‘Organizing in Times of Crisis’ wins Aspen Institute’s ‘Ideas Worth Teaching Award’ 2020

Hosted by the the Business & Society Program within the renowned Aspen Institute, the “Ideas Worth Teaching Award” is one of the most prestigious awards for teaching in business and management education. And we are very happy and proud to announce that our course “Organizing in Times of Crisis” is among the nine winners of the 2020 competition – selected out of over 100 nominations.

As recipients of the award, Elke Schüßler (University of Linz) and Leonhard Dobusch (University of Innsbruck) were invited to introduce our joint course in no longer than 45 seconds – check out the video below:

Teaching experiences with “Organizing in times of crisis”

JKU analogue lecture theatre

For all of us that have taught “Organizing in times of crisis” for the first time last summer term, and with the last student essays as well as student feedbacks coming in, now is a time to take stock and share our experiences.

One of our aims in providing this open course platform was to provide course material for a full 6 or even 8 ECTS module, but also give instructors the opportunity to “mix and match” just selected elements of all the course materials. This is exactly what happened: some of us taught all the classes, requiring all the assigmens, for full credit modules; others used selected modules and reduced the number of assignments to fit with smaller 3 ECTS modules or to accompany lectures; and yet other used just individual sessions as part of other courses. Similarly, while we provided a course structure that could be administered in a fully asynchronous way, some of us actually followed this asynchroneous model, whereas others offered some (2-3) synchronous sessions and yet others had weekly synchronous online teaching sessions in which students had to give presentations, for example.

We had mixed impressions of the advantages and disadvantages of synchronous versus asynchronous teaching. Those that had many synchronous sessions felt that it was very tiring to concentrate over time, especially with the absence of non-verbal cues and already very high screen time. Conversely, the synchronous sessions were a great chance to catch up with students and get a sense of how everyone was doing. Hannah Trittin from the Leuphana University, for instance, used the synchronous sessions to give students a place to talk to each other during a difficult time. Hannah says that “The students valued that my session openers encouraged communication. For example, I would ask students to quickly grab an object that is valuable to them and present it and its meaning to them in class.”

Those that followed the largely asynchronous mode – which includes myself – felt that giving only written feedback to assignments was not only very time-consuming, but also made it difficult to explain the complex issues at hand in an adequate way. Synchronous teaching sessions are great for addressing some general questions that all students might have and also probing a bit deeper into students’ understanding. These impressions were largely mirrored by the students: at JKU, for instance, I offered the opportunity for additional synchronous sessions, but the majority of students preferred the autonomy of the asynchronous learning mode because they also already had to spend so many hours in front of the computer screen.

Students from Leuphana University appreciated the flexibility of self-study and being able to watch presentations in their own time, the flipped classroom model, the collaboration with other university professors that were experts on their respective topics, the practical relevance of the course and the various small and sometimes creative assignments students had to complete. At the same time, some students missed more opportunities for feedback and exchange. When deciding on the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous teaching of this – or other – courses, context conditions like students’ work loads (how many hours do they already spend in front of the computer?) as well as student numbers and teaching resources (how many written assignments is one able to read and give feedback on with the resources at hand?) thus need to be considered. One of us had great experiences with voluntary virtual Zoom sessions, which only the students that wanted more feedback and exchange attended. Such a model might be useful should the intensive distance learning situation continue. Otherwise, a hybrid approach in which reading, listening (to lectures, but also student presentations) and writing is asynchronous, but regular reflection and discussion sessions for all are held synchronously is probably preferable to a purely asynchroneous mode to deepen the learning experience. Yet, these sessions should be short if they have to be online to limit the screen time, but could be much longer if they were held in person.

Another key aim we had was to bring the expertise of different colleagues that we knew were experts on various facets of crisis management into the (virtual) classroom. All of us found it greatly enriching to not just read and discuss our colleagues’ articles, but to actually have their voices directly with us. Furthermore, we wanted students to be able to transfer the sometimes quite complex and “dry” organization theoretical knowledge to the actual, real-life crisis situation by connecting lectures, scientific articles and newspaper pieces. On this, a student from Viadrina University commented that “I really liked that you picked the article on the Stockwell shootings and I appreciate that you do not just look at management issues, but big societal problems. This is very important to me personally. I also think it is really special that this course is not just a Viadrina course, but that students from other universities are dealing with the same topics. Thank you very much for this opportunity.” Similarly, a student from Hamburg University stated that “Finally a course that really meets the current „Zeitgeist“! Congratulations to the professors for putting together a course in such a short period of time, filled with relevant and genuinely interesting topics. This course really encouraged us to engage with the COVID-19 situation on a deeper level rather than observing it from the sidelines.” As instructors, we felt the same way. If the Covid-19 crisis continues into the next year, which it most likely will, we will surely teach this course again. Some of us will shorten synchronous online teaching, some of us will expand it – and all of us will hope for more in-person interaction time with our students.

