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Fear and Focus

Fifth in a series on the reopening of West Texas A&M University in the midst of COVID-19.

Little is more crippling to an individual or an organization than fear. It petrifies people into indecisiveness. It spawns endless self-doubt that metastasizes into organizational doubt, creating a downward spiral.

In the pit of a depression that racked the nation and world, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pithy characterization of fear in his first inaugural speech is valuable in the context of current events:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.

One debilitating cost of fear is the neglect of purpose. I have watched and participated in fear-fueled activities that weaken focus. A loss of focus mummifies educational institutions even in the best of times. The current day is not the best of times.

Universities desire students to be in good health. The building blocks of good health should be informed by our desire to provide excellence in educational opportunities. Absent good health — promoted in an appropriately stressful environment — learners are subject to other reactions to stress, according to the Mayo Clinic. Good health can support and promote effective learning:  Not fear-driven, but mission-driven.

Leaders who promote activities that expose students, faculty, and staff to inappropriate risk are negligent. Likewise, leaders who believe the elimination of all risk from day-to-day experience are naïve, and naiveté is a damaging form of negligence. Physical risks, viruses, colds and flu, for example, are omnipresent. Risk-mitigating actions are essential. Universities should guide students away from health-compromised circumstances.

The importance of leadership actions to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is inarguable.  Likewise, leaders can have a positive impact on other health issues such as substance abuse. The National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health reports 37% of college students have used illicit drugs and abused alcohol regularly. We don’t know yet what the long-term health effects of COVID-19 will be, but we do know how devastating the impact of substance abuse can be.

Under any circumstance, educational institutions should first focus on the primary mission. Fear is fertile soil where a lack of focus germinates. Mission and focus guide progress. Fear drives individuals inward toward inaction. Focus can drive individuals outward toward positive action.

Neuroscience teaches us that it is nearly impossible to focus on two or more challenges simultaneously, according to Earl Miller of MIT. Focus requires a choice, an exercise of will. When issues other than academic excellence are at the forefront, universities relinquish mission and purpose.

Universities are dealing with complicating matters, some things over which they exercise little or no control. Art Markman, in the Harvard Business Review, says our attention to the threats of the coronavirus should cause caution in decision making. Yet the fury of a rapidly changing and increasingly fearful environment causes us to lose focus and, in turn, make poor decisions of every kind. I participate in this process regularly with unending questions: Face-to-face? Open or closed? Sports or not? On campus or at home? The list is long.

Fear of making mistakes, the heart of lost focus in times of trial, causes some leaders to shut down decision-making processes in favor of the dual comforts of denial and neglect. Such dread and risk aversion hamstrings leaders and led alike. Everybody knots up. In this time of abundant information flow and simultaneous reliable information drought, failure is on everyone’s mind leading to individual and corporate inaction.

Gabriela Goddard says to separate reality from perception and identify the things that create fear. Conquer fear? Confronting fear shrinks it. Being willing to pivot, or as my friend says, “call an audible,” strangles it. Accepting it as reasonable and healthy in measured quantity beneficially shapes it.

Healthy organizations will run towards fear, not away from it, while stridently focused on the primary purpose of the enterprise. Fear might even help focus the organizational mission.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at http://walterwendler.com/.