TS Elliot may have said that April is the cruellest month – but February is giving it a run for its money this year

There’s no doubt that leading an organisation is a tough job right now – as that quote from a colleague shows. And there’s nothing about your status or your job title as a leader that gives you any personal immunity from the stresses and strains of lockdown in 2021. At the turn of the year, it was tempting to look for lessons from 2020 that could be applied to help us all steer through the year ahead – we might have even retweeted a few ourselves!  But less than two months in, it seems pretty clear that we’re still deep in the middle of this pandemic lockdown experience and so whilst observation and reflection is certainly useful – trying to conclude anything as codified or transferable as a list of leadership lessons is just going to be a fool’s errand.

The demands of the pandemic have sharpened many divisions and inequalities – traditional boundaries between work and home have been eroded and staff members with school age children or caring responsibilities for older family members find themselves doing several jobs at once. Technology has made it possible for leaders to engage with large numbers of widely dispersed staff much more easily and frequently than before – but hosting a Teams call doesn’t mean making an emotional connection unless leaders are willing and able to show their own vulnerability. We’ve heard lots of great stories of leaders at all levels in organisations who are doing just that – sharing their own fears and frustrations and establishing much closer relationships with colleagues as a result.

This all means that leaders need to look to their own well-being and build their own coping support systems in order for them to enhance the well-being of their staff. But at the top of an organisation coping is not enough. We heard a great story last week of a leader saying that they woke up one morning with the realisation that they hadn’t really been doing the job they were employed to do. They’d become reactive, responding to the daily challenges of managing an organisation in lockdown – but not looking ahead and pushing their executive team to challenge itself and design a sustainable future. Of course that’s hard – forming a new strategy requires creative collective thinking and that can be in short supply in a virtual Board meeting, but that future focus is central to the job of leadership as we come through the current phase of this pandemic and prepare for the challenges to come.

Our observations over the last few weeks show us that this sort of future focussed leadership work is really tough to do on your own. But it can be much more productive, and even in enjoyable, to work through these questions in a series of 1-to-1 and small group conversations where people can talk openly about how their different lockdown experiences have changed their expectation of work and their aspirations for the future.

So the big conclusion from our work in the weeks since the last of these leadership in lockdown blogs is that you can’t really conclude anything at the moment! And that being authentic as a leader just now means being open about ‘not knowing’ and working with colleagues in a similar state of uncertainty as you explore possible ways forward as a team. Or to paraphrase a Chinese proverb – the task now is not to build a bridge to the future – it’s to hold hands and feel for stepping stones under the torrent together.

David & Alex © Socia 2021