Let’s call it “pandemic fatigue”. During the first lockdown (and to a lesser extent the second) leaders and managers were forced into new ways of working – creative, flexible and focused on leading from the front approach to keep teams functioning.
But as we climb out of the third lockdown, and with ongoing economic uncertainty, leaders are being asked to draw on increasingly depleted pools of resilience. In short, their teams are exhausted, and so are they.
The first lockdown was fuelled by adrenaline – our leadership styles might best be categorised as “arousal” – a fight response that we find in a war footing. It relies on being highly alert, and creates a response that is almost impulsive, and recognisable across organisations and industries.
We are seeing a widespread burnout socially and domestically – exercise equipment lies gathering dust, family zoom calls have lost their shimmer, and the attraction of banana bread has very much faded. The same is true of the workplace. We all have a renewed appreciation of the office and of the casual, almost gentle, interactions we have with our teams every day without having to schedule a call.
But even as the vaccine offers us the prospect of light at the end of the tunnel, the aftershocks of the pandemic mean that now there needs to be a new understanding of leadership resilience. Rather than arousal we need perseverance, endurance, and even defiance