Initial Publication Date: August 31, 2021

Framing Leadership in Times of Crisis

Written by Jingjing Liu and Dr. Pamela Eddy, William & Mary

The global pandemic that began in 2020 caused education disruptions for learners and forced community colleges to adapt to unexpected situations. In times of crisis, leaders must respond to new demands effectively and recognize the need to help others process the crisis. Leaders need to support the collective work of employees and strive to help their institutions survive the changes wrought by the pandemic.The ability to view complex situations from multiple perspectives to help people make sense of changes during times of change proves critical. An equally important consideration is the fact that people can lead regardless of not holding a "leadership" position.

Understanding how to see issues facing the college from multiple perspectives is helpful.  Bolman and Deal's (2013) four frames of leadership provide a useful tool to use. The frames they present include: structural frame, human resources frame, political frame, and symbolic frame. When individuals know their preferred frame, they can draw upon these strengths to help during a crisis and they can understand better how to interact with others from different frame perspectives. "Leaders who understand and apply multiple lenses to situations are able to generate a broad view of the potential stakeholder and organizational perspectives, responses, and tensions in a given situation" (Eddy & Kirby, 2020, p. 26). Leaders must also know their own leadership frame to understand how best to interact with others that have different frame orientations. A quick survey provides a tool for individuals to identity their frame orientations.

Knowing your preferred frame of leadership can help in communicating with others. When leaders prepare for responding to a challenging situation, they must communicate with others to build buy-in to the actions needed. Fairhurst and Sarr (1996) review the communication concept of framing helps provide a playbook for improving interacting with others. In this case, framing involves the leader providing interpretation for others by calling attention to certain points of focus. The choice of language informs perceptions, and planning ahead prepares leaders respond spontaneously. When leaders face a crisis and plan to communicate it to a wide range of audiences, how they frame the ambiguity that naturally occurs during a crisis sets the stage for the ways people react post-crisis. Helping provide meaning by framing the uncertainty of situations for others is a central role for leaders. Faculty members intuitively do this when working with students and are well equipped to translate this skill when leading peers and others on campus.

Education leaders face crisis scenarios more frequently now compared to the past. Key here is having the ability to help others make sense of what is going on and knowing that how they interpret the crisis for others matters to avoid chaos—in classes, in departments, and on campus. The need exists for campus professional development sessions that help the campus community to learn the multiple frames of leadership and the ways to use framing of meaning in an organization. Following are several suggestions to guide campus professional development.

  1. Host campus book clubs using different leadership books, including options like Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership (Bolman & Deal, 2017), The Art of Framing: Managing the Language of Leadership (Fairhurst & Sarr, 1996), and Leading for Tomorrow: A Primer for Succeeding in Higher Education Leadership (Eddy & Kirby, 2020). These books serve as good references to learn strategies and develop a common understanding of key concepts of how organizations work.
  2. Employ self-assessments to allow individuals help in expanding their knowledge and to connect to their own experiences. For example, Bolman and Deal (2017) provide a web based leadership inventory that helps individuals identify their primary leadership orientation (see Frames Quick Self-Rating Scale).
  3. Use case studies to strengthen skills in problem-solving. Leading for Tomorrow (Eddy & Kirby, 2020) provides several case studies of real-world examples that guide readers to generate solutions and approaches to the problems presented.
  4. Provide opportunities for debriefing after involvement on committees/initiatives to aid individuals in mining their experiences for lessons learned. A debriefing opportunity can provide the time and safe space for individuals to share what they have learned from their committee work, what they would like to learn to improve their leadership skills, and what they would change in their next committee involvement.  Debriefings help attendees to pay attention to individual experiences and stories as well as strengthen relationships with others. Meanwhile, campus leaders obtain feedback that helps them to improve committee assignments. A good resource to plan for debriefings is Debriefing: A Simple Tool to Help Your Team Tackle Tough Problems, which describes steps to conduct an effective debriefing.


Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2013). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (5th ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Eddy, P. L., & Kirby, E. (2020). Leading for tomorrow: A primer for succeeding in higher education leadership. Rutgers University Press.

Fairhurst, G., & Sarr, R. (1996). The art of framing: Managing the language of leadership. Jossey-Bass.

Sundheim, D. (2015, July 02). Debriefing: A simple tool to help your team tackle tough problems. Harvard Business Review