Written by Helen Trevaskis, Associate of Wavelength
Illustration by The Trevaskis Illustration
As lockdown eases, the devastating impact of COVID-19 is being assessed by organisations struggling to survive. But how do leaders factor in the existential hurt they and those they lead may be feeling, and can doing this help us find better ways forward?
I’m not sure who will have jobs to go back to…. Being furloughed makes you feel redundant already… No one thought to ask me how I was… There was the adrenalin of the speed of change at first, but now it’s just hard graft… I’m scared to go to an office full of people… Everything has changed…
Most of us have heard comments like these since COVID-19 hit, comments which remind us that the trauma of Coronavirus is profound as it calls into question our most fundamental beliefs. Despite this, as the country falteringly opens up, businesses may be anxious to attend to bruised and broken business models, rather than focusing first on the purpose of their organisation and their bruised and broken people - arguably the right and better start point. But for those leaders prepared to put people first, where can they find guidance given few HR departments have an off-the-shelf pandemic-ready approach and leaders are as likely as employees to be suffering?
The COVID-19 pandemic is the largest global event since World War II and the situation it places us in is often likened to war including by those who should know, like former army Colonel turned corporate security advisor Stuart Tootal. Stuart led the first British unit to be sent into Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan in 2006, a mission that began as peace support but ended with 3PARA, the unit he led, engaged in combat of an intensity not seen by the British Army since the Korean War. Stuart has taken the skill and aptitude for managing extreme risk developed in the services into the corporate world and is acutely aware of the need to tackle the psychological, as well as the structural, costs of Coronavirus. In a recent webinar for members of Wavelength Connect, Stuart talked about the importance of leaders realising that while what’s going on now might be unprecedented it is precisely what they are paid for, to “lead when many others are suffering”, even if they are suffering too.
Another speaker on Wavelength Connect 2020, Drew Povey helps organisations transform through leadership drawing on his experience in education and particularly his involvement in turning around Harrop Fold School, once dubbed ‘the worst school in Britain’ by Ofsted. Drew agrees with Stuart that the first step is for leaders to take responsibility. He also has thoughts on what to do next. These are rooted in his own painful experience of going from star of the BAFTA award winning TV series Educating Greater Manchester, about Harrop Fold, to suspension and resignation from his role as Executive Head in a matter of months. Drawing careful parallels between what leaders face now and what he went through, Drew suggests that, “the hidden gem in resilience is curiosity, it’s actually understanding why you’re at the bottom.” Stuart agrees leaders must take time to "understand" before acting even though perfect information, in war as in the war on COVID-19, is never available.
Curiosity is the strong desire to learn or know something and engaging it in relation to the psychosocial impacts of COVID-19 means asking difficult questions and making space to listen to difficult answers. It also means accepting the mixed emotions many employees may be experiencing, particularly where they feel let down by employers, over-worked and over-whelmed, yet grateful to have a job.
One place to find guidance is from leaders who’ve faced crises, reflected and learned. Leaders like Drew whose reflections on his own role in his unhappy exit taught him that in examining what has happened it’s important to seek acceptance not blame. And leaders like Stuart who turned his back on a cherished military career unable to accept systematic underfunding that saw soldiers sent to war without the kit they needed and forgotten when they returned.
While their experiences may not map directly onto what leaders face right now the insights they draw from them give us clues about what matters and what might help, including purpose. For Drew this was about ‘making the difference’ by doing what was right for the futures of the young people at Harrop Fold and for the impoverished communities most hail from. For Stuart this was about putting the rights and lives of his men first, ahead of his own career.
In the face of post-pandemic economic devastation, purpose-driven leadership feels hard - maybe impossible. Yet when so many of us feel so lost purpose can provide an ethical and practical North Star, a way to make meaning in the ‘new normal’ and something for leaders to draw strength from as they face into the hurt.