In concert with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the Master’s in Strategic Communication program, Lecturer Don Waisanen, Ph.D., focused on leadership trends that are emerging post-COVID-19. As the world’s largest public relations association, the PRSA provides training and ethical standards for the profession. Waisanen’s webinar, part of the PRSA Storytellers Series, was titled, “What the Pandemic Proved About Leadership: Why Skilled Improvisation and Inclusion Are the Keys to Our Future.”
Waisanen described his experience of the pandemic as a “giant dumpster garbage fire,” where all normal patterns of life, work, and communication were turned upside down. People were locked down in their homes, many with their kids. Work relationships went virtual; group interactions restricted to Zoom.
How did this situation affect traditional hierarchies and styles of leadership within organizations? Waisanen provided three concepts that allow people to adjust and flourish when the rules of the game have changed dramatically.
First, Improvisational Leadership: “Simply inhabiting a position of authority is not leadership,” said Waisanen, building on the work of Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky. He points out that leadership behaviors can arise from all levels of the organization. People in positions of authority often lose touch with the realities of day-to-day work life, especially during times of disruption. Both online and offline, organizations must be flexible enough to allow leaders to communicate across silos, teams, and hierarchies in order to adapt and survive the unexpected.
Second, Be Aware of Your Go To Tendencies: Waisanen spoke about the ways our established behaviors and reactions can defeat effectiveness. Instead of taking shelter in old habits, leaders set such behaviors aside to continually improvise and learn to create better outcomes. This leads to Waisanen’s third premise.
Third, Organizations Need to Embrace Inclusion. Waisanen authored the book Improv for Democracy: How to Bridge Differences and Develop the Communication and Leadership Skills Our World Needs. In the webinar, he remarked: “Every actor in an improv troupe is ready to step forward and lead at any moment, but also step back to let others shine. What a world we would have if leadership was taught with that principle in mind.”