.

Reach out to confidantes. Find at least one person, unrelated to your work, who cares more about you than about campus issues.

Bring your whole self to work. This includes your emotional self, in reasonable balance with poise and professionalism. It can be hard for women, who risk being dismissed as too emotional.

Connect with the larger purpose. Keeping the greater purpose of your work in mind can put the small stuff in perspective.

Laugh every day. Voltaire wrote, “Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats.” Dance, sing and laugh while you and others steer the lifeboats to carry you through the storm.

Contact Penny Rue at

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2012, October). How to Lead in Turbulent Times. Women in Higher Education, 21(10), 24-25.

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