As dean of a Jesuit business school, it’s in our DNA to reflect upon and discern how we manage challenges and opportunities, drawing strength from our engagement with others. The higher education landscape over the last two years has been a crash course on how to lead through uncertainty. From the COVID-19 pandemic to greater emphasis on DEI to employee demands for more flexibility, major societal and cultural disruptions have shifted the way we think about and lead organizations.
So how do we survive and thrive in this turbulent environment? How might we think creatively about change strategy to ensure we stay true to our culture, mission and purpose? What knowledge, skills and abilities should we employ to come out of a crisis stronger than before? The answer to these questions is rethinking the way we approach the challenges we face.
Looking back at the changes we implemented during the pandemic to meet stakeholder needs, I realized that building inspiration and motivation in the face of a crisis requires a very different perspective – that of “opportunity creator.” Opportunity creators use turbulence to activate different leadership mindsets to navigate a changing landscape. They yearn for the chance to use new tools, skills and approaches to make a positive impact and build resilience in their organizations. By employing different leadership mindsets, they enable their teams to create and innovate, thereby strengthening the organization.
I’ve found it useful to think about opportunity creation by taking on the mindset of an architect, coach, politician and artist (adapted from Bolman & Deal’s Reframing Organizations). These mindsets allow me to view the challenges I face from different perspectives, resulting in strategic, creative approaches that lead to opportunities for growth. Let’s take a closer look.
The architect considers how changes and challenges impact the way we design our teams, build our structures, and maintain strong organizational foundations. As architects, how might we create a virtual organization that continues to deliver on our mission? Approaches that worked for us included flattening the organizational chart, creating a new communication architecture, promoting flexibility, redesigning job descriptions, cross training and creating “navigator” roles to assist those struggling with change. These techniques enabled us to have more autonomy, creating opportunities for team members to flourish during times of crisis and change, and empowering them to flex their innovative and creative muscles.
In this mindset, the leader becomes coach, modeling new skills and abilities and empowering organizational members. Team members get feedback from the coach to practice, perfect and expand on repertoires. The key to effective coaching is staying calm in the face of chaos while motivating and inspiring the team to reach new heights. Coaches see failure as opportunities for learning and development.
Uncertainty and ambiguity characterize the landscape of change and how we address crisis, hence leaders must also be comfortable using a politician’s mindset. The leader as politician employs skills of coalition and alliance building, seeking out and often competing for resources to make good on the mission and purpose of the organization. The skills of a politician, used ethically, provide team members with the power and autonomy they need to create and adapt. Understanding the competitive environment and building influence and powerful networks to pave the way for progress are key leadership skills in this mindset.
The artist mindset sees challenges as opportunities, and crisis as a chance to turn an organization upside down and inside out for the better. The artist inspires others to be creative, take risks and dare to be different. They put effort and energy into things they believe in and help others understand the symbols, the rituals, the event itself. The artist helps team members see the culture of the changing organization as enabling them to be their most creative selves – to see the silver lining in obstacles and inspire passion to make a difference.
These four mindsets illustrate different ways to face a crisis or challenge and offer strategies that lead to positive outcomes. The leadership mindsets of architect, coach, politician and artist provide the necessary tools and pathways for becoming authentic “opportunity creators.”
Dayle M. Smith, Ph.D., is dean of the College of Business Administration at LMU where she leads strategy for executive, graduate and undergraduate programs. Learn more at lmu.edu.