Leadership stories from navigating the COVID-19 crisis

One of my coaching clients said to me recently: “There’s no guidebook for how to lead during something like this”. Well, whilst there are some materials and theories for crisis leadership when an organisation is in crisis, they don’t seem to quite cover the scope of the global crisis we find ourselves in with COVID-19.

The theme of most of my coaching client work has been the same during this last month: how can I lead most effectively during this challenging time? What I noticed is that majority of the senior leaders I am working with shared some common patterns when it came to what they are doing, and these patterns also align with some of the materials I have been reading. I hope that by sharing some of these themes and stories, you may gain some insight and inspiration from them.

The first thing that became clear was that there is a strong sense of people pulling together to keep going. Whilst business as usual may not be achievable, our innate human resilience and a mindset of “the show must go on” means that people are striving to find ways to continue with business as unusual.

Leading through the present circumstances


How are you? The need for social connection is more important than ever, given the extent of physical isolation and homeworking. In one of my previous articles, I shared aspects of David Rock’s SCARF model which describes some of our basic human needs. One of the elements of the model is “relatedness” and, when social isolation is high, nurturing support and rapport are very important for maintaining morale and a sense of connection. Starting with social interaction and establishing buddying and networking mechanisms, help people to feel more resourced and ready to engage in the business matters of the day. In coaching we call this: “contact before contract”. Here are examples of how some of my clients are doing this:

  • Starting each morning with a team briefing that begins with a 15-minute social catch up and check in before discussing the day’s agenda.
  • Team lunch breaks: getting together on zoom or other platform to have lunch together to simply eat and talk.
  • Ending the day with a check out and an open space to share how people are feeling.
  • Ending the week with a “quick drink after work”, albeit on zoom!

Up front: Honesty and transparency are important as facts minimise fear (see the section on mental health below). Being open and honest provide an all-important level of trust, safety and credibility. Another aspect of the SCARF model is “certainty” and, when so much is uncertain, regular updates of clear and truthful information help people to stay stable and engaged.

Up to date: We may be more used to giving organisational or departmental updates and briefings on a quarterly or monthly basis. However, in the current circumstances these timeframes are simply too long and pointless as so much is changing daily. Therefore, the daily “scrum” approach is far more helpful in ensuring that people have the latest information and feel more connected and supported at the same time.

Leadership practices:

More 1-1s: Linking to the notes above on communication, my clients are sharing that they have increased the frequency of their 1-1 conversations with their team members and that this has been helpful on both a personal and professional level.

3 touch points each day: Once again, we see a theme here of increased frequency and shorter timeframes for interaction with colleagues.

Push-pull balance: Several leaders have noted how they have really found the “pull” coaching style of leadership very useful in engaging others, making them feel valued, heard, involved and engaged.

Purpose/direction: As noted above, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding our current circumstances at the moment, both personally and professionally. This makes giving clear direction for the future very difficult when things may have changed significantly by the very next day. This means that our timeframes for many activities need to be so much shorter. Daily briefings with clarity of focus and direction for that week, or even for that day can be very helpful in helpful people to feel a level of certainty around their immediate future.

Leaders mindset: More than ever before, your own mindset, thoughts and feelings are critical to how effectively you will lead. This means that your self-care and support mechanisms are vital to underpin your leadership at this time. Almost all of my clients have shared that their level of self-care, especially through some form of exercise, has increased and become a critical part of their current routine to keep them resourced for their leadership role. In addition, the nature and quality of your own thinking can significantly help or hinder how you lead each day. This has been by far the main topic for conversation that my coaching clients have been bringing into their work with me as they more proactively and regularly engage in the quality of their leadership mindset. I have shared some perspectives on this area of mindset and what choices and decisions we make around this situation in one of my previous articles.

Rituals and routines: When so much is different, what could stay the same? Helping yourself and others to find useful daily routines and rituals can provide a small and yet precious sense of “normality”. For example, one of my clients found that the complete move to working from home meant that many usual habits and boundaries were gone. The day became an open, fluid space with very little structure compared to before. Whilst at first this felt a bit like an extended weekend and was welcomed as it felt quite liberating and flexible, it soon became a source of angst, as the freedom and flexibility were replaced by a lack of focus, clarity and structure. This leader concluded that a few routines and rituals needed to be put back in place for them to feel “in my right head for work”. They decided to make the following adjustments:

  • Get up at the usual time and spend the time that would have been taken commuting to work doing some exercise instead
  • Dress for work: the novelty of working in home-wear soon wore off and the shift to back work-wear led to an uplift of mood, energy, focus and purpose. Getting changed back into home-wear at the end the day was also another important ritual. When the leader shared what they had done with their team, most of the team members felt the same way and they all decided to do it and even re-introduced “dress-down Friday” which became something of a treat again.
  • Start the day with a planning exercise: the more open, fluid day had meant the leader had stopped their usual rigour of starting the day with 10-minutes of planning – as soon as this was reinstated, the day felt more structured and focused
  • Set a time to stop work for the day: once again, the fluidity and lack of normal time boundaries meant the leader was working at times that would normally have been ring-fenced for family or personal time. This is something that I have heard a lot in recent weeks and people are reporting that they are working much longer hours and getting very tired and “zoom-fatigued”. Reinstating time boundaries for various parts of the day and ensuring that regular breaks are still honoured made a big difference to how the leader felt and how they performed.

