Scott Cowen, president emeritus of Tulane University, recalls two crises he handled as a leader in higher education: Hurricane Katrina’s landfall in New Orleans in 2005 and the pandemic’s impact on Case Western University in 2020. He notes their differences: Administrators at Tulane felt isolated by the hurricane, but Case Western’s leaders felt like part of something bigger than their school that affected the entire nation. In this essay for Inside Higher Ed, Cowen explains that different crises require different leadership styles. He points out how he had to learn to adapt, choosing to be top-down at Tulane after Katrina but more “emotionally transparent” at Case Western during Covid.
- Managing different crises demands different leadership skills.
- After Hurricane Katrina, Tulane University became a more “distinctive” institution.
- In a crisis like the pandemic, leaders should focus on decision-making, leadership and communication.
Managing different crises demands different leadership skills.
Scott Cowen, then president of Tulane University, did not know that the university would be forced to close for six months after Hurricane Katrina hit in September 2005. He had to communicate the “unfathomable” scale of the disaster and, even after the rest of the nation moved on, Cowen had to assure students, parents, faculty and the public that Tulane would recover. As president, he had to demonstrate authority, and he found that he made mostly top-down decisions, because he had no time to waste. If Cowen hesitated, he knew rival schools would leave Tulane behind and the university might never regain its pre-Katrina standing.
“Each crisis…feels different and consequently makes us lead differently.”
Covid-19, in contrast, presented a far more fluid situation, with no predictable timeline. In 2020, Cowen was Interim President at Case Western University, and unlike during Hurricane Katrina, he did not feel isolated. His team could look to others for guidance, so he found that delegating decisions became easier. The school’s constituents took comfort from their and Cowen’s “shared humanity.” Unlike during Katrina, Cowen’s stakeholders had more ways to communicate with one another and with others beyond the university.
After Hurricane Katrina, Tulane University became a more “distinctive” institution.
Remaining a competitive university after such an overwhelming natural disaster was a huge challenge for Tulane. Cowen turned the crisis into an opportunity, developing a “sweeping renewal plan” that set the university’s course for years to follow. He had to make rapid strategic decisions under immense pressurewhile Tulane was spending $35 million a month to keep its operations going.
“I made it our mission to signal to the world that we were a university worth coming to not despite of but because of Hurricane Katrina.”
Cowen was determined that Tulane would go from simply surviving to making a full recovery and subsequently to focus on “transformation.” He found that this required patience, “calm resolve,” strategic thinking, and “benevolent command and control.” The school recovered and proved better than it had been before Katrina.
In a crisis, leaders should focus on decision-making, leadership and communication.
With his experiences at Tulane and Case Western, Cowen learned that leaders should focus on three areas when confronted with a crisis.
“Being clearheaded, purposeful and determined is, in fact, a prerequisite for successful leadership in any crisis.”
The pivotal factor that unites all three areas is identifying the type of crisis and how the crisis makes a leader feel. The three areas of focus are:
- Decision-making – Cowen had to show strong top-down leadership at Tulane. At Case Western, he could practice a more decentralized leadership strategy.
- Leadership style – Katrina demanded that Cowen show “perpetual strength,” but Covid-19 allowed him to be more vulnerable.
- Communications – At Tulane, post-hurricane communications were mostly status updates and vision-oriented statements. During Covid-19, Cowen could share more of his feelings.
How leaders lead depends on the crisis. Knowing how an emergency makes you feel as a leader is your first step in discovering how to manage it.
About the Author
Scott Cowen is President Emeritus and Distinguished University Chair at Tulane University, where he was president from 1998 to 2014. In 2020 and 2021, he served as interim president of Case Western Reserve University where he is now the Distinguished Presidential Visiting Professor of Leadership and Management.