The upside of uncertainty

A business school dean reflects on courageous leadership
By: | September 16, 2020
Photo by Sammie Vasquez on UnsplashPhoto by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

As the dean of a business school during a global pandemic, my leadership and courage have been tested at the highest and most critical levels. I have had to adapt quickly to a new reality filled with uncertainty, and make bold decisions in the best interests of faculty, staff and students in Loyola Marymount University’s College of Business Administration. Since the coronavirus pandemic changed life as we knew it back in March, our leadership team has taken a proactive and entrepreneurial approach to confront the crisis head-on and embrace the opportunity to innovate and rethink how we deliver education in new and exciting ways.

Dayle M. Smith, Loyola Marymount University

Dayle M. Smith, Loyola Marymount University

In times like this, our college mission—coupled with the Jesuit, Marymount principles that guide LMU—resonates now more than ever: We advance knowledge and develop business leaders with moral courage and creative confidence to be a force for good in the global community. This mission directs us to develop and hone valuable skills to become stronger, more resilient business leaders who positively impact their organizations and society. It has certainly been my North Star, a statement of hope and inspiration that keeps me aligned with our strategic plan and focused on positive outcomes.

Moral courage is the courage to take action based on our principles despite the risk of adverse consequences. And creative confidence is the commitment to keep trying and refusal to see failure as an option. Moral courage is necessary for ethical and sustainable decision-making. It is also the ability to see the upside of uncertainty. For higher education, this becomes especially challenging as universities across the country grapple with pressures to keep enrollment numbers up and offer the best modality for students this fall—all while taking into account safety measures, quality of the courses, convenience of the students, and the needs and preferences of students and faculty. While I understand a desire to “return to the way things used to be,” now is the time for faculty, staff, parents and students to embrace a new way of thinking and doing.

Media reports on the pandemic’s effect on higher education shouldn’t be focused on the question of whether students come back. The better question is: How might this unprecedented paradigm shift better prepare students to contribute to a rapidly changing economy and the workplaces of the future?

As some incoming and returning students opted for a gap year or a semester off because of uncertainty, we failed to recognize that this time off also results in a lag on the return on investment of a college degree and the opportunity for students to develop resilience, agility and new skill sets for a new economy. Students who started or returned to school this fall in either online, in-person or hybrid learning environments will be more competitive in a changing market. They will have more to offer in a recovering economy and will be among the first to enter the workforce with a unique and differentiating mindset that puts them ahead of students who take a “wait and see” approach. In other words, the skills students are gaining during this pandemic—agility, entrepreneurial spirit, problem solving, ethical leadership and emotional intelligence—are the skills employers need now more than ever.

In fact, media reports on the pandemic’s effect on higher education shouldn’t be focused on the question of whether students come back. The better question is: How might this unprecedented paradigm shift better prepare students to contribute to a rapidly changing economy and the workplaces of the future?

I have been impressed with how quickly LMU business students have adapted and embraced this new virtual world. Of course, I am referring to Generation Z students who already have a strong grasp of technology and online platforms. Gen Z students are entrepreneurial, hardworking, creative, compassionate, open-minded and socially responsible. Thus, our students are learning from insights gleaned in a changing culture and finding new opportunities to address problems in creative ways.

And over the last few months, our students have proven just how creative they are. For example, our M.S. in Business Analytics students used machine learning to make COVID-19 predictions; our entrepreneurship students are launchinh new businesses that meet the needs of a post-pandemic landscape; and a team of recent marketing grads are building a unique agency around social change that speaks the Gen Z language. From an academic leader’s perspective, our students are tackling these challenges head-on to uncover new opportunities where they can be true innovators with new skills for a new world. At LMU, where we have fewer than 30 students in a business class, our future business leaders are engaging and innovating online—and developing the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that will be in demand for the foreseeable future.

Learning to connect with others and problem-solve in a virtual environment are KSA’s that will be required for leaders in business. Therefore, we must teach our students to apply emotional intelligence in order to create an “intimate distance” environment in which to build relationships with peers, customers and key stakeholders. Whether the future is about virtual appointments with your physician, negotiating a contract remotely, or working on a virtual team, these KSA’s are being developed and implemented in virtual communities in higher education across the globe. The students who embrace this uncertainty and opportunity for developing new skills will thrive in the new business landscape.

Let’s face it. We all crave certainty and may long for a return to “normal.” But we’re living in COVID-19 times and life as we know it may never be the same. For many, this may lead to feelings of learned helplessness or being a victim. Yet our ability to be inspired, to find inner strength and to use our moral courage for ethical and sustainable decision-making, problem-solving and seeking new opportunities to address significant challenges, is what truly defines a courageous leader. Preparing the next generation to manage uncertainty and look for the upside requires new ways of thinking, learning and acting.

I believe the new business landscape will be ripe with opportunity for the strong—and those who succeed will have the vision, agility and creativity to take insights and monetize accordingly. The new skills, knowledge and experiences we’re all acquiring by showing our moral courage and creative confidence can be applied in new and yet-to-be discovered ways.

Dayle M. Smith is dean of Loyola Marymount University’s College of Business Administration, where she leads strategy for executive, graduate and undergraduate programs. She was formerly dean of the David D. Reh School of Business at Clarkson University.