Month: March 2020

Embracing Our “Brave New Normal”

Brave: “showing courage; enduring unpleasant conditions without fear.”

New: “not existing before.”

Normal: “conforming to a standard, usual, typical or expected.”

Yesterday, March 30, 2020, our Forsyth Technical Community College students will “return” from their Spring Break.

Normally, our students, faculty and staff would be returning to our campuses.

Normally, the energy would be almost electric, particularly for our seniors who are nearing the end of their higher education journeys at Forsyth Tech and preparing for their next journey – a new career or transfer to a university.

Normally, we would all be excited and eager for the end-of-year celebrations, award ceremonies, and especially Commencement – the apex of our school year and a culminating moment in the lives of around 1,500 or more Forsyth Tech students each year.

Sadly, this year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, the return from Spring Break is anything but normal.  All of us at Forsyth Tech, students, faculty and staff, are searching for a new normal in the face of our uncertain, short-term future.  Frankly, our entire country and almost every other country in the world is at the same place – trying to figure out what normal looks like during a pandemic.

The number of people who have become sick with this virus worldwide is approaching one million with over 35,000 deaths, with almost 136,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, and that total is rising rapidly.  To say people across the world are “anxious” would be a gross understatement – people are naturally afraid.  Yet, examples of bravery in the face of this frightening and unprecedented crisis are abundant.

At Forsyth Tech and at colleges, businesses, and homes all around the world, people are showing incredible amounts of courage and I believe we are all doing our best to endure this situation with as little fear as possible.  This is definitely a new situation for us all – a time that has certainly never existed before in most of our lifetimes.  We cannot count on anything conforming to a standard or being usual – everything seems to be atypical and unexpected.  We have been thrust into a new normal and we are not backing away, but rather courageously forging our Brave New Normal

As I was thinking through the most important things that I wanted to share in this blog post today, I came across the quote below from another blogger.

Trust the WaitEmbrace the uncertainty.  Enjoy the beauty of becoming.  When nothing is certain, anything is possible.”

Mandy Hale

For many of us, waiting is hard.  We live in an “instant” society.  If we need an answer to a question – any question – we simply ask Google or ask Siri and we get an answer . . . in an instant. If we are hungry, we run through a drive through and grab a quick meal . . .  in an instantIf something happens in our hometown, our state, our country, or anywhere in the world, breaking news delivers it to all of us wherever we are . . . in an instant

In our 21st century world, it is difficult to accept that we cannot find a quick fix to this problem.  COVID-19 has thrust us into an unpredictable and unfamiliar place — whether we want to be there or not, we have no choice but to live through and wait out this very uncertain time.  We want to find a solution and we want everything to just be normal.  We find comfort in our normal – we know what to expect and we know relatively what our days will be like. We have set routines and we like the predictability of the familiar.

Creating a Brave New Normal

Right now, the entire state of North Carolina, and many other states, have been ordered to “Stay-at-Home” – for that matter, whole countries around the world are on lockdown.  We find ourselves in a precarious, unpredictable and unfamiliar place.  That is a hard place to be and we are naturally fearful of the unknown.

There is no instant solution for COVID-19 that will get us back to normal, and as hard as it may be to comprehend and accept, we may never get back to the same normal we had before.  This pandemic is causing a lot of fear – understandably so for many reasons – and I believe one of the things we fear more than anything else is that we will not get back to normal.  The thought of things being permanently disrupted and never returning to normal is creating, at least some small measure of fear in most, if not all of us.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said,“Do the thing we fear, and death of fear is certain.”

I have found this to be true in my life many times.  Fear can be paralyzing.  Of course, there are times when fear is justified and we are rightfully afraid, but I have also found, fear of what will happen is often is much worse than the actual result.  Regardless of whether we are right to be fearful or our fear is overblown, I think Mr. Emerson had it right – one sure way to kill the fear is to face it head on . . . rip the band aid . . . take action and move past whatever it is we fear . . . be brave.

There is nothing easy about creating a new set of expectations that never existed before, a new normal, in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and there will certainly be consequences and trade-offs.  For example, we know from years of research and data that college students who are engaged and connected in meaningful ways outside the classroom in academic and non-academic clubs and activities, are more successful.  At the moment, the new normal for our students is all instruction and support services being delivered remotely.  Opportunities for in-person connections and engagement are not possible right now and our students are forced to complete their coursework at a distance.  If they engage with faculty and staff or with each other right now, it is primarily if not solely, at a distance.

I am often asked as a president what I lose sleep over. Right now, I am losing sleep over the impact of the new normal on our students.  I am worried about equity.  Many of our students do not have Internet access at home and many do not have computers at home – they may already be taking online classes, but they are using our computer resources to complete their coursework – when we are closed that option is not available to them.  Many of our students have never taken an online class and I know they will struggle to understand how to be successful without the structure and direct contact of the in-person classroom.  Many of our students are adults who work and are responsible for families and now, they are out-of-work and struggling even more than normal to make ends meet.  Many of our students depend on day-to-day personal and in-person interaction and engagement with faculty and staff to keep them moving forward, and now, that is not part of their new normal.

