Cultivating a Culture of Connection and Care for the Changing Terrain

A “new norm” has taken flight in doing business with our nation’s colleges. Perspectives and expectations based on work from home that began during the COVID-19 pandemic spawned changes in communicating, teaching, and engaging. In-person relationships are being displaced by virtual engagement. Added to the work-from-home ethos is a changing culture as younger generations move into senior leadership positions. With these issues in mind, how do institutions prepare leaders to cultivate connections, care, and creativity necessary to achieve shared goals and desired outcomes in this dynamic environment?

Whether it be the dis-ease generated by the pandemic or the distrust fueled by discontent, leaders must foster a shared vision and develop an understanding of institutional core values that engage stakeholders in creating a desired climate, culture, and outcomes. “Community colleges cannot create substantive and sustainable cultures of teaching, learning, evidence — or any kind of positive cultures — without the vision and support of highly competent leaders at all levels of the institution” (Kinnamon & O’Banion, 2020).

Fostering leadership development provides a platform for ongoing discussion and reinforcement of desired and shared culture and values. Strategic leadership development aligned with institutional mission, vision, and values prepares leaders to transform cultures and climates that anticipate needs and serve stakeholders. [...] No president, dean, or department chair conducts the work of all or a part of the college alone. It is, rather, the shared work together toward institutional goals that signals successful leadership and makes the achievement of institutional excellence possible. Much has been written about vision, but it is “shared vision” that leads to successful attainment of the college’s vision for itself. (Roueche, n.d.)

The pandemic exacerbated feelings of futility and isolation. It aggravated uncertainties and chronic stress stemming from real and perceived threats to livelihoods and lives. Further, it contributed to a tremendous lack of connectedness. Adding fuel to the pandemic “aftermath” are continuing social and political upheavals, including religious intolerance, war and posturing, inflation, gender and racial inequality, hostility, and assaults to name a few. These real and perceived conflicts and uncertainties play out in the classroom, in board meetings and in faculty negotiations.

While virtual engagement makes at-home work a possibility and growing business practice, it necessitates an awareness by leaders to engage, listen, and involve in new ways. Generational interests and needs that suggest new norms will need to be complemented by different means of trust-building, communicating, and involving stakeholders internal and external to the institution.

In-person meetings and dialogue are being morphed into ongoing email chains. Virtual sessions may be recorded, moving from desired collegial discourse to the potential of each word being weighed for legal considerations. The nuances, subtleties, and relationships gleaned in sitting together to talk through perspectives is apt to be lost on the screen. Leadership necessitates accurate and consistent communication, while keeping in mind perceptions of reality in listening, anticipating needs and opportunities, and attending to disputes that arise. Thus, leaders are called upon to foster trust and to cultivate a shared vision and values. They must be vigilant in getting to know the many perspectives and cultures of their stakeholders and the possible doubts and emotional traumas that have impacted their lives in the recent past.

A recent OECD report states, “… education in the future is not just about teaching people, but also about helping them develop a reliable compass to navigate an increasingly complex, ambiguous and volatile world” (Gurria, 2020). How institutional leaders communicate and engage with students, faculty, and other stakeholders must constantly be tempered to address ambiguity and evolving needs. In this high-tech/low-touch environment, leaders must foster a culture of continuous learning and leadership, respectful conversation, supportive connections, agility and creativity to achieve shared goals. Leaders must strive to listen, to respect, to consider varying perspectives and cultures, to create rational and responsible solutions, and to adapt to the changing terrain. “The more turbulent, ambiguous, and out of control the world is, the more institutional culture and learning processes must be shared by all in the organization" (Schein, 2010, 4th ed., p. 383). The new norm requires that leadership muscle be stretched in ways beyond our muscle memory.  

Dr. Margaretta B. Mathis serves as Senior Director, John E. Roueche Center for Leadership Development, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.

Dr. Terry A. Calaway is President and CEO Emeritus, Johnson County Community College (KS).  He chairs Kansas State University’s Community College Leadership Program Board of Advisors.

Dr. Steven R. Gonzales serves as Chancellor for the Maricopa County Community College District (AZ). He serves on Kansas State University’s Community College Leadership Program Advisory Board.

The Roueche Center Forum is co-edited by Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis of the John E. Roueche Center for Community College Leadership, Department of Educational Leadership, College of Education, Kansas State University.

This article appeared in the December 8, 2022 edition of Diverse.