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7 steps that helped ORU thrive during COVID

The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is so small you can fit 100 million viral particles on the head of a pin, yet so deadly and destructive it is the greatest challenge modern leaders have ever faced.

In 2020, heads of organizations had to cope with disruptions in everything from payables to personnel while struggling through sickness and mourning loss. COVID-19 came without warning or precedent. And it’s not over yet. The crisis and resulting societal change have created a new day that requires leading in a new way.

William Wilson
Courtesy of William Wilson

I'm privileged to lead Oral Roberts University (ORU). As a leader, just like you, I work each day to create a better future, which was certainly the case during the COVID-19 pandemic. Higher education has been hit especially hard by COVID-19. In the winter and early spring of 2020, hundreds of colleges sent students home. Other students, concerned about health or the value of online-only education, stayed home. The result: close to one-third of US higher education institutions are at financial risk; 10 to 20 percent of US higher education institutes are in danger of closing permanently within a year. 

At ORU, we have a different story. In the fall of 2020, we welcomed our 12th consecutive year of increased enrollment with in-person classes, dormitory living, and extracurriculars that included NCAA sports, chapel, and performing arts — all while keeping COVID-19 in check. It was the outcome of a plan devised in the summer of 2020 called “ORUSAFE.” Creating and implementing it was a significant leadership challenge. Leaders can fall into the trap of looking for the next big idea, or the latest mantras to utilize.  Instead, we took an approach to simplify the problem and clarify the actions.  Here are those reproducible steps. I believe these will empower you to solve your leadership challenges as well.

Step 1: Accept the Challenge

Leaders must recognize that crises present opportunity. Abigail Adams encouraged her son John, the boy who would one day be president, in a moment of decision, with these words:

“It is not in the still calm of life… that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”

An iconic image of ORU is the sculpture of the renowned “Healing Hands.” The two hands are commonly called Praying Hands, but instead, they symbolize healing that comes from the union of faith and medicine.  One without the other would be incomplete.  During this pandemic, we approached COVID-19 by bringing together prayer and science. God answered our prayers, but we were not presumptive to ignore scientific, medical and common-sense protocols. Leaders can welcome challenges when they fully embrace every available resource.

We didn’t seek the challenges created by COVID-19 — but we didn’t back away from them.  Accept the fact: leaders face challenges. 

Step 2: Hold Tight to Your Mission

Leaders have to become clear on what’s non-negotiable. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar said, “Outstanding people have one thing in common: an absolute sense of mission.” The Apostle Paul wrote, “I focus on this one thing” (Philippians 3:13).

My focus was on ORU’s mission to develop Holy Spirit-empowered leaders through whole person education to impact the world. Whole person education is better done with in-person instruction. At ORU, students learn from and are inspired by professors — and each other. As Dr. Howard Hendricks famously said, “More is caught than taught.”

That we accomplish the mission is non-negotiable for a leader. How we accomplish the mission is. New days require new ways to achieve the mission.

Step 3: Assemble a Team

General Stanley McChrystal, author of Team of Teams shared the example of training used by the US Navy required of all aspiring SEALs.  General McChrystal wrote: “SEALs instructors have constructed a training program less about preparing people to follow precise orders than it is about developing trust and the ability to adapt within a small group.” Leading in a new way requires putting together a great team.

I formed a health and safety task force composed of experts and influencers among the faculty, administration, staff, and students to identify and devise a plan for areas of vulnerability. Proverbs 11:14 declares, “in the abundance of counselors, there is victory.” Or, as Steve Jobs put it, “Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team.”

Strong leaders embrace humility and acknowledge the wisdom of building a team of strong leaders. Kingdom leadership is modeled by cohesive teams being responsive, taking action, and accepting the challenge of any crisis.

Step 4: Set an Inspiring Goal

In Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins wrote about how top companies use “BHAGs” (big, hairy, audacious goals) as an engine of growth: “a true BHAG is clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort often creating immense team spirit. … A BHAG engages people — it reaches out and grabs them in the gut.  It takes it little or no explanation.”

I gave the task force an audacious goal — to make ORU “the safest place in Oklahoma.” It wasn’t enough to set a goal of being as safe as or even safer than our surrounding community. A small goal will not inspire the ideas, actions, and energy needed to do new things in a new way.

Our problem today isn’t setting big goals and missing them; rather setting small goals and hitting them!

Step 5: Create a Plan

People own what they help plan.  We called our plan to create the safest place in Oklahoma “ORUSAFE.” With this goal in mind, the team expressed their expertise in education, health, medicine, logistics, law, engineering, media, campus safety and more in overlapping recommendations we called “Layers of Safety.”

Whether someone was coming on campus, learning on campus, living on campus, playing on campus, eating on campus, worshipping on campus, or leaving campus — we surrounded each activity with layers of safety.

Parents caught the vision and sent their sons and daughters. ORU students took up the challenge to take responsibility for each other’s safety, including masks, distancing, daily temperature readings, hand hygiene, self-reporting, contact tracing, quarantining, and isolation for infected students. Our students lived out  the “culture of honor” central to ORU.

Step 6: Measure, Monitor and Adjust to Failures

Leaders must measure results and make adjustments. The business maxim is to “inspect what you expect.” Peter Drucker wrote, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” In the pandemic’s rapidly shifting environment, our team scrutinized updates. Wear masks? Bleach surfaces? And we closely monitored campus activity.

Leaders face failures without making excuses or placing blame. When plans fail, leaders should take responsibility, ask the tough questions, make necessary corrections, and try again!  Failure is not a truth that you can allow to define your journey.

A good plan is adaptable. We tied safety levels to infection rates. During a small spike around Labor Day, we implemented additional stringent measures. Only three students were allowed in a dorm room at a time. We further limited cafeteria seating. Our students adjusted to the new standards, and the number of cases declined.

Step 7: Celebrate Victories

Successful organizations tell stories and celebrate victories. Together they cement team camaraderie, increase loyalty, build morale, and generate pride in the organization. Stories create culture. Victories serve to remind us that we really can “do all things through Christ who gives [us] strength” (Philippians 4:13) — including doing things in a new way for a new day.

ORU reached our goal in 2020 to become one of the safest places, if not the safest place in Oklahoma. We know there are new challenges ahead, but we know these steps help us lead in a new way, and they will help you too. We also know “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

Dr. William M. Wilson is the president of Oral Roberts University (ORU) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Dr. Wilson is instrumental in developing Spirit-empowered leaders through whole person education to impact the world. He is known as a global influencer and a dynamic speaker with four decades of executive leadership experience. Wilson’s weekly television program, “World Impact with Dr. Billy Wilson” has been inspiring viewers in over 150 nations and multiple languages since 1998.

As Global Co-chair of Empowered21, which attracts Spirit-empowered principals from ministry, academics, and next-generation voices. Wilson is the Chair of the historic Pentecostal World Fellowship and holds leadership positions with the National Association of Evangelicals, Mission America Coalition, International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, American Association of Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities, and the City of Tulsa Chamber of Commerce. 

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