We actually have not received much feedback about the blog which accompanies our teaching platform. We think that the blog is a great place for sharing information and reflection on ongoing developments, giving reading and even literature and movie advice, as well as for posting selected student essays and assignments (e.g. here, here and here). This way we can enable a virtual conversation between professors and students from different universities thinking about similar topics. Maybe students were so busy with their regular assignments that they did not follow or use the blog very closely. Thus, another opportunity for the next iteration of this course might be to actively encourage students to write blog posts as part of their assignments. For instance, we posted one video interview with an Austrian company owner and his way of dealing with the crisis. Conducting and sharing such videos on the platform could be a different kind of assignment for students to complete, thus contributing to collective knowledge on “Organizing in Times of Crisis”.

Let’s close with a longer reflection from a student from the Viadrina University: “2020 has been a challenging and confusing year, leading to chaos everywhere. During the most intense phase of social distancing, the semester at the University began. The weeks before were characterized by uncertainty and missing information. This unprecedented time forced a lot of companies to initiate a hiring freeze, which lead to a lot of challenges for the organization I am working for, as it is making revenue through placing job ads. It is obvious that we were and still are facing one of the most challenging crises of my lifetime. This crisis motivated me to try to understand how my co-workers, my supervisors, and I should respond and why some actions were undertaken. Nothing was working the usual way. Because of that, the course with the title “Organizing in Times of Crisis” evoked interest. The description convinced me that I will get a different perspective on the situation and the challenges I personally, my company, and the world face. I hoped I would be able to interlink my own experiences with research and knowledge. I enjoyed the chance to get insight into teaching at other universities all across Germany and Austria. Despite being unable to discover new places it created a sense of unity. In addition to that, even though the material was aligned, the multitude of content created by different people in different manners resulted in a multi-facetted, diversified course. As I was allowed to choose the material that was most appealing to me I was able to learn more about topics that really connected with me, like the article about the hospital in Sarasota where I worked as an intern in 2016. Eventually, the task of writing an essay instead of a seminar paper introduced me to a different format of academic thinking and writing and allowed me to interpret this overwhelming situation more openly. All of these aspects convince me that the knowledge I compiled is stored in my long-term memory.”

Governance responses of infectious disease outbreaks

In module four of this course, you can learn about the dynamics of network governence in the light of emergency. Professor Jörg Raab vom Tilburg University, together with colleagues from Tilburg and from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands, has conducted an empirical study on different network governance responses to different pathogens. The results are described in the article “Ex ante knowledge for infectious disease outbreaks” listed under background readings, but also briefly introduced in this video by Jörg Raab. The authors conclude that, first of all, different pathogens create different actor and network structures. In any case, a network coordinating authority (NCA) is needed. In order to function effectively, this NCA not only needs a clear mandate to coordinate the different actors involved in handling the crisis, but also sufficient time and resources as well as the managerial skills of how to governing a dynamically involving network, which includes an awareness and regular monitoring of its evolution over time.

Are women the better crisis leaders?

An essay by Diandra Pittelli, student at the Europan University Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder), Germany

The corona pandemic has proven to be more than a mere “flu”, it has the world completely under control and has shaped it in many ways. Some countries are more affected than others, and it therefore comes as no surprise that governments also react differently to the crisis.

Reading the newspapers lately, one could easily get the impression that there is a competition in which everyone is rooting to see which countries cope best with the corona crisis. This comparison, which took place in the media, also identified some winners, and they all have something in common: they are females. At the top of the list of role models we find Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, or the heads of government of Finland, Taiwan, Norway and Iceland. Given this list, one might conclude that women are better at dealing with the crisis simply because they are women. Similar conclusions were drawn after the 2008 financial crisis, a world ruled by women was considered friendlier and less aggressive. Christine Lagarde, head of IMF, even stated in The Guardian (2018) that if the bank had been called Lehman Sisters instead of Lehman Brothers, it would be a different world. As always, the focus is on the ascribed qualities of empathy and care, “It is as if they could hug us warmly and lovingly from the video”, said Avivah Wittenberg-Cox in Forbes (2020) when talking about the leading style of certain female politicians during the COVID-19 crisis.

In Prof. Dr Jochen Koch’s video “Leading, Sensemaking and the Future“, he says that leadership in crisis represents a balancing act between the need to absorb uncertainty and, on the other hand, the need for open communication. Based on this background I will take a more in-depth look into how politicians are absorbing uncertainty and communicating during the COVID-19 crisis and, by so doing, I want to see if the medias winners (female leaders) are indeed the better crisis leaders.

