Field Notes: Unexpected leadership lessons from COVID

August 6, 2020
  • Competencies
  • Leadership and Management
  • field notes
ladder propped up on representation of a virus with a figure having climbed the ladder and is now looking out with a telescope

"Field Notes" is a regular Connect column covering practical and philosophical issues facing admissions and registrar professionals. The columns are authored by various AACRAO members. If you have an idea for a column and would like to contribute, please send an email to the editor at

by Valerie Butterfield, Registrar, Grand Rapids Community College

“All failure is failure to adapt, all success is successful adaptation.” 

- Max McKeown

I began this year with a professional resolve to build adaptability, particularly to focus on finding technology solutions to help my department, and my school, adapt along with the ever-evolving advancement of technology and student tastes. 

But, as COVID-19 disrupted the world, I refocused my energy on adapting in a different way, both personally and as a leader. And I’ve learned some major lessons about adaptability along the way. 

1. Embrace uncertainty. It is O.K. not to know what tomorrow holds. In fact, it is flat-out O.K. to just not know things sometimes. 

When we first got wind of how massive an impact COVID-19 would have on us and on school operations, I had no idea if we would be able to go into the office from one day to the next. We did not know what options students would have if they weren’t able to finish their classes remotely. 

Understanding that I don’t know what I don’t know helped me to maintain a positive attitude (for the most part) and remain empathetic to my staff and to students that were struggling with the unknown. It allowed me to listen and take in information from others so that I could make informed decisions through the changing conditions we were in.

2. Experiment. It’s ok to try new things, even if you aren’t totally sold. This is a good time to mention that adaptability and flexibility should go hand in hand — in addition to being able to change your perspective, to really be “adaptable” you also need to be able to work within a changing environment and meet others where they’re at to be most successful during trying times.

I have a confession: I’ve always claimed to be open and willing to try new ways of doing things. What I’ve learned through this experience is that I wasn’t as open as I thought. Though I was willing to try new approaches and solutions, I always had to be sure first — even on small things like how to set up electronic workflow queues for daily processing work. Why? If an adjustment to workflow ends up being less efficient we can just change it back. 

3. Don’t fear failure. Failure happens. More than once sometimes. Though I already knew this, I just didn’t like it, and I tried to avoid it. 

But I’ve learned the value of being willing to fail — big and small. Some things we tried worked well and some didn’t, but the worst that happened was we had to work a little extra to make repairs. And what we discovered through failing made us better. Like strength training where you need to tear muscles to build them, the best thing about failing is that you learn from it and it makes you that much wiser the next time around. This is how we succeed.

4. If you are a supervisor, give your staff the same grace. Leading through change means making room for your staff to operate with uncertainty, and explore and try new things — some of which may lead to failure. 

I asked my team to try lots of small new things during this time to support students, and I am granting them the courtesy of experimentation and failure when they recommend a change to make their work simpler. 



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