When a wrench is thrown into the best-laid plans, good leaders pivot and make the most out of less-than-ideal situations.

A recent case in point is a College of Business crisis leadership class that was borne out of the disruptions and cancellations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. When the College of Business marketing students’ spring pilgrimage to New York City was canceled, a different kind of learning opportunity arose.

Screenshot of virtual leadership crisis.

Dean Wendy York and Dr. Mary Anne Raymond led a virtual class on leadership during a crisis.
Image Credit: Submitted

‘Leadership Lessons: Leading in a Time of Crisis,’ a three-week, 3-credit hour, virtual class was created and launched in May to have students focus on the responsibilities of leadership and examine if and how these change in a time of crisis.

Led by Dr. Mary Anne Raymond and Dean Wendy York, 19 students learned about leadership styles, responsibilities and the need to understand stakeholders. The class discussed the critical role of values and culture before a crisis occurs and used case studies and guest speakers to examine decision making without complete information. The class actively saw how authenticity, communication and transparency are essential in leading at all times and become doubly important during uncertain times.

Business leaders from companies like Nephron Pharmaceuticals and Table 301 provided students insights into how their organizations have been impacted by the pandemic and the strategies they are employing in managing their businesses through this crisis.

“We saw an opportunity to extract a positive from the COVID-19 pandemic by turning it into a learning experience,” said Raymond, the Thomas F. Chapman ’65 Distinguished Professor of Leadership. “The New York office of one of our valued College of Business partners, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), helped us engage some of their international leaders, who provided students with working knowledge of crisis leadership in different cultures.”

Shawni Chen of PwC was one of those speakers. A principal in the company’s Shanghai office, Chen was impressed by her audience of students at Clemson.

“After the virtual session, I received several unexpected ‘thank you’ emails from this talented group of students. These kinds of acts demonstrate the character of Clemson’s students,” she said. “This is one thing I really like about the U.S. educational system. It not only focuses on providing theoretical knowledge, but it also grows the minds and souls of future leaders.”

For financial management major Alexandra Jehle, the crisis leadership course bridged the gap between theory and real-world leadership.

“Most leadership seminars don’t have the hands-on, real-world learning component that teach what to do when circumstances don’t go your way,” the Buffalo, N.Y., rising senior said. “The class was structured in a way that made us think outside the box on how we would personally handle crisis situations that were presented to us.”

With Leadership being one of the College’s differentiating Signature Programs, this class was a natural for teaching students how to think about their own leadership styles and what it takes to successfully lead through a crisis.

“This current crisis presented a real-life experiential opportunity to expand students’ understanding of the business-critical competency of leadership,” York said. “It is the College’s mission to instill in all our business students both the skills and sense of responsibility to lead wherever they are in their organizations and communities.”

The students’ final project was one of those hands-on opportunities. As governors up for re-election in a hypothetical U.S. state, students individually presented recommendations for the pandemic scenario faced by governors across the nation. Each student had to determine whether to reopen their state’s economy or keep the shelter-in-place order,” said Raymond.

“Students had to individually present an executive summary with their recommendations, including justification for their decision when there was really no good solution. The exercise challenged them to make decisions with very limited, unspecific data available and consider the impact of their decisions on all their various stakeholder groups. After their presentations, Dean York and I held a private 10-minute question and answer session with each student on their plans,” Raymond added.

Ben Boggess, a senior, from Princeton, W.V., said the class taught him that transparency and authenticity are leadership musts during a time of crisis. Another takeaway, he said, was that it made him think more about the style of leadership that would make him most effective.

“I’ve heard Dean York say on a number of occasions that ‘leadership is a choice, not a title.’ ‘’ the marketing major said. “The guest speakers showed very different, but all effective, styles of leadership. The class challenged me to think deeply about my leadership style and the choices I was going to make in developing those leadership skills that I will use in my business career.”

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