As Forsyth Tech’s president, my greatest fear is the impact of this pandemic on our students’ success.  Our faculty and staff share that fear – they too are worried about how our students will be able to successfully navigate this COVID-19 storm. However, rather than letting the fear paralyze us or de-motivate us, we have decided that we can do more than just accept a new normal.  We are embracing our vision of being a catalyst for equitable economic mobility, empowering lives and transforming communities.  We are creating a Brave New Normal. 

All around the world, in the middle of this unprecedented pandemic, we continue to see examples of people coming together like never before to support each other and help each other.  Personally, over the past few weeks, I have intentionally chosen to ignore the bad examples of how people are handling COVID-19 and focus on the positive and uplifting stories that continue to rise out of this unimaginable, scary time (perhaps it my “coping” mechanism).  I have been amazed by the “good” that is coming out of this incredibly “bad” situation, and I have been blown away by the response of the community colleges in North Carolina and higher education community throughout the country, and I am especially proud of the way our Forsyth Tech family has responded.

We could have simply accepted the disruption to our “normal”, put content online for those students who could access it, and accepted the fact that a lot of students would be forced to withdraw.  We. Never. Even. Considered. That. As. An. Option.

Instead, so many others around North Carolina and throughout our country, the amazing faculty and staff at Forsyth Tech stepped up and showed off!

  • We challenged the status quo by refusing to accept predetermined consequences – you will not find a “what will be will be” attitude at our college.
  • We embraced the mantra that we would get through this together by loving and serving our students and each other.
  • We refused to merely move everything online because we know that will not be a good solution for many of our students, and because we live our vision that is built around and grounded in the foundational principle of equity of success for all students.
  • We believed that our students and our communities needed us to be leaders and we calmly, confidently, courageously and compassionately built remote learning and support services aimed at keeping every student on their pathway to their dreams.

We created a Brave New Normal for ourselves and our students, recognizing there is not quick fix and there will not be a “one and done” solution.  We will have to remain fluid and flexible, adjusting our Brave New Normal when and as needed.  That is how we get through this strange and crazy moment in time that we did not anticipate – with courage and compassion – bravely building our new normal together.

Leading Through A Crisis: Be Calm, Be Confident and Courageous, and Be Compassionate

Leading to Make a Difference Live Your Purpose Logo

“It would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour. It would still be more foolish to lose heart and courage.”

Winston Churchill

The past 3 weeks seem almost surreal. Last Saturday, we had less than 30 cases of the COVID-19 virus here in North Carolina — the total now is 270. Yesterday our Governor said, “we know this will get worse before it gets better.” This pandemic has certainly moved beyond anything any of us could have imagined just a short time ago; an unprecedented event within our lifetimes. The virus spreads quickly, there is no vaccine or medicine available to shorten the sickness, and the only thing we can do is wash our hands and essentially stay away from each other. Social distancing and limiting groups to no more than 10 people in any given place at one time have become one of our new normals.

Our public schools and all dine-in restaurants and bars are closed by executive order of the Governor. Most retail stores across the country are closed or open for very limited hours. People around the world are anxious and even panicked as this global pandemic explodes. Entire countries are sheltering in place, even as residents in 4 states in this country have been ordered by their governors to stay at home or shelter-in-place. There is a national shortage of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and even baby formula and diapers, and the stock market continues to tumble.

Our community college and university campuses are almost ghost towns as we have been ordered to move to all remote instruction and mass teleworking with only designated personnel allowed on campus and very limited services available in-person. Our students are frightened and disheartened — on Friday we postponed our Commencement Ceremony — the biggest celebration of the year for any educational institution.

Leading without a Playbook

It is hard enough to be a good leader under the best of circumstances, when you have precedence and guidance available to support your decisions. The COVID-19 pandemic did not come with a leadership playbook to guide decision-making or to help leaders plan strategically. In fact, it is essentially impossible to make strategic plans since the situation evolves and changes rapidly, and the guidance and directives from health and governmental officials is a moving target.

I saw a post on social media yesterday that said: “Do you think we can unplug 2020 and plug it back in again?” I agree! An option to start over would be welcome right now. Nothing is normal, we keep trying to find our “new normal” but things are changing too quickly, and we don’t have a clue how much longer it will be before we can get off this roller coaster. Leaders are scrambling and struggling with what feels sometimes like the weight of the world, literally, on their shoulders. Leadership is tough under normal circumstances, and again, there is very little normal in our daily lives right now. We are all tired, anxious and afraid.

In full disclosure: I am not a seasoned President having only been in this role for 15 months, and I do not profess to be an expert in leading through a crisis like this — I am not sure even great crisis leaders have ever seen anything quite like this challenging situation. However, I am a student of leadership theories, practices and history, and I pay close attention to the actions and philosophies of successful and great leaders of today and yesterday. As I make my way through the COVID19 pandemic, I am relying on all I have learned about leadership, my 24 years of experience as an executive higher education leader, and the examples from great leaders that I respect and trust to navigate these uncharted waters. To help me lead my Forsyth Tech family through this storm, I am working hard to BE: Calm, Courageous and Confident, and Compassionate, and I want to share my ideas on why these 4 C’s can help leaders weather the COVID19 storm.

