Fostering Innovation and Resilience in a Year of Unknowns

Fostering Innovation and Resilience in a Year of Unknowns by George Reese, TSA Leadership Institute Program Coordinator, Key Executive Leadership Programs, American University

The end of a year is a time many of us take a moment to reflect on what we’ve done or accomplished in the past year, and perhaps set some new goals, aspirations, or dreams for the upcoming twelve months. 2020 will be a year many of us will remember for a long, long time, not for good reasons, and for good reasons, wish we could forget.

I remember joking to myself and a few friends this time last year that I’d like to take a Rip Van Winkle type of nap and wake up November 4th when what I was anticipating would be a nasty presidential campaign and election would be over. You know, stick my head in the sand to avoid all the toxic negativity until it was all over.

Now just imagine my fantasy self waking then and realizing how much my life and the world had changed in unimaginable ways that no one predicted or could have even dreamed of a year ago.  Oh, what a year it has been! And the election arguing still isn’t over! Makes you want to go right back to sleep.

It’s been a year of devastating change and tragedy for so many all over the world. No one has been untouched by the events of this past year and some of us, who have survived so far, may never fully recover.

But what has also struck me is the amazing strength and resilience of people in facing an incredible, unexpected challenge that we were unable to anticipate or prepare for. We’ve created whole new systems for interacting with others, sharing space (carefully), working, playing, learning, even presidential campaigning.

I have been incredibly impressed with how we at Key Executive Leadership Programs adapted to this new normal. In March we were told to begin working from home. We didn’t know how long this new work from home policy would last and how it would impact our work delivering leadership programs to numerous government agencies (who were also moving to work from home).

Students attending class from home

Since then, in a manner of a few months, we moved from full in-person/live instruction to completely delivering online classes and programs. How did we do that? We had no plan, or experience with online delivery of programs. But we needed to continue to deliver programming to our clients, so we needed to adapt and radically change our method of delivery in response to an incredible, unexpected situation.

I was so impressed with how the Key staff responded to the challenge, learned new skills, taught those skills to a bevy of faculty and classroom coaches in a short period of time so that our mission of delivering high quality leadership development programs continued. We were also incredibly supported by Key leadership in our efforts. In essence our Key leaders gave us the autonomy to develop new skills, practice and teach those new skills, and most importantly I believe, trusted us to deliver.

Dec-Blog-Feature-Image-2 At our recent Roger Jones Award Ceremony (on Zoom of course) during a panel discussion with the awardees, the awardees were discussing leadership excellence. Matthew Alessandrino, Assistant IG for Investigations with FDIC, talked about the current situation and what leaders could do enable their employees to be successful in their jobs.


“It’s all about the people. Making sure the work that they have, the mission they have is important, and they understand what it is. Give them the tools and resources to get that job done and then get out of the way and give them the autonomy.

If there’s one thing the last 9 months has shown us is that giving people the resources and the autonomy to get their jobs done in this situation… shows we’ve made some great decisions in our development of folks to be able to handle a situation like [they’re] handling in such an incredible manner.”

Daniel Pink writes about this in his book, Drive.  He writes that if employees are paid fairly and therefore money is not an issue, that what motivates employees in work and life are three things: autonomy (our desire to be self-directed), mastery (our desire to get better at what we do – and truly care about what we do), and purpose (that what we do has meaning and is important).

In my leadership classes I’ve told my students the difference between leadership and management is your ability to affect change. Here was an example where our purpose was clear. We faced a challenge that allowed us in Key to demonstrate our mastery largely because we were given the autonomy to create a new learning paradigm for our clients.

I don’t think we would have been any more successful in accomplishing that if we had had the luxury of planning for it. It’s a huge credit to the Key staff for their mastery and our leadership for having the faith and trust in us to carry it out. I wonder if we could have accomplished what we have this year at Key if we had the luxury of planning for it.

About the Author

ReeseGeorge joined the Key Executive Leadership Programs office in December 2018 as the Program Coordinator for the TSA Leadership Institute. Prior to coming to American University he was a trainer and the Training Coordinator with Training and Organizational Development at Georgetown University for 18 years. George started out as an elementary school teacher many many years ago and has taught learners from kindergarten through adults. George also was an adjunct instructor in the Bachelor of Arts Liberal Studies Program at Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies.


About the Key Programs

Key is the global public sector leadership program of choice, as it challenges good managers to become extraordinary leaders who become lifelong learners and build an environment of organizational success. Home to the 3rd nationally ranked Executive MPA program and leadership certificate programs, Key’s alumni leave as leaders who exhibit passion for improving public service, act with integrity and authenticity, become a force for personal and organizational change, and empower others to action and excel.  

SPA Key Executive Leadership Programs



1 reply
  1. Cathy Wright says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your reflections about how this COVID time has shone a bright light on the power of resilience and emergent resourcefulness. I couldn’t agree more– while the uncertainty of “the pivot” was challenging and unsettling, it also enhanced the sense of community I’ve always felt toward the Key staff. leadership, program participants, and my coach/adjunct faculty colleagues and it elevated the can-do attitude that seems to be a hallmark of the program. Kudos to everyone who made it happen– and to the clients and program participants who dug in with us, showing up with learner mindsets to elevate their leadership to even greater heights in service of their agency’s missions, and to our great country.


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