For many, the crisis was COVID-19. For others, it was the various consequences of the pandemic: increased workload, learning to teach online, and children that needed to be home-schooled. Additionally, there was the feeling of dread—about the health and safety of elderly parents and relatives, economic fallout, potential or real job loss, and concerns about how our students were managing. Yet for many of us, even amid the throes of dread, there were silver linings: working at home; revelations about the capabilities of online learning; and the experience of watching ourselves overcome some of our most difficult professional moments. For me, one of the transformative, soul-shifting moments was witnessing the gentle and unassuming mastery of little “l” leadership throughout my institution.

Working at a teaching and learning centre meant that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we transitioned to online teaching, I was thrust into this dust storm of madness alongside everyone else. Tired, at time even a little hopeless, my colleagues and I, like many others, carried on digging deep for the kindness and energy to provide support when and where we could. But, despite the dust and, at times, the ugliness, I’m still grateful to have been in that place of messiness; it enabled me to see all the pieces of this transition, swirling around, not in the theoretical, but right there in front of me, in the real.

It was in this messy space that I witnessed resiliency and optimism; grit and empathy; creativity and risk-taking—many of the leadership qualities I was craving. I saw it in instructors, who spent weeks and months learning to use new online tools and making choices about which tools would support student learning most effectively. I saw it in the balance that was sought between synchronous and asynchronous teaching and the student-centered reasoning behind those decisions. I saw it in the instructors who collected and read, at times scathing, feedback from stressed out students, and reacted by making real efforts to reflect and adjust their teaching to address student concerns. I saw it in those who offered choice in how and when students completed assignments and in the flexibility shown overall with assessment. I saw it in the questions I was asked, and in the creativity used and risks taken by colleagues, all in order to make courses as accessible and meaningful as possible. I saw it in the little moments and in those who celebrated the accomplishments of their colleagues and who showed up always to help others despite their own struggles. And I saw it in the students who rose to countless challenges, learning new ways of learning, and supporting their instructors with grace and gratitude.

And there they were, these qualities of remarkable leadership, swirling around with the rest of the yuck. I could reach out and touch them. Because I was right there, in those spaces.

What is once seen, is sometimes impossible to unsee. Have you ever played Tetris? Or used Prisma to turn your photos into art? You go about your day seeing the world through a new lens, fitting buildings into one another and imposing imaginary filters over neighbourhood landscapes. For me, once I noticed these leadership qualities, I began to see them showing up everywhere. Not big “L” leadership in the big spaces, because I wasn’t there. Instead, I was at home, in zoom meetings, in the small spaces, the sometimes messy ugly spaces. In the spaces between teaching and learning, between dread and wonder, between giving up and carrying on. But it was in those remarkable spaces that I witnessed little “l” leadership like I had never seen it before.

As we move forward into years of fiscal reorganization, making agile and creative decisions to bring our ledger sheets from red to black, how will little “l” leadership be recognized, celebrated, and saved? How will our sector and some of our big “L” leaders acknowledge the ways in which little “l” leadership showed up, carried on, and transformed us all? One way is for us to call attention to and celebrate the power of the little “l” leader—to articulate what we saw and continue to see at our institutions in the little spaces, in the in-between, where grit, risk, courage, and empathy are thriving despite the dread. This is what I have learned from the pandemic. This was my silver lining.

Kathleen Bortolin is a Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Specialist at Vancouver Island University.