Leading by Example in the Age of COVID-19

Practicing MBWA in a Time When It is Not Easy to Wander

Colgate University President Brian Casey is requiring all his university students to quarantine for two weeks upon returning to campus — and he is living in a dorm with them to show just how important it is for everyone to be committed to a safe reopening of campus to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Photo by Su puloo on Unsplash

Introduction

Usually, holding a title like “Chancellor” or “University President” would mean that you would have a pretty cool existence. You have a paycheck that ends in lots of zeroes! You generally have a well-adorned office with many layers of people working for you who really run the joint! You get to live in a beautiful house on campus with all the upkeep and gardening done for you — and maybe your meals as well (and best of all, it’s paid for!)! You get the best seats to every sporting event, concert, play, etc, going on. You get to walk around campus and everyone knows that you are “the man” (or “the woman”) in charge! Some may even want to scurry the other way when you come near if you have a little “fear factor” going!

However, it is a baaaaaaaaad time to be in charge of any college or university today! In 2019, you might have had to make decisions on weighty matters like choosing which well-known figure to invite to campus to be the commencement speaker or what design to go with for the invitation to the big alumni gala that would be held — in your honor! In contrast, in 2020, you are charged with making life and death decisions — literally!

Welcome to the Party, Pal!

— — Bruce Willis, Die Hard

Welcome to higher education in the Fall of 2020! University presidents and chancellors have had to devise plans for something they could never really honestly have anticipated on the white board of possible scenarios to plan for: How to return students to campus in the middle of a pandemic.

The top management teams at each university have had to develop strategies, tactics and protocols that basically call for nothing less than the reimagining of college life. They have had to think about how the classroom looks and operates (and what is a classroom) in the midst of a pandemic. They have had to think about how students will live, learn, and yes, socialize in the midst of a pandemic. And yes, as all universities do have a bottom line, no matter how they may want to project that they exist for the good of humanity and for the love of learning, they have had to account for the loss of revenues and the growth of expenses that happens when you try and open the institution in the midst of a pandemic.

Finally, and for many schools this is perhaps the biggest issue of all, even though they would never publicly state it, the institutions that are better known for their performance on ESPN than in academic rankings have had to make decisions in regards to their football programs. And this has not only giant internal implications for universities financially and operationally, but also ramifications for their relations with alumni (read as donors) and in recruiting potential students.

Now as the leader of any organization, it is easy to sit in your office or in a conference room and make decisions. It is quite another thing to actually live those decisions. It is easy to come up with and issue policies, directives, orders, etc. It is quite another thing to actually experience full on what they mean in reality.

That is why a recent story struck me, as a management professor, consultant, and yes, a member of the wider higher education community, so deeply. We can all talk a great deal about actually putting leadership into action (i.e. not just “talking the talk,” but “walking the walk”), but it is quite another thing to actually do it. As management pioneer Tom Peters put it so well, whether it is in the corporate realm or yes, in the university world, the challenge for top managers — of anything — is to actually get out of the office and really see what is going on in their organizations. He espoused that the “secret” to good leadership MBWA — Managing by Wandering Around. For decades now, Peters has challenged managers to go out and see how their organizations really worked and how their decisions impacted the reality of what goes on with their employees and their customers.

I can think of no better example — ever — in the realm of higher education leadership of a college leader employing MBWA than what we are seeing today transpire, in real time, at Colgate University. There, in the center of New York State, President Brian Casey is doing something really historical at this moment in history (fitting, since his biography shows that his doctorate from Harvard is in the history of American higher education).

So you might ask just what it is that President Casey is doing that is so remarkable? Well, the long and short of it is this. He is leading Colgate into the current academic year with an ambitious plan to have students return to campus in a way that is rather unique among America’s over 5,000 various institutions of higher learning. Yes, there will be masks at Colgate. Yes, there will be social distancing at Colgate. Yes, there will be lots of restrictions on students and their activities at Colgate. And yes, there will be lots of signage and messaging to remind students (and faculty) about all the changes taking place at Colgate.

However, Colgate is going beyond what almost all other institutions have done this fall in trying to create a “safe” campus environment, trying to create almost a “college bubble” equivalent to what major professional sports leagues — such as the NBA and the NHL — have done with their teams to create safe playing environments so that their games could continue. In addition to testing students for the coronavirus upon arrival, Colgate has mandated a 14 day minimum quarantine for all students returning to campus for the Fall 2020 semester. And Colgate’s leader did not just mandate the quarantine; he is now living it — with the students, in the dorm, and living with the same restrictions they are, all while still doing the work of a college president in the challenging times we face today! President Casey knows that the “new normal” that awaits students at Colgate University is far, far different than what coming to campus was like just one year ago…

…but in not just “talking” about the “new normal,” but living it with them, President Casey sets an example that leaders — not just in higher ed, but in all organizations — can aspire to emulate. And yes, all college leaders should really consider doing something like what he is engaged in at present.

“The President Is Living in My Dorm!”

I became aware of just what President Casey was doing when watching CBS This Morning this past weekend. In their story (which you can and should watch above), the CBS News crew followed President Casey around campus and into his dorm room, where he was slated to quarantine for a total of 17 days before the semester’s classes would begin. Now, as anyone who has been lucky enough to see the average college president’s home, a dorm room is a steep, steep decline from what a university leader is used to living these days (where a grand piano, a wine cellar and a pergola are almost standard equipment). And yet, Dr. Casey was willing — and eager — to do just that. Why might you ask? In Casey’s view, the reasoning was simple:

“If I’m asking you to do this, I’ll do it, too. So whatever food you’re eating, I’m gonna eat. Whatever rules you have about when you’re allowed outside, that’s when I’ll go outside. So I’m doing it with them.”

