Qualities Online Learning Leaders Need to Help Their Organization Thrive in Uncertain Times


Karen L. Pedersen, Ph.D.

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As institutions pivot to the future post-pandemic, the higher education landscape will be forever changed. No matter your role in your organization or at your institution, as leaders WE need to be ready to pivot. It is essential that WE position ourselves with the future-ready skills and qualities necessary to support the innovation and entrepreneurial thinking needed to move our institutions forward. Whether you work at a community college, HBCU, tribal college, land grant, or top-tier research university…your work will be critical in developing high-quality learning experiences, supporting student success initiatives for today’s contemporary learners as well as navigating the ‘next big thing’ on your institution’s strategic roadmap. You may work in a small institution or large, at a public institution or private, or in a rural location or urban…no matter your institution’s context now may be the time to engage in a leadership tune-up.

I contend that even pre-pandemic, many of us found ourselves in a VUCA world. VUCA—which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity–is a concept borrowed from the U.S. Army War College, dating back to 1987. In recent years, it has been applied to other contexts, such as business or even higher education, to describe navigating a dynamic and changing environment.

VUCA is highlighted in greater detail below:

  • Volatility: Fast, turbulent, and unpredictable changes without clear patterns or trends
  • Uncertainty: Frequent disruptive changes where the past is not a very good predictor of the future – unfamiliar territory with the potential for surprise
  • Complexity: Multiple, complex, intertwined interdependencies or confounding of issues amidst global interconnectivity
  • Ambiguity: Little clarity or distinction between opportunities and threats (cause-and-effect). Multiple perspectives make it difficult to predict the impacts of action given the haziness of reality

Whether or not you agree with me about living in a VUCA world pre-pandemic, I am sure the VUCA characteristics have seemed all the more relevant in the last 12 months. Today, more than ever, online learning leaders are well-positioned to drive lasting change within our institutions. To this end, I believe a more action-oriented VUCA-Prime focus is needed. Coupled with key future-ready leadership qualities, this model emphasizes what leaders need to do to help their organizations thrive in uncertain times.

VUCA-Prime is highlighted in greater detail below:

  • Vision: Have a clear purpose that provides a compass point for others – shift from strategic planning to setting strategic intent, and be flexible in how you get there
  • Understanding: Stop, look, and listen beyond functional areas of expertise – dialogue with multiple stakeholders before making a decision, and develop perceptual flexibility through a refined ability to take in different perspectives
  • Clarity: See through the confusion (sensemaking) by creating a plausible understanding and context – respond to what matters, and learn how to inspire others to follow through with storytelling and by creating action maps
  • Agility: Build the capacity to move quickly and easily – rapidly prototype a solution, experiment, reflect, synthesize and iterate – anticipate risks, but don’t spend too much time in long term strategic plans – encourage networks rather than hierarchies

So, what do I see as more of those future-ready qualities that WE need to hone? My list would include resilience, adaptability, curiosity, connectedness, collaboration, divergent thinking, and a maker instinct. I would also put on the list being a life-long learner. As a faculty member for the Institute for Emerging Leadership in Online Learning (IELOL) 2021, I hope you will consider joining this leadership development opportunity to support your leadership tune-up. Additionally, there are lots of ways for you to get involved and stay plugged into the collective movements of our field to continually hone your readiness skills for the future.

This blog post was adapted from October 2, 2020, EvoLLLution article entitled “Pivoting to the future: Creating a vision to serve one million enrolled students.

Karen Pedersen currently serves as Dean of Global Campus at Kansas State University. Pedersen has had the opportunity to work in both public and private higher education institutions throughout her career. While the digital learning landscape has certainly evolved over the years, she is passionate about growing future senior leaders to further shape and transform higher education.

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