Leadership Lessons Learned

An op-ed by Devin Stephenson, President, Northwest Florida State College

I have been in a reflection mode the past few months, considering the valuable leadership lessons learned as our institution continues to respond to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is obvious to me that we were not prepared for the ongoing and unprecedented challenges and frankly, I haven’t heard from or observed anyone who was prepared. There are some who will boast of pre-existing preparation, prevention, response and recovery plans but honestly, in my years of higher education services, I have never witnessed such a challenging and stressful time. This environment has demanded that I become much more as a leader than I was taught or have ever experienced. I have been required to use the gift of a prophet, the strategy of an engineer, the planning of an architect and the compelling delivery of an inspirational and motivational speaker. It’s as though I have been called upon to be all of these and more and so have those with whom I share the leadership role at the College.

The number one lesson learned is that effective leaders adapt.  They are flexible, adaptable, available and can pivot on a dime. Effective leaders adjust sails at a moment’s notice and establish a new course, all while bringing along members of their department, unit or team.  Adaptation is the key word here!

I’ve learned that human interaction is critical to continued success. Technological advancements and communicating through an LCD monitor can seem foreign, but effective leaders embrace cultural change by a deep conviction and passion to make a difference, rather than a surface opinion of words on a page.

Then there is the “stretch” side of human nature required in these tumultuous times. No longer can you walk to an office, sit down and carry on a meaningful conversation that leads to a solution. You now must access technology, schedule a time and then hope and pray that the communication you transmit is received as it would be if you were literally face-to-face with that person or group of individuals. Communication is an art form and to only see a one-dimensional, digitally-captured video image, I am confident, is not the same as working in person.

Another stretch has been the methodology we now use to connect with students, (But shouldn’t we have already been doing that?) We have been forced to communicate on a different platform – no campus monitors or signage, but a hearty serving of social media and email blasts, hoping to catch the attention of this generation of skateboard communicators. I have learned that my communications skills need honing. We all must rethink our approach.  As Dorothy said, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”  And we aren’t. This global health crisis has pushed us beyond conceivable limits to a new normal, a new foundation for practice and a new perspective on how one reacts and responds in this new environment.

I am convinced when we are faced with a crisis or emergency, the actual incident only comprises approximately 10% of our energy. It is our response and reaction that determines whether or not we, as leaders, are effective and that comprises 90% of the outcome.

To ensure success in the future, we must make every day one that could be that day where we are forced to respond rather than just plan and execute. As leaders, we better build our organizational capacity to rise to the occasion and mentor our leadership teams to effectively manage change – unexpected, catastrophic change!

Oftentimes, during a crisis, our sense of awareness diminishes simply because we are forced to adapt to that thing, or those things pressuring us the most. Therefore, we must build instinctive responses that yield results, rather than emotional reactions.

Finally, I have learned that there is a renewed sense of “nice” all around me. People are more considerate. They seem to be moving at a slower pace and taking time to stop and “smell the roses” so to speak. There is more concern for one’s individual health and safety. We have been pushed to a place of “slow motion” and, frankly, it feels like the “good ole days” I used to hear my grandmother talk about – a time when there was a healthy dose of respect and appreciation. Yes, a time for reflection, a season where we should all realize that our freedoms are precious and being good stewards is more important than we thought.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, said, “If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day. Otherwise, it’s not.” Those words strongly resonate with me now more than ever. As a leader, I must be like Neil Armstrong, who walked on the moon, or Davey Crockett, who explored America and went where no one had gone and led people to places they would not traverse alone. As a state college leader, this has proven to be a great opportunity for me to lead our organization where it has never been before and to achieve new outcomes. It will require that I be future-focused on clearly shaped decision-making and inspiring hope. I must keep the institution relevant and purpose-driven, values-based, unique and memorable. We have a story to tell and it is my duty to keep telling that story and keep working to fulfill our mission of “improving lives.”

Yes, I’ve learned a great deal through this crisis. Most important is the lesson that I must never give up in the demanding Work of Service — regardless of the challenge, I must be resilient and lead with my face set like a flint with conviction to Make A Difference!

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