When talking about top leaders, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted predominantly female politicians. There is Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, who explains the infection rates of Covid-19 to the people clearly and soberly. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who exchanges empathy with her people live on Facebook and led her country to the lockdown early on, counts 22 dead so far with a population of 4.9 million inhabitants. Katrín Jakobsdóttir from Iceland stood out in the media for letting everyone in the country get tested for free. Not to forget about the heads of government of Scotland and Taiwan, who received positive feedback, or Erna Solberg in Norway, who held a press conference especially for children and assured them that it was perfectly okay if they were afraid. These women did not hesitate to frame this event as a crisis to create a form of urgency and to drop the old way to handle things and to adopt new tools. Obviously, other countries have also successfully curbed coronavirus spread, but those with female heads are specially pointed out.

Why is that? Right from the beginning of the corona crisis, those female leaders acted resolutely, transparently and, at the same time, showed empathy towards their citizens. Those female politicians absorbed uncertainty and created a common pattern of orientation that made action possible. The opposite is evident with some of their male counterparts. Several heads of state rely on authority and war rhetoric in the corona crisis, have downplayed the seriousness of the situation for a long time or even pointed their finger at other countries. Helen Lewis points out in the “Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft” journal (2020) that women, including those in top positions, appear to take fewer risks than men. Although there is still plenty of research to be done to verify her affirmation, this assumption is widely spread in society, which makes it easier for female politicians to communicate precautionary measures such as school closings or the mandatory wearing of face masks. As a “strong man”, it seems to be more challenging to make risk-averse decisions. The sociologist Eva Illouz stated in Die Zeit (2020) that the reasons for the success of female politicians during the COVID-19 crisis is that “Women pay attention to people and their well-being, while men pay attention to the economy”. According to Illouz, women are so socialized that they act “economically, medically and socially with foresight”.

So far, the prudent government style of female leaders has shown to be very successful; it is therefore, to no surprise that the media headlines are crowning women as the better crisis leaders.

However, saying that women are better crisis leaders just because of their “maternal instincts” is not only wrong, but also potentially dangerous for the advancement of women in politics. Women in politics are no better, “strong men” are just worse. Let us start with the most obvious example: Donald Trump. In the past few weeks, the president has found that his policies against lung disease are useless, that the coronavirus cannot be intimidated, dismissed or degraded. “Strong men” come to power because they promise security in uncertain times. They present a simple enemy to the people and claim that only they can take them on. The more power they accumulate by delegitimizing opposition leaders and the press, the better this strategy works. However, the virus cannot be delegitimized. Xi Jinping was faced with this problem at the outset of the pandemic when the Chinese government tried to suppress warnings from doctors about the new disease in Wuhan. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil dismissed the coronavirus as a “small flu or cold” and took part in a demonstration against the lockdown in April. While he was demonstrating, his head of communication was already infected. However, female heads of state can hardly be judged as a group because they still represent a small minority given that there are only 14 states with women in the highest position of executive power out of 193 UN member states. Therefore, every analysis of the female leadership figure suffers from a small number of possible cases to observe.

Three further aspects that debunk the statement “women are the better crisis leader” are as follows. First, many sociologists are comparing countries and economies in an undifferentiated way and reduce the differences to the gender of the government. Second, it is too early to assess which reactions to COVID-19 are the most successful from a health and economic perspective. Third, what about the male heads of state who are receiving positive feedbacks regarding their leadership during the COVID-19 crisis like Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor?

So, what can we say about top female politicians? Are women the better crisis leader? As a woman myself, I would have no hesitation in confirming this statement positively. Nevertheless, it is difficult to draw conclusions from general studies because a person who makes it to the top in politics must be somehow unusual to start with. He or she needs talent, ambition, vigor and also favorable living conditions. In countries that are not used to female managers, a woman who works her way up to the top should be particularly tough and determined.

At first glance, the fact that top female politicians are better because they have more “empathy” is an attractive argument. Nevertheless, we should be aware of such arguments, because this essentialist gender perspective – men are like this, women like this – has historically always hampered women and is hugely reductionist. Besides, this argument overrides the fact that successful male top politicians also have empathy; in a functioning democracy in which it is essential to collect as many votes as possible, social competence is an advantage. A further possible explanation of why countries with female heads of state do better in this crisis should provide an incentive to think of other mechanisms. For instance, women would come to power more easily in a political culture “in which the government has a fair amount of support and trust,”  argues an article in The Guardian (2020). A country that chooses a “strong man” or where such a person can stay in power through electoral fraud is already in deep trouble.

