The qualities of an inspiring and effective leader in online education are the same as in any other field, for the most part. As we have been living through a season of intense change, adaption, and managing chaos at times, it is worth considering how our concept of leadership has to include the realization that change and the possibility of significant disruption is part of our new normal.
In my role as a senior academic leader and mentoring many education graduate students over the years, I’ve learned that we need to lead with a perspective of “dynamic stability” if we want to be prepared for unplanned change with resilience and the ability to maintain our strategic direction.
A brief description of dynamic stability comes from the domain of aviation:
“Orville and Wilbur Wright became the first in flight because they applied a mechanical principle that followed their collaborative method. The key to keeping a craft in the air they grasped, was not to make it strong and sturdy. On the contrary, it had to be flexible. The plane itself – and the pilot at the controls – must be able to adjust easily and quickly. In the sky, with winds rushing and ever changing, there was no such thing as inherent stability – only a dynamic stability, which, though it might sound like a contradiction, actually had a lot to do with embracing instability.”
Shenk, J. W. (2014). Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, p. 185. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, NY
You’ve experienced the need for dynamic stability if you’ve flown an airplane (in manual control), steered a boat or ship on the open ocean, driven a vehicle on a windy day, ridden a bicycle, or taught any class with “active learning” methods. You have a course in mind, a path to follow, but you also have the need to constantly adapt to the changing conditions around you.
Leaders have to respond to environmental and contextual changes with tactical course corrections, adapting immediate plans and actions, with the foresight to plan proactively for responses to unknown (but perhaps anticipated) changes to come. Have you been prepared for that kind of leadership?
What does this mean for leaders in online education in the early 2020’s and beyond? First, I believe we have to work from a shared strategic direction that our major stakeholders support and work collaboratively to implement.
We have to know which way we are heading, how we are making progress, and how we will know when we have achieved major milestones along the way. We develop momentum toward our goals as we progress. When circumstances change that lead to a change in strategic direction, this also must be clearly communicated so we can change directions with coordinated actions.
For example, is the institution planning to launch new online or hybrid programs as a response to the changing environment (e.g., COVID-19 implications)? Many of our institutions are considering major changes that will shift our strategic focus in some areas. This is more than a course correction; it’s more of a course change and requires a “reset” in the direction of our efforts.
As we embark on following a strategic direction, we lead in overseeing and coordinating the day-to-day tasks that are often more tactical than strategic. It’s during the day-to-day operational leadership that we have to be prepared to change our actions and immediate priorities to keep us on course to meet strategic objectives when our context and environment are changing without our control.
When a new policy is implemented by a governing body (local, state, national) it may require a realignment of some of our practices. When our institution makes decisions affecting our resources (budget, physical space, virtual environment) – perhaps in response to a crisis moment – we often have to revise our own practices, project timelines, and more.
Our project or program momentum should help keep us on course, even though adaptions may be needed. The challenge for a leader in situations like this is to quickly determine if this is 1) a situation calling for a course correction – change in strategic direction – or 2) a situation requiring a response in tactics (often short term) while maintaining our current strategic direction.
Dr. Brian Beatty is Associate Professor of Instructional Technologies in the Department of Equity, Leadership Studies and Instructional Technologies at San Francisco State University. Previously (2012 – 2020), Brian was Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Operations at San Francisco State University (SFSU), overseeing the Academic Technology unit and coordinating the use of technology in the academic programs across the university. At SFSU, Dr. Beatty pioneered the development and evaluation of the HyFlex course design model for blended learning environments, implementing a “student-directed-hybrid” approach to better support student learning.