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Professor Susan Lea is the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Hull. The university employs around 1,000 academic staff who teach around 15,000 students. The National Leadership Centre spoke to Susan in September 2020, and the interview below reflects her experience at that moment. We caught up again with Susan in April 2021 and spoke about what she is optimistic about when she looks to the future.

What has been the biggest change to your role since the start of the pandemic?

It has been a challenging year for all leaders. The year has presented a lot of new challenges and opportunities. The biggest change in terms of leadership was the way in which one had to lead, particularly in the early days of lockdown. I am an engaged leader; I think it is important to engage people and engage with your community regularly to drive change locally.

But when we had to lockdown, we had to move into much more of a command and control leadership style. We had to make decisions very fast that were extremely significant matters of life and death. So there was quite a big shift there.

I suppose if you had told me before that I would ever be leading in a command and control style, I probably couldn’t have imagined when that might be entirely appropriate. But it was absolutely appropriate for its time.

What have those changes meant for your organisation on a day-to-day level? Has there been quite a shift away from business as usual?

The big one has been around teaching and learning. I would never have quite believed we could have moved the university online in four days, but we did.

And we took the decision to teach and assess all of our students, no matter what level they were at. We believed that was important, and we wanted to support all students to progress with their learning as effectively as possible.

Staff have worked incredibly hard over the summer to help students and give them extensions and mitigating circumstances. And at the same time as delivering their existing provision online, they have also been rewriting their existing programmes for a blended pedagogy for this year.

Also, people have generally shifted out of their “usual”. We know intuitively that people are good in crisis in the main, but I think what I’ve witnessed through the pandemic has been remarkable.

People have continued to teach their students, continued to do their research, have done all sorts of amazing COVID work, whether that’s working on the wards or doing the research, making shields, done all of those things. And at the same time they’ve been at home juggling children and caring for others.

Or people have been on their own, socially isolated for weeks and weeks on end. It is a remarkable feat of just about everybody. It has been really challenging, and I think it’s that which strikes me as the most incredible thing.

How has it felt being a leader during this period?

Honestly, it’s been quite tough. When you’re dealing with matters of life and death, your first priority now as a Vice-Chancellor is the health and safety of your community.

My biggest concern throughout has been around COVID-19’s impact on inequality. So, we had inequality previously, but we know that COVID is accentuating and amplifying inequality. And so we’re very mindful of the differential impact of COVID on different populations of students and staff.

And we’ve done quite a bit in that space already, so whether you’re talking about digital inequality, for example, or the impact on young academics who are female who are doing most of the home schooling and looking after young children with the knock on effect that their publication submission rate is dropping. All of those kinds of complexities are the things that we need to deal with.

Which three words describe your experience as a leader over the last year?

The core word for me is always integrity. I always try to lead with integrity. I think it’s vital.

The other one would be engaged. Being engaged has been so important – connected to people as well.

And then honesty. We shouldn’t underestimate the value of transparency, openness, and inclusion.

There’s a bit of a list there, but they tie together as a style that I believe is really important leading any time but has been particularly vital at this time.

This last question was from our conversation in April 2021.

What are you most optimistic about?

I take a lot of hope from what we’ve learned from COVID-19 and how we can make the future more resilient and better. There will have to be a lot of action to make that happen, not just words. It will have to be highly focused, partnership work to address the big and significant challenges.

We need to think creatively when looking forward to the larger, strategic policies. We need to do that together across the public sector and with community groups. I’m really interested in that potential.

We need to build on the behaviours we’ve seen which have been strengthened through this – that kindness, that support, that concern, that selflessness. It would be nice to hold on to those more. Not that we weren’t those things before, but the pandemic has really brought them to the fore.

When we think about consensus and teamworking, that has been valuable, and we need to find ways to work well with other teams beyond the crisis.

We need to retain good prioritisation and focus. When you’re in this environment, you need to prioritise and focus your work. We’re really good at that in the university, but I wouldn’t want to lose it.

Valuing communication is another piece of this: increasing, improving, and making it fit for a post-COVID-19 world.

One last thing, people have tried a lot of new things and not been fearful of failing. They’ve almost not had the time to be fearful. How can we harness that as part of this? That will be a big challenge.

My hope is that we can learn and go forward to a better place, but we’re going to have to work jolly hard to get there together.

Read and listen to the portraits of these leaders: Steve Russell · Carol Matthews · Stacey Burlet · Betsy Bassis · Wayne Bowcock · Helen Bailey

Read the full Public Leaders Report: Supporting the NHS in its hour of need · Collaborating places · Extraordinary resilience and service · What do we know about public sector leaders · Looking ahead to 2022