Executive Leadership Coach and Author Rachel Ellison Ltd
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Panic and the coronavirus pandemic: immersive leadership during a crisis

In part seven of her content series on panic and the coronavirus pandemic, Rachel Ellison MBE discusses why the pastoral side of being a leader during this crisis is equally – if not more – important than the operational side. 

4th May 2020
Executive Leadership Coach and Author Rachel Ellison Ltd
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Businessman showing compassion holding red heart onto his chest
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Some leaders are leading with half their team off sick. Others have a full crew but are mindful that many staff are struggling with the overwhelm of childcare, productivity at work, the need for exercise and shopping that feels fearful and takes ages. Managers may also be conscious of employees facing the opposite – loneliness.

Many conversations dwell on empathy for longer than is perhaps usual. This may frustrate, or appear to delay to getting on with the business of the day. It is not. For leaders it is an investment...

Then there are the many courageous and generous families, parents and partners of those working in healthcare. Each day they turn up for work puts them all at risk of catching Covid-19.

Disease and danger create heightened emotions. People are trying to stay relaxed whilst experiencing ripples of internal alarm.

The Covid-19 pandemic may exaggerate differences and inequalities, such as the size of people’s homes, how many laptops a household has, or who still has an income. The outbreak of this virulent disease and its consequent societal lockdown may also be a leveller, however.

This pandemic is a lesson in managing one’s own emotions under stress and of working out how to stay resilient and well.

Immersive leadership

Leaders say that the crisis is amplifying the pastoral side of their role. Employees are currently much more open about upset at home or challenges in their work. Such immersive leadership – together with video meetings that zoom straight into an employee’s personal space from yours – can feel uncomfortable, but isn’t a coaching approach to running organisations all about increasing the capacity of those in charge to tolerate discomfort and sit with ambiguity?

Introverted leaders express how draining this is on their energy levels. Others express the opposite – that working from home gives them precious respite from the ‘noise’ of interruption and the feelings of exposure in open-plan office working.

Investing in empathy

Many conversations dwell on empathy for longer than is perhaps usual. This may frustrate, or appear to delay to getting on with the business of the day. It is not. For leaders it is an investment – an investment in relationship, an investment in seeking to understand the other’s position, and an investment in the message that you care. I predict the result will be an increase in commitment and the quality of work done. Think of how important business deals can falter because not enough time was taken in a culturally sensitive way to emotionally invest in the people on the other side of the contract.

In her book Time to Think, Nancy Kline talks about ‘giving time to save time’. Give your people your time, with stillness and calm. You’re investing.

coronavirus hub

Mental elasticity

Kindness really touches people under immense stress. You don’t need to dive in and solve, nor assume that is what is wanted – but you do need to show that you are truly listening. Try to find a mental elasticity within yourself so that you can hold other people’s angst but not hold on to it.

Culture change

We readily adjust our behaviours and expectations when we connect with different cultures, countries or industry sectors, so we should expect to lead differently in the coronavirus context. The culture of pandemic is reformatting the way we work, walk, talk and create. A raft of new boundaries and barriers have sprung up, but so too have a plethora of enablers, from PPE (personal protective equipment) to online learning and meeting formats.

Learning in crisis

This is a fascinating time. If leaders take a moment to consciously pause and reflect on what they are leading through, they will realise how much they are learning about others,  about themselves and about leadership. Too often this learning is lost in the crisis and only analysed afterwards, if at all. Take the time to analyse it now – possibly with a couple of friends who are also leaders, or with a colleague you trust. Ask what you could do differently now because of what you are learning. I wonder what you wish you could ‘bottle’ in terms of your leadership and how your team is functioning now, to deploy once we are out of the Covid-19 emergency.

When lockdown lifts

When the lockdown lifts  – even if it descends again with force, as some predict it may have to – we will have new wisdoms and insights. We’ll know what routines work for us and what resources we need. The right apps and IT will be ready loaded on our screens. We will know how to appropriately prepare. We will be able to trust that there is ‘enough’ – enough food, enough effort, good enough leadership or parenting.

Sitting with ambiguity

Much uncertainty still abounds, but now is the time to note down examples of discomfort and sitting with ambiguity. Think of conversations that have moved you, or ones that have made you squirm. You might consider asking your team for contributions, including their view of what excellence in leadership through a pandemic looks like. Think local. Think global. This is useful reflective practise and self-coaching. It’ll also come in handy at your next job interview.

Think about what meaning these words or phrases have for you at the moment in your role as:

  • Leader
  • Coach
  • Follower

Reflect on their beneath-the-surface connotations. How is Covid-19 changing things?

  • Overwhelm
  • Loneliness
  • Full/empty
  • Interruption
  • Exposure
  • Risk
  • Culture of pandemic
  • Immersive leadership
  • Empathy
  • Energy
  • Drain
  • Investing
  • Lockdown
  • Trust
  • Emotional containment
  • Hold but not ‘hold on to’
  • Sitting with ambiguity
  • Enough
  • Good enough

Replies (1)

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By iainr2012
06th May 2020 08:50

I Love this article. I love the acknowledgement that introverted leaders find that lack of 'noise' easier while working from home. I also have worried from time to time that I spend too much time on the empathy side when, potentially there are deadlines and people are busy and yet, I am realising people really appreciate this aspect of my leadership

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