Leadership is now confined to two dimensions

COVID-19 restrictions have reduced the face-to-face interaction essential to effective leadership

Ian Holloway

I’m hardly the first to say this, but the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing us all — individuals and institutions alike — to our limits. And the evidence of that is starting to show.

On Oct. 17 the National Post ran a story which laid it out starkly: “A flurry of surveys this week would suggest we’re all becoming similarly unhinged by COVID-19. Taken together, the polls — from Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Angus Reid Institute and human resources firm Morneau Shepell — paint a worrisome picture of strained emotions as we hit the pandemic’s seven-month mark.”

The story went on to give results of the recent Morneau Shepell report based on an online survey of 3,000 people in late August, before the second surge of the virus. “We’re struggling to concentrate. Worries over job security and dwindling emergency savings, and juggling multiple ‘mental and situational distractions, on top of the work,’” according to Paula Allen, senior vice-president of research at Morneau Shepell. That’s hardly a reassuring picture for Canadian society as we begin the third decade of the millennium!

Yet professional life goes on. The law schools have enrolled students and are offering near-full curricula, albeit mostly online. Student clubs and associations continue to operate. Students are being interviewed by law firms for summer and articling positions. Most law professors have risen to the challenge, and have worked  hard to adapt their courses to a Zoom format. Indeed, I heard from a student just the other day that she is finding some of her course offerings better than when they were given in person!

Bureaucratic life continues, too. Faculty and committee meetings continue apace, work requirements remain the same, and to some extent this is as it should be. We can’t allow the pandemic to drive civil society to a halt. There is an important psychological element at play, too: routine offers normalcy and predictability, which all of us need when there is so much uncertainty in the world at present.

Yet remote work can make leadership more difficult. Management is about process — the orderly transaction of business — but leadership is about binding people together in common purpose. A good manager gets things done properly; a good leader inspires people and gives them hope.

Any experienced leader will know that emotional intelligence is the sine qua non for effective leadership. She will also understand that a powerful empathetic tool is body language. It may be so faint as to be almost imperceptible, but a tilt of the head or the hunching of shoulders can often convey more meaning than words ever can. Those are the sorts of signals that leaders use and rely on every day. We all have had the experience of walking down the corridor after a meeting, for example, to talk with a colleague because we knew that something just wasn’t right. The good leader knows instinctively that something needs tending to.

Online meeting platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and WebEx have been excellent tools for conducting our business and learning remotely, and for those of us working in universities it is hard to imagine how we would have been able to continue to function without them. But they are far better instruments of management than they are of leadership, for no matter how large the screen or fast the internet connection it is difficult to discern the kinds of small human signals that are so important as leadership tools. Put another way, such technological platforms make it difficult to engage in the “third dimension” of depth.

Humans are social animals; interpersonal engagement is woven into our DNA. So it is hard to imagine a greater rub than this: precisely at the time when effective leadership is more necessary than ever, we are denied a critical leadership tool.

As I write this we are dealing with a pandemic the likes of which most of us have never experienced, which quite apart from its own challenges is serving as tinder to enflame other issues that society is facing. In Alberta, at least, we are dealing with multiple rounds of deep budget cuts, accompanied by the provincial government’s announcement of a major restructuring of the higher education sector. Perhaps inevitably, we have seen heightened labour conflict. The University of Ottawa has already had a strike, and Dalhousie just averted one. At the same time, we are trying to respond properly to the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Black Lives Matter movement. And yes, we’re still worried about hotspots and masks and sanitation stations, as well as continuing to teach, recruit new students to our law schools and help them find jobs.

Each one of these things would be challenging at the best of times. But we are trying to deal with them all at once, and without the ability to engage with each other in person in the way that humans are hardwired to. With each passing day of isolation, the bonds holding our social groups together become more attenuated. I joked not long ago with my associate deans at the University of Calgary that it’s as if we’re sitting on a powder keg with multiple fuses burning at once, and any one of them could send us sky-high.

In a nutshell, this is the biggest challenge facing us as leaders today; whether we like it or not, leadership in just two dimensions rather than three seems to be our fate for now. If we lose sight of that — or if we confuse management for leadership — we’re all finished.

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