Concluding, it is therefore not possible to say “women are the better crisis leader” without any hesitation. After hundreds of years of dogma that men are inherently better crisis leaders, the opposite is not suddenly true. Heads of state are not the cause, but a symptom of better government.

Covid-19 – not just a crisis of leadership, but also followership?

LIO master student Peter Gollowitsch has already reflected about the Special Issue “Leadership and the coronavirus crisis” in the journal “Leadership”. Here, Yiannis Gabriel, professor of leadership at the University of Bath, already reflected about the relationship between leaders and followers in the current crisis by drawing on a comparison between Homer’s Ulysses and Kafka’s short story “The Silence of the Sirens”. In a recent blog post, he extends these reflections to ask what we, as followers, can do to avoid a “regress to primitive forms of mental functioning” where we classify things as either good or evil and look for someone to blame for our troubles.

Instead, he suggests that we start by accepting uncertainty. “Like millions of people before us who lived through wars, dislocations, famines, and natural disasters, we must understand that safety and certainty are desirable but cannot be vouchsafed by anyone. Politicians are unable to provide safety and certainty, but neither are scientists.” As a second measure, we can take responsibility for our own actions, “aiming to reduce the risks to ourselves and our fellow citizens.” Here, again, we need to accept the uncertainty that what is thought to be risky/responsible behavior is likely to change over time as our knowledge about the pandemic changes. Third, he asks us to “strengthen our communal attempts to address the suffering of those of our fellow citizens who are worst hit by the crisis.”

He concludes that “As a test of followership, the best that COVID-19 can offer us is an opportunity to accept and live with the adversities of life; liberate ourselves from false beliefs in the omnipotence of leadership, scientific and political, in resolving all our troubles; and restore our faith in ourselves as citizens capable of holding our leaders to account, while taking responsibility for our own actions.”

As recent developments show, it seems to be exactly this latter point which is surprisingly difficult to achieve. In expressing their disappointment with leadership unable to provide clear guidance and a quick solution, many people react by blaming leaders, opening up to conspiracy theories, denying the risks posed by the pandemic and turning to irresponsible behavior. Yet, the way forward seems to lie in the ambigous zone between “good” and “evil”: accepting that leaders may be wrong and uncertain themselves, accepting that scientific knowledge is changing, accepting that there is no ultimate truth yet at the same time also behaving in a responsible way on the basis of the best knowledge we have. Being responsible to fellow citizens does not imply being uncritical of the measures taken and of societal developments, it does not imply a blind followership of political leaders – but indeed, this is hard to fit into a “good” vs “evil”, “them” versus “us” scheme as evidenced currently between those that wear masks in certain situations (declared as uncritical and blind followers manipulated by the government) and those that don’t (self-declared as the only critical minds left).

Reflections on the pandemic as a chance to collaboratively modernize higher education

Hannah Trittin, Assistant Professor of Business Ethics at Leuphana University Lüneburg and organizer of the classes 6 (social media) and 11 (inequality), has reflected on her experience in participating in our “Times of Crisis” course in a Story for Future for the OS4future initiative.

She argues that “the course sets a signal that despite the growing international competition in academia, joining forces and acting together is possible and can deliver great results. It also offers a glimpse into the potentially bright future of higher education teaching in which we stop thinking in silos. Rather than keeping material developed by individual professors locked up in university-specific platforms, this course combines the knowledge of several experts, and makes it available to the general public.”

She also questions whether this will mean professors will become redundant: “After all, if teaching material is available, including reading and assignment suggestions, all you need then is a person who is willing and capable to grade student assignments.” However, she does not agree with this view (and nor do I): “The Times of Crisis project shows that only because of high quality research that the involved colleagues conduct, the teaching material is diverse, yet, of high quality. Furthermore, the course instructors at each university spent a significant amount of time on discussing the course contents and assignments with students – just as they would have in a traditional course format – whether it is asynchronous or synchronous. Simply put: online teaching materials complement, but do not replace good teaching.”

Excitingly, Hannah is already thinking about her next open course project. Together with Copenhagen Business School, she will conduct a joined global classroom project on datafication (https://dataandorganisations.org/) using materials provided by scholars such as Mikkel Flyverboom (CSB), Armin Beverungen (Leuphana) and Thomas Gegenhuber (Leuphana) to bring together interdisciplinary perspectives to the topic of data and organizations.

I myself took the inspiration further and, together with colleagues from Australia, Germany, the UK and the US, set up the UP:IT platform to build an online teaching collection on sustainable development and transformation.

I fully agree with Hannah: “My hope is that this project inspires other colleagues to make their material available, so that a broad audience has access to publicly funded expert knowledge. I will certainly continue to walk this path.”