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Learning to lead during the pandemic and other current affairs

By Larry Van De Valk
  • Department of Global Development
  • Global Development

Larry Van De Valk is Executive Director of LEAD New York, a leadership development program that inspires and develops leaders for the food, agriculture and natural resource industries of the Northeast. Thanks to LEAD New York, over 500 alumni have made an impact on their own communities over the last 35 years, using skills to overcome challenges and developing highly innovative and successful solutions. 

This year has produced a seemingly non-stop stream of major crises. In just the past few months, the world has been rocked by a global pandemic, civil unrest around systemic racism, and a polarized election year, to name a few.

Here at Cornell I have been teaching and doing leadership development work with thousands of learners for over 20 years. Contemporary examples of leadership in different contexts provide critical “teachable moments” about ways to respond — and not to respond — when leaders face challenges. 

Get Back to Basics

It’s not an easy task to distill the elements of good “crisis leadership” to a few short statements. If I had to make a general observation about all that is to be learned about leadership in the past few months, it would be this: The behaviors that serve leaders well in times of crisis are really the basics of good leadership in any time. So many of the “experts” I have followed in recent months have really advocated for basic leader behaviors that we have addressed in LEAD New York for years, including:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: When people are scared, they want to hear from their leaders. Don’t be silent just because you don’t have all the answers, or you have to deliver a message they don’t want to hear. In the long run, honest communication counts for a lot.
  • Never, ever, betray trust: Even if you don’t have all the answers, are uncertain what is going to happen next, or have to deliver bad news, don’t lie or withhold information. In fact, admitting you don’t have the answers and need help yourself is a great way for a leader to build vulnerability trust.
  • Use your Emotional Intelligence: EQ matters a lot. Listen. Understand what others are going through. Empathize. Change is an emotional process, and we are in a time of profound change. Take care of your people first. If you take care of your people, they will help you take care of your business/organization.
  • Be authentic: Stay true to your mission and values. None of us knows what our world will look like in the next week, month, or year. What we can know is what is important to us, and what our purpose is. Let that be your compass to guide you through uncertain times. For example, Cornell University in just the last year publicized its core values. It’s also worth noting that the LEADNY board also identified core values in the past year as well. Timely!

The Crisis Makes the Leader

There is a lot to be learned from examples of both good and bad leadership. Regardless of what you may think of his political track record, there is no denying that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s approval rating has soared during the pandemic. His popularity can be attributed to many factors: frequent (daily) communication, showing empathy and humility (admitting when he doesn’t have all of the answers), and modelling desired behavior, to name a few. Cornell leaders have also set a high bar – leadership demonstrated during the pandemic has renewed my commitment to our institution and the people that work and study here.

Different situations call for different leadership styles, and one style may not work in all contexts. From my perspective, leaders that have earned the trust of their people can flex their style and still maintain the respect of those they lead. There are certainly several other examples of good leadership in recent months, and unfortunately, plenty of examples of poor leadership as well.

Now More Than Ever

If I had to make one more generalization, it would be this: We need good leadership now more than ever.

Despite all of the bad news we face on a daily basis, I have been inspired by the leadership I see all around me: health care workers who put themselves and their families at risk to care for us; teachers who have completely reinvented educational delivery because that is what our students need; farmers and food industry professionals who continue to provide the most basic necessities to our survival; the list goes on. It is also worth noting that more often than not, it is LEADNY alumni who are setting some of the best examples of leadership in these trying times.

Our alumni ranks include regional food bank executive directors and board members, school food service directors, county extension directors, educators, lobbyists, cooperative managers, food processing business managers, and of course, farmers. So many of the people in these roles have stepped up in the past seven months to answer the call for leadership in their communities. Schools have provided meals to go for children throughout the summer, food pantries have met dramatically increasing demand, county extension offices and volunteers have distributed hand sanitizer, face masks and food, lobbyists have worked with our legislators to quickly pass relief measures, cooperatives and food processors have re-worked distribution channels, and through it all, of course, our farmers have continued to produce, often donating much of their product despite their own challenges.

Few of these activities happen in isolation of each other – they are often complicated efforts that require networks of leaders to make them happen – and building networks of leaders is exactly what LEADNY has been doing for over 35 years now. I am humbled by the service and generosity that so many of you exhibit, and I am proud to be associated with you.

While no one can predict what the next crisis will be — a terrorist attack? An economic recession? A severe weather event? Another pandemic? — what we can predict is that new crises will inevitably emerge. Preparing leaders that are capable of addressing these unforeseen challenges is what we do. And I have faith that our alumni will continue to lead in a way that we need now more than ever.

About the author

Larry Van De Valk is a senior extension associate in the Department of Global Development and serves as the executive director of the LEAD New York Program, a highly regarded leadership development program for adult professionals in the food, agriculture and natural resource sectors. He also teaches LEAD 3100 - Foundations in Leadership, a required course in the CALS undergraduate leadership minor.

Lawrence Van De Valk

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