Only through hindsight & history will we know if we have over or under reacted.
If my decisions are deemed to be overreactions, I can live with that.

Be Calm

British actor Michael Caine said: “Be like a duck. Calm on the surface, but always paddling like the dickens underneath.” This has become my mantra during COVID19 — Be like a duck!

I don’t believe that people in leaders are “natural” when it comes to dealing with stress and remaining calm under pressure, but I do believe that good leaders understand how important it is to “never let them see you sweat” (a famous slogan for Gillette underarm deodorant from the 1980’s). Please note, I am not suggesting that leaders should be anything less than authentic and genuine, what I am saying is it is critically important for leaders to learn how to manage their anxiousness and fears and model calm for the sake of the people under their care and responsibility.

Irish sea with quote Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm by Publilius SyrusOne of the most widely recognized characteristics of a strong leader is grace under pressure — being able to control your own emotions, so you can help others remain level-headed when their emotions are rising or unsettled. Teachers know that projecting calm is the best way to settle down a class — by speaking calmly yet assertively they illicit the emotion in their students that they are projecting.

As we make our way through this COVID19 crisis, or any difficult situation, good leaders will focus on the situation as a challenge rather than a crisis. They will strive to keep order in the chaos, maintaining balance and clarity of thought. The best leaders of challenging situations, will continue to lead with passion and energy, but they will remain in control. They will stand apart because they will focus on people rather than the situation — calmly keeping their people moving forward together and working together to achieve the best outcome. They will make informed decisions and take decisive actions, in a clam and professional manner.

Be Courageous and Confident

I believe all great leaders share these two characteristics: courage and confidence. I would also suggest these two important traits are linked in such a way that one begets the other. Confidence elicits courage and courage engenders confidence.

At the base level, leadership is about confidently forging a path forward and inspiring others to follow you on the path. Leaders who lack confidence and courage often struggle to assuredly inspire others to follow them down any pathway and during times of crisis, the struggle will be significantly exacerbated. Unfortunately, July 2019 survey by Gartner, Inc found only 50% of over 2,800 leaders surveyed reported feeling “well-equipped to lead their organization in the future.” Leaders experiencing a crisis of confidence in their leadership ability during normal situations, will likely be grossly ineffective under urgent or emergency situations. A particularly complex event like the COVID19 pandemic that is volatile and unpredictable, may be too complex for them to manage.

Leaders who are equipped to lead and who do so with passion and purpose are naturally self-assured about the qualities they possess that make them good leaders. They feel confident in their abilities and that gives them the courage they need to act in situations without precedence when they are creating the playbook as they go. Organizations that successfully weather storms like COVID19, and come out on the other side of the storm in better shape than before, have conviction and bravery built into their DNA because of leaders who are confident and courageous.

Be Compassionate

Some people think this section is too “touchy/feely”, but I believe it is perhaps the most important suggestion of all. When we go through stressful or traumatic situations, it is hard to make it through alone. It helps to, at the very least, have someone who can commiserate with you — one or more people who feel your pain, and who are willing to go through it with you in some form or fashion. Greater Good magazine says ” Compassion literally means ‘to suffer together.'” When times are tough, suffering alone is far worse than having others to buoy you and help you stay afloat during the storm.

Compassionate leaders genuinely care about the people they lead and are willing to own a responsibility for suffering with them. Compassionate leaders strive to build a collaborative culture where everyone on the team shares ownership for the organization’s vision and works cooperatively on the goals and actions that will help them achieve their goals and reach their vision. Compassionate leaders are active listeners and their teams members know they are important because the leader takes time to talk to them and is truly interested in hearing what they have to say. Compassionate leaders invest their time in their people and actively demonstrate they care by their actions.

I believe compassion is a trait that all great leaders embody and it is an important characteristic to possess under normal circumstances. When faced with an emergency situation, and particularly during an unprecedented crisis like a global pandemic, it is even more important for leaders to remain compassionate. Over the past few weeks, I have shared comments like “we are all in this together” and “we will get through this together” time and time again, both in my written messages and my verbal communications. I don’t take those sentiments lightly and I don’t say them carelessly — I share them from my heart because we are in this crisis together and I want my team to know that we are suffering together. I believe it is important for my team to feel my compassion and I believe it is making a difference.

Only Time Will Tell

Only through hindsight and history will we know if we have over- or under-reacted as leaders and decision-makers during this worldwide crisis. If my leadership decisions are deemed to be overreactions, I can live with that. If however, I under-react or react too slowly and risk the health and safety of those under my responsibility, whom I care deeply about, I will struggle to live with that. Right now, we are all simply doing the best we can to get through this trying time together. Best of luck to those who are in leadership roles during this unprecedented time — Be calm, confident and courageous, and compassionate as you write this playbook and guide our way!

“Know that while this might last for a while, it will probably not last forever. Think marathon, not sprint but even marathons do eventually end.
You stay sane by just running the mile you’re in.”

Laura Vanderkam

We are all in this together and will get through this challenge. Let’s just run the mile we are in.