Leading towards the new normal

For this section, I would like to focus on two aspects. One is a caution and the other is an opportunity.

The caution:

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently published a very interesting article about the psychological effects of large-scale lockdown. Apart from the impact of people’s lives and physical wellbeing, one of the other very difficult effects of this pandemic is the impact on local and global economies. There are many reports surfacing which indicate the possibility of significant economic recession as a result of this period in our history. This means that, when the immediate health challenge of the pandemic has passed and organisations and businesses reopen, we will need an “all hands to the deck” approach to get the economy moving again in the hope of avoiding or at least minimising the crushing impact of economic recession or even depression.

However, the caution here is that it is not only an economic depression that we may experience. History shows that the aftermath of disaster and trauma can lead to significant challenges to the mental health of those involved. The WEF article indicates that we may experience a secondary epidemic that is a wave of burnout and stress-related conditions that could lead to raised levels of absenteeism and attrition and general illness. All this, at a time when our resources, energy and contributions are most needed to help economic recovery.

Here is a brief summary of what another WEF article advocates to help mitigate against mental health challenges:

Facts minimise fear: The facts need to be from credible and reliable sources (see the notes on communication above)

Always return to yourself: What’s mine and what not? Leaders may come into contact with a lot of other people’s stress during times of crisis and it’s important for them to stay grounded and be able to process their own feelings. As I mentioned above, this has been the main topic for my coaching client of late.

Social isolation is strongly associated with poor mental health: Try to minimise the impact of social isolation with some of the following:

  • Regular social connection opportunities with colleagues
  • Daily routines (timings, attire, work habits)
  • Structures
  • Exercise

Invite a shift away from reporting on the problems and the disaster towards reporting on success stories and the future: In the general media, we still see on a daily basis a trend of reporting on the number of deaths as a result of COVID-19 and yet the strong recommendation is to report more on the number of recoveries. This same principle applies to the workplace – What is going well? What are the stories of fun and innovation? What are the examples of progress and breakthrough?

The opportunity:

In a previous post, I invite the question: What is the opportunity that is being presented to us? Alongside all of the unwelcomed challenges that people, businesses and organisations are facing, there are also many examples of incredible innovation and adjustment that have been triggered by this experience.

The most effective leaders I have been coaching all have one eye on getting through the current situation and the other firmly focused on the future. Here are some of the questions they are contemplating:

  • How can I project my attention towards the new normal and proactively design it rather than just wait for it to unfold?
  • What might go back to the way it was before?
  • What will not go back to the way it was before?
  • What is better now than it was before, that I want to keep and develop further?
  • What else needs to change given what we now know?

Some of my clients have talked about three “REs”:

  • Repurposing – A property management company felt that their business may collapse as so much homeworking could lead to some of their office buildings never being utilised in the same way or to the same extent ever again. They then found themselves thinking differently and have begun a new venture for their buildings to be used for housing and community services instead.
  • Redistribution – One small business owner concluded that there will be no need to go back to having a central office function and has decided to let the office block go and redistribute those funds towards helping staff have better homeworking and networking equipment and facilities.
  • Readjusting – Several leaders have noted examples of innovation from their teams to work around the current circumstances. When these changes are framed as solutions rather than inconveniences, people have engaged with them more effectively and even developed them further.

What can you take from these leadership stories to help you be the most effective leader you can be at this time?

Tracy Sinclair, MCC

Tracy Sinclair is a multi-award-winning Master Certified Coach (MCC) with the International Coaching Federation (ICF). She is also a trained Coaching Supervisor, Mentor Coach and ICF Assessor. Tracy trains coaches and works with managers and leaders to develop their coaching capability. She works as an international Corporate Executive and Board Level Coach, a leadership development designer and facilitator working with a wide range of organisations. Tracy also specialises in working with organisations to support them develop coaching culture. Tracy has co-authored a book Becoming a Coach: The Essential ICF Guide published in 2020 which provides a comprehensive guide to coaching for coaches at all levels of skill and experience, the psychology that underpins coaching and the updated ICF Core Competency Model. In this same year she founded Coaching with Conscience which exists to have a positive impact on society and our environment through coaching. As part of this work, she collaborates closely with MIND, the UK’s leading mental health charity and the British Paralympic Association (BPA). She also offers pro bono personal development and coaching programmes to young leaders (18-25-yrs). Tracy was named as one of the Leading Global Coach winners of the Thinkers50 Marshall Goldsmith Awards of 2019 and was a finalist for the Thinkers50 Coaching and Mentoring Award in 2021. She won the ICF Impact Award for Distinguished Coach in 2023 and is a member of the Marshall Goldsmith 100 Coaches. She was the President of the UK ICF from 2013-2014 and was an ICF Global Board Director since 2016, serving as Treasurer in 2017, Global Chair in 2018 and Immediate Past Global Chair in 2019 and Vice Chair and Director at Large on the International Coaching Federation Global Enterprise Board in 2021.

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