— Colgate University President Brian Casey

In short, here is a university leader who gets it! As he details in that CBS interview, what Colgate is doing is a highly expensive, highly risky undertaking (having spent $4 million dollars on this to date). And yet, to his credit, President Casey sees a higher message in what the university is doing and in what he is asking Colgate’s students to do in return:

“In our culture, we rarely talk about public good. We rarely talk about sacrificing individual needs for benefits that accrue to everybody. That’s not part of our political rhetoric, it’s not part of our culture anymore. So we wanna tell them this is gonna be hard. And that they need to learn to think about not just themselves, but other people. And I think we’re an educational institution, why don’t we make that something they’re learning this year? Why don’t we make that the lesson.”

— Colgate University President Brian Casey

And yes, MBWA is key to President Casey’s strategy to make Colgate’s COVID-19 plan actually work! However, what he is doing right now (as he presently is still in quarantine with regular students in Colgate’s West Hall) is to the best of anyone’s knowledge, unique in the world of American higher education today. No other college president or chancellor has said that he or she too would live, 24/7, under the restrictions they were placing on their institution’s students. And so when I think of all of the great examples of MBWA from business history, such as Howard Schultz’s insistence on staying in touch with Starbucks’ customers and baristas…

… to an aging Sam Walton, the legendary founder of Walmart, who insisted on visiting every one of his then rapidly growing network of Walmart and Sam’s Club locations even up until shortly before his death in 1992,…

… Brian Casey’s current endeavor in leading Colgate through a turbulent time in the Ivy League institution’s history may well be among the top MBWA actions taken by any leader, anywhere!

Now to Casey’s credit, he not only seems to understand the importance of what he is doing, but, as a modern leader, he understands how to use social media to leverage the value of what he is doing to maximize the impact of his undertaking. Yes, you can follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/PresidentCasey, where he posts regular updates on both Colgate’s progress with their reopening plan, as well as his dorm experience, and on Instagram as well (follow him at https://www.instagram.com/bwcasey/, where he posts photos and videos chronicling his “dorm life.”

Yes, his dorm accommodations are spartan (and as President Casey put it, “ It’s not the Four Seasons… “).

He appreciated the little things, like his dorm room window’s view,…

…his walks (during the designated times) around the picturesque campus,…

….and most of all, being able to have a time-limited visit with his dog.

Colgate students did joke with their leader about his accommodations (noting how President Casey got a fan in his room)…

…and there have been some satirical comments made online about having a person “of a certain age” living down the hall from you in a dorm:

“He’d be a great dorm neighbor. He’s old enough to buy booze.”

The president himself even noted that he did have a special privilege in not having to use the communal baths in the dorm ( acknowledging in the CBS interview: “The fact that I have a single with my own bathroom strikes people as a real, real plus!”).

Yes, having the campus leader in your dorm can make a positive difference. For example, this comment was posted by a Colgate alum:

“An alum group to which I belong learned President Casey wasn’t too thrilled with the food they delivered to the dorms from the dining hall. So they sent them all pizza.”

And again to his credit, President Casey also does a daily video update on how the quarantine is progressing at Colgate and his own personal experiences living in “the bubble” to inform both the campus community and yes, the wider audience of Colgate alumni, parents, and other interested constituents (You can view the daily videos he makes on the Colgate University YouTube channel). He has used these daily updates well, even to deliver the sobering news that not all Colgate University students had been following the COVID-19 protocols and that a number were being sent home for violations — violations that happened rather early in the quarantine period by the way…

…and to deliver updates on COVID testing results (as well as what these might mean for students, faculty, and staff moving forward).

Photo by Jahsie Ault on Unsplash

Conclusion

All in all, Colgate President John Casey is demonstrating some of the best leadership qualities that one might see anywhere today in regards to the handling of the coronavirus pandemic in any type of organization. And he is willing to share from his perspective as the campus leader, particularly a leader wanting to connect with a younger audience (which by definition college students are), his experiences, as well as his feelings about them — in real time — on social media. No matter how the great experiment that Colgate University is undertaking — and indeed all of America’s higher education institutions are engaged in at present — actually turns out, the “college president living in the dorm under the same conditions and same restrictions as his school’s students” thing has to rank up there with the greatest examples of MBWA since Tom Peters first coined the term a few decades back.

In the end, especially in the halls of colleges and universities, it is easy for students, faculty and staff today to take pot shots and question what their particular institution is doing in regards to their reopening and infection control plans. And yes, from one with inside knowledge, academics tend to be a cynical bunch of observers of what administrators may do and the choices they make under just normal circumstances, not just when the greatest pandemic in a century comes to your town.

However, real leadership in a crisis takes not just outside the box thinking, but real courage. And yes, I think that whether Colgate ends up winning, losing, or drawing as a campus in its battle against the coronavirus, the example set by its campus leader won’t soon be forgotten. I know it won’t be for me. And for those who teach and train in management, education, leadership, etc., I hope that you will see and share this example of Managing by Wandering Around — and yes, running a college from a dorm room — with your students and clients in the days ahead — and indeed for years to come! I think that Dr. Casey’s actions will stand the test of time — even in non-pandemic times — as a great case study in truly leading by example.

About David Wyld

David Wyld (dwyld@selu.edu) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana. He is a management consultant, researcher/writer, publisher, executive educator, and experienced expert witness.

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David Wyld (dwyld@selu.edu) is a Professor of Strategic Management at Southeastern Louisiana University. He is a noted business consultant and writer.

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