In this special blog series, Staley School of Leadership Studies faculty members and partners, Trish Gott, and Kait Long consider how our academic framework, research agenda, and the associated leadership studies literature contributes understanding and support the exercise of leadership during the COVID-19 outbreak locally.
You – alumni, students, faculty, staff, and community members – play multiple roles in your communities personally and professionally. This kind of engagement has been the hallmark of how we understand and engage in leadership activity; It is what we teach about and practice. Beyond the walls of the Staley School we have always celebrated and believed that leadership embodied through actions, operationalized in day-to-day lived experiences, practiced with and in our homes and communities and situated in our evolving contexts is how we learn, develop, and grow personal, organizational, and community ability for leadership. Today, we advance considerations of and for community leadership-as-practice in a time of COVID-19 by sharing efforts from HandsOn Kansas State as they make their own progress locally.
Delivering on community promises: Reflections for deepening practice
First, what does leadership-as-practice mean? In forwarding a practice approach to leadership development, scholars emphasize the ways in which everyday circumstances and interactions create a container to learn and develop leadership. A leadership-as-practice orientation requires a new lens to recognize relevant and meaningful opportunities for leadership learning and development.
In the context of COVID-19, individuals, groups, and communities are working to respond to extraordinary circumstances by continuing to provide services that are a part of their regular mission and work. In these scenarios, there exist action points, for sure, along with guides, pre-determined policies, and guidelines to be drawn from that advance our thinking around choice points we may have to make. Shifting our thinking to a practice-mode offers a frame to make sense of leadership learning and development as we advance our efforts.
In practice theory, we reorient our thinking to pay close attention to actions that are automated – pausing now to reflect on those things. We surface components of our unconscious that are not automatic or routine and create new reflection processes. Developing new processes of reflection in this time may be part of a leadership-as-practice frame, which increases our capacity to make progress in future leadership scenarios.
Let’s take an example from leadership in community taking place now.
Local voices of practice
Describing efforts locally, Kait Long and the HandsOn Kansas State team have partnered with Lafene Health Center, the Cats’ Cupboard and Harvesters Community Food Network of Topeka to redesign Mobile Food Distribution. Kait offers reflections on how to move beyond what is known and into what must become in order to complete essential services for the local community.
- Organizationally: Leadership is risky, we know this. And, the risk for many right now is food security as economies struggle and life changes drastically. Responding to these needs must be done with immense caution and courage. Redesigning a Mobile Food Distribution has also been done in partnership – working alongside campus and community partners to determine the best way forward.
- Locally: Typically, we like to involve as many volunteers as possible in Mobile Food Distributions. The more individuals we can engage and educate about food insecurity in the community is beneficial to all. In these times we are completely changing our approach, leveraging as few volunteers as possible. We wanted to involve the health center on campus in order to ensure we were meeting the highest health and safety standards as well.
- Leading change: I think each person needs to be aware of their own bandwidth right now. Each person around the world is experiencing COVID-19 differently, and that personal experience evolves every day. If you can physically help others in accordance with CDC guidance, then do so. If you’re focused on staying in your home, find out who needs a phone call in your community. Who is experiencing loneliness? These are also acts of leadership that will carry our community forward through these times.
- What would you want to communicate to a global audience about leadership in this time of pandemic? Each person can make a difference during this time. It seems overwhelming – it is overwhelming – which can cause us to ask, ‘how can I even contribute to making this better?’ We all have something to contribute and these small acts will change how our world moves forward, together.
Point of reflection:
- Pausing to notice: We can grow leadership capacity by reflecting on normally unexamined patterns of talking, interacting, and engaging with others. This might emerge through the examination of process – as in the case of the Mobile Food Distribution described here – or in how we respond to the simplest questions in emails. The process of pausing to notice context and circumstance of the everyday experience invites us to slow, to consider and to redefine action.
- Embodiment in social distance: As we reflected in our first blog, social distance means physical distance, not social isolation. So how do we go about an emotional and physical embodiment of our work, of leadership, in times of physical distance? How has physical distancing changed the way we understand the overlap and intersection of our work, technology, organizations and more in our leadership activity? Some reflections we may consider include: How are we communicating with others? How do we use technology for purposes of engagement, interaction and leadership activity?
A call to action
In reflecting on what is required of each of us today, Long and her team have reminded us that a commitment regarding work right now (situational awareness) may require we ask new questions about how we proceed (privileging day-to-day experience), what defines productivity (building a new narrative), and how to innovate in new and creative ways (embodiment of our work). In responding to community needs, Kait’s team with HandsOn Kansas State is modeling this and testing their own processes in order to respond in times of COVID-19.
The final challenge
As Long offered, we might communicate using new mediums and consider ourselves as part of that medium. How are physical objects being used to communicate meaning and build connections? Is text enough to share our ideas or should we paint, draw or dig in the dirt?
We have seen colleagues in higher education using at-home gadgets to make complex concepts come to life through online learning this week. We have seen students building new and much needed online communities – creating incredible places to reflect and to share joys and pain.
How can we consider our at-home embodiments of leadership anew? What does it look like to share the materials and objects we use to enact leadership within our communities? What does it look like to share differently, how today, in times of COVID-19 we are engaging in, reflecting on, and enacting leadership activity?
Below you will find a short list of resources for further exploration:
Carroll, B., Levy, L., & Richmond, D. (2008). Leadership as practice: Challenging the competency paradigm. Leadership, 4(4), 363-379.
Raelin, J. A. (Ed.). (2016). Leadership-as-practice: Theory and application. Routledge.