Lessons from the Pandemic: Leadership and Childcare

The rapid onset of the COVID-19 pandemic bent, cracked, and sometimes broke components of our politics and economy. The problem is not only related to the virus, but how the virus has made persistent challenges like childcare, which disproportionately affects women, even more evident. If we look at how the Alberta government has approached reopening schools, we see an excellent example of “avoidance”—a common response to an adaptive problem. To an adaptive leader, the goal is not to maintain the status quo but to adapt our attitudes, behaviours, and values to be able to not only overcome the challenge but thrive.

The adaptive leadership model provides a framework that we can use to assess some of the challenges ripened by the novel coronavirus. It can illuminate the avoidance techniques our leaders readily employ as they seek to minimize adaptation. As September inches closer and the next phase of our adaptive challenge looms, this framework can help us to understand how we must adapt to thrive.

First, to clarify some terms. The adaptive leadership model describes two main types of problems: technical and adaptive.1 Technical problems have clear problems and solutions. For example, is there a virus spreading? Vaccinate against it. Obviously it takes a lot of knowledge and capacity to develop a vaccine, produce it in sufficient quantities and distribute it appropriately. At root though, the problem and the solution are readily comprehended. Adaptive problems, by contrast, are unclear and, correspondingly, give rise to solutions whose efficacy is uncertain.

To understand an adaptive problem, we must consider the concept of leadership itself. Traditionally, we see leaders as those with a vision for where we need to go and the capacity to execute that vision. Leadership involves the exercise of authority and discrete skills to achieve the leader’s vision. Followers end up dependent on the leader to continue providing solutions, but a leader will inevitably fail. No authority or vision can magic a vaccine for us. The result is a leadership trap in which followers maintain their dependency, while leaders fall short.2

If authorities cannot provide a clear and prompt solution or if people are not receptive to the proposed solutions, the problem might shift from technical to adaptive. Masks and social distancing protocols are good examples. Even as some municipalities consider mandatory mask wearing to provide a temporary technical solution on the path to the bigger technical solution – the vaccine – resistance to masks has compelled public health officials to promote the learning and empathy necessary for the widespread adoption of masks. Similarly, social distancing protocols were widely respected but, as businesses like bars open, permissiveness and reluctant enforcement clearly require more widespread adaptation. Our value of leisure has not adapted to the situation; we have not demonstrated widespread receptivity to the proposed solutions.

Opening schools, however, is an even more difficult problem. It requires more than just learning. We must change our attitudes, behaviours, and values to overcome the challenge. There is no quick, technical fix. Going back to school poses public health issues, while staying home has equally significant consequences. Reopening schools might exacerbate the spread of the virus. Not reopening schools imposes a disproportionate burden on women whose workforce participation is dramatically impacted3 and, in the university context, whose research is adversely impacted.4 This problem should not be avoided.

There is no greater sign of avoidance than the phrase “getting back to normal.” When the government speaks of “getting back to normal,” they evince values that do not prioritize women’s labour force participation. Getting back to normal means not addressing chronic underfunding of public schools, which must face reopening without new funding. Getting back to normal means not meaningfully addressing childcare as a barrier to entry for women into the labour force. A vaccine or a technical solution avoids having to address these fundamental and persistent issues. Frustratingly, the government’s prioritization of the economy is blind to the benefits of childcare.5 We can exceed what normal was.

As each news story emerges of vaccines clearing hurdles in their trial process, the opportunity to address these gender-based inequities recedes. The imperative diminishes as we see an end to our disequilibrium. Why bother with the hard conversation of supporting women with childcare if we’ll all be back to normal? Instead of increasing our capacity to address, adapt, and overcome challenges, our political leaders are compelling us to get back to normal. They are avoiding the underlying issue. We can’t let them. Adaptive leadership can help us – and our institutions – emerge stronger.


Tristan Patterson is a JD Candidate in the Faculty of Law and a PLLC Teaching Fellow.

1 Heifetz, Ronald A et al. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Harvard Business Review Press, 2009.

2 Heifetz, Ronald A, and Riley M Sinder. "Political Leadership: Managing The Public's Problem Solving." In The Power of Public Ideas, edited by Robert B Reich, 179-203. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger Publishing Company, 1988.

3 The Canadian Press. Women's participation in the labour force reaches lowest level in 3 decades due to COVID-19: RBC. July 16, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/women-employment-canada-covid-19-1.5652788 (accessed July 20, 2020).

4 University of Lethbridge. Pandemic underlines need to revamp academic system that disadvantages parenting researchers and women. July 7, 2020. https://www.uleth.ca/unews/article/pandemic-underlines-need-revamp-academic-system-disadvantages-parenting-researchers-and (accessed July 20, 2020).

5 Gaviola, Anne. Prolonged recession ahead if there isn't a childcare solution: Economist. July 16, 2020. https://www.bnnbloomberg.ca/prolonged-recession-ahead-if-there-isn-t-a-childcare-solution-economist-1.1466063 (accessed July 20, 2020).

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