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How I learned to stop planning

June 5, 2020

There have been many uncertainties during this COVID19 crisis. As a matter of fact, it often feels like the only certainty we have any more is uncertainty!

Many of us have spent our professional careers, and possibly even moved up the professional ladder, by developing solid planning and organizational skills. In short, we have always been rewarded for having plans. A plan for this, a plan for that. Often we are asked “okay but what is your plan?” So we had this instilled in us that the pathway to success is having a solid, actionable plan. I know that has been my experience.

COVID19 has really challenged this tendency in me, as a librarian, as a campus administrator, and as a director. As soon as it became clear that we were going to have to change our daily lives, my first thought was, “I need to put a plan together.” But I think we all discovered very quickly that this was a pointless endeavor. We would spend Monday putting a comprehensive plan together that, by Tuesday, was irrelevant. As things changed on a daily, and oftentimes even hourly basis, planning became a moot point. All of those skills I developed and honed as a leader, organizer, and planner were suddenly not serving me or my team.

I quickly discovered, as I’m sure many of you have discovered as well, that in times of crisis trying to pretend that we as leaders have all of the answers was a waste. I don’t know about you, but at my University our students, staff, and faculty were looking to us for answers, and I simply didn’t have any answers to give them. At that point, communicating a “plan” was probably the worst thing we could have done when plans were changing so regularly. Trying to pretend we had a plan was misleading to our stakeholders.

This is a time to develop and hone new skills: vulnerability, honesty, and ethical transparency. The ability to stand in front of a group of people (figuratively, and virtually of course) and say “look, things are changing so fast, we simply can’t plan for the future right now” required skills I hadn’t yet developed, and I found myself deeply uncomfortable doing so. However, being ethically transparent was the best solution for everyone. Sometimes our students and stakeholders may think they need certainty and a plan, but really what they need is empathy from the administration. They were looking for leadership, and sometimes leadership means showing vulnerability. And that’s okay.

I had to develop a new way to communicate and lead during this crisis, and that has been “listen, I hear you, I am looking out for your best interests, and we will make decisions based on certain criteria while keeping everyone as safe as we can. Here is the criteria that will affect our decision making.” This has proven to be a much more effective way to lead during this crisis than “here’s my plan.” And at the end of the day, being vulnerable, ethically transparent, and empathetic with one another is what people need in uncertain times.

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