If there is one word that has been used perhaps more than any other to describe the moment that we find ourselves in right now it is ‘unprecedented’. There is no guidebook for how to live or lead during a pandemic. Few of us expected to be facing challenges of the scale and type that we all are now.

And over the years we’ve had the privilege of working with some wise, conscious, courageous leaders. We asked some of them to share with us their insights about how they are leading through this moment of crisis.  

Establish a clear routine and prioritise self-care

Remember the safety advice when you fly on a plane? Before you try to help others, make sure that your own oxygen mask is safely fitted. The leaders that we interviewed were clear that looking after yourself properly is an essential prerequisite to being able to support others. 

“The support of the team really starts with supporting yourself, and what I’ve been doing is setting up a routine whereby I can really win the day today, even if yesterday wasn’t quite what I’d been hoping for”, said Paul Crick, founder and Managing Director of a leadership development consultancy. For a number of the leaders we spoke to, this self-care starts with looking after the physical body – especially when stressful circumstances and constant access to a well-stocked kitchen can sometimes lead to temptation! 

“Resourcing across my personal life has been challenging”, said Director for Collaboration Mike Tryon . “I’ve learned to adapt to make sure I’m exercising regularly to maintain a healthy balance with all the food I’ve been eating!” 

Company director Michelle Cowan is also prioritising movement and exercise as part of her day routine. “I’ve got into my ‘lockdown routine’ now – my hubby and I take the dog out early and do around 3 miles of woodland walking. I also have an online fitness subscription which I’ve had for over a year supported by an accountability group, so I’m currently taking part in a 5 day a week – 6-week boxing program which I’m loving”.  

Connect regularly – and authentically – with the people you lead

For Mike it is essential to ensure that “social distancing doesn’t have to mean social isolation”. He feels that regular communication and connection with teams is what’s needed to help them manage the anxiety that comes with such an uncertain and bewildering situation. 

“The biggest thing that I’ve tried to do is meet people where they are” said Chuck Moser, a Sales Director with responsibility for a large and diverse team . “To me that means understanding that each person has a different situation and set of challenges during such an unusual time. So I just try to give everyone lots of latitude. One example – after one of our calls when we discussed that additional patience and kindness is important right now, I got a message from one of the engineers on our team.  He told me that he has a son with a disability, and because his son doesn’t get to go to school, the burden of his care now falls 100% on him and his wife, who both work. The lesson for me is that some people are in extraordinarily difficult situations right now, so the default just has to be, to give people the support they need in order to back off work and handle their life obligations right now”. 

For our leaders, part of creating a safe space for sharing experiences is to show that they are willing to be honest about what they are going through. “Part of helping me to lead at work as well as at home is to demonstrate my own vulnerability – to show that I am also anxious, maybe even scared at times” said Mike. 

Lean into uncertainty and embrace your emotions

The old-school approach to leadership is that leaders need to know as much as they can so that they can control as much as possible. And what the next generation of leaders is realising is that ‘knowing’ is about more than accruing information, and that ‘control’ is largely an illusion, even at the best of times – let alone in the midst of a pandemic. 

Daniel Corry is People and Communities Partner for a tech firm and he says that he is doing his best to “live in the moment without obsessively reading the news and trying to forecast what is going to happen”. He noticed that the magnitude of the crisis unfolding, and the absolute uncertainty of when and how it might end were having an impact on his emotions. 

So in a situation that can get our heads whirring with trying to predict what is to come, and with our emotions in flux, Paul Crick advocated for “acceptance, and to have self-compassion when things are happening in our world in a way that I don’t want them to. When I have uncomfortable feelings I’m able to observe them and accept them, and know that whatever I’m feeling is OK.” 

Take this moment to pause, reflect, and consciously choose your response

For the leaders we spoke to COVID was not just a moment to manage through until we can all get back to ‘life as normal’. It was an opportunity to pause and truly reflect on what is happening in the world around them, and what they want their role to be in it. 

“Our current circumstances offer us an opportunity to think hard about how we are in the world, how we show up and how we treat ourselves, each other and our planet. My hope is that leaders from all walks choose to look really hard at what they do and why they do it” said Paul. “Growth for growth’s sake is the strategy of a cancer cell and as we have seen of late is not a viable option in the long term. I would ask leaders to think hard about why they want to generate profit. Is it a goal or should it now be an outcome?” 

For Chuck, this is a moment where leaders are being truly called forth. “As a leader, your legacy will be at least partially defined by how you acted in this moment.  I encourage all leaders to give it some thought and make sure that the way you are acting at this time aligns with the legacy that you want to leave.  For me, it came down to what was most important to me: People”.  

And while many are talking about ‘the new normal’, while others fantasise about a return to ‘business as usual’, the likely truth is that what follows this moment will be nothing like as stable as either of those visions of the future might suggest. 

“It has been slowly dawning on me that the next phase of this reality in many ways will be harder than the lockdown we are slowly emerging from”, said Daniel. A hybrid return outside is going to call upon our faculties even more than the relative simplicity of shelter in place that has started to feel familiar. We need to keep making sure the teams we inhabit are living places, spaces that recognize emotion and continue to modify themselves as new ways of coping with reality evolve.” 

Amongst all the wonderful wisdom that the leaders we spoke to shared with us there was perhaps one theme that stood out most of all – that the world has changed, perhaps forever, and we as people and leaders must change with it. 

Leaders in a post-COVID world will need to skilfully hold a dual lens –  at once deeply in touch with their own inner worlds, and also truly connected with the people and the larger world around them; able to identify and comfortably be with their own emotions, while also being open to the signals that are emerging from the changing times we live in. 

In times of crisis it can be tempting to put our heads down and hide from reality; it can be tempting to imagine that this is just a ‘blip’, and that normal programming will resume shortly. But deep down most of us know that simply isn’t the case. 

So, we ask you: what do you want your legacy to be? What is the role you are being called on to play at this unique moment in history? And how are you going to equip yourself to be the type of leader we will desperately need in the new world that is unfolding around us?

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