By Briahnna Brown
There are two key leadership lessons that George Washington University President Thomas LeBlanc took from his experience responding to hurricanes while at the University of Miami: the importance of regular communication, and the need to have the facts.
Those lessons have been useful as he navigates GW’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The uncertainty and lack of data around the evolving global and local circumstances have added angst to the situation, Dr. LeBlanc said.
Maintaining consistent communication with the GW community is even more important because of the uncertainty, and he has been able to coordinate regular messages and put up a FAQ site to help answer questions from the GW community. For the university’s pandemic response team, Dr. LeBlanc said that he is fortunate to have within the university the level of expertise necessary to navigate the pandemic and make the best decisions for the university community.
"From the very beginning, we put our experts in public health and medicine in the room so that the first thing the leadership would hear would be their analysis of what they were hearing from their colleagues, what the CDC was saying, what the reports around the world were saying and how we should interpret it and apply that knowledge to our local circumstance," Dr. LeBlanc said.
Dr. LeBlanc discussed some of the tough decisions he has made on Wednesday during a virtual George Talks Business event. The event series, which the GW School of Business hosts and streams, features regularly-scheduled interviews with respected thought leaders in multiple fields.
GWSB Dean Anuj Mehrotra interviewed Dr. LeBlanc on his leadership takeaways as well as his plans for the future of the university as it works to maintain a safe learning and working environment. Dr. LeBlanc said that through the changing circumstances, he worked with the pandemic response team to prioritize safety in every decision while also keeping in mind the care and well-being of the university community.
“A lot of decisions we make can be changed later—they can evolve over time—but some of the decisions we're making right now could directly affect the safety of our community,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “The consequence of every decision, and the fact that it's made in an uncertain environment, just ramps up the importance and the difficulty of decision making."
The uncertain environment extends to the university’s planning process for the fall 2020 semester.
As of right now, Dr. LeBlanc said, university leadership is working to set up a series of contingencies to best meet the needs of GW students while prioritizing their safety. Under any of these contingent scenarios, it is likely that social distancing will be more involved than it traditionally would on a college campus, he said. This may mean fewer students in residence halls or suites than in the past, and it may mean fewer students in classrooms at the same time, he said.
This may also mean that students will continue virtual learning from home, he said, and the university is prepared for that contingency as well.
While there is no way to know for sure how the COVID-19 pandemic will influence the future of higher education, Dr. LeBlanc said that expanded virtual instruction will likely play a greater role as universities adapt. The pandemic has highlighted the value of access to higher education that can be expanded through technology as well as the value of face-to-face interactions in education and community building, he said. The role of higher education will undergo some changes, Dr. LeBlanc said, but some of those changes are likely for the better.
The pandemic also has shown him the value of taking some time for yourself whenever possible, Dr. LeBlanc said. His advice to the GW community in these uncertain times is to try and find time to exercise and time to rest and recharge.
"These are extremely difficult times,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “The uncertainty, the stresses of working from home, the stresses of worrying about the future, whether it's someone's job or someone's health—there’s enormous stress out there now.
“If you can, find a little extra time for yourself, whether it comes from your commute or some other fashion to either get some exercise or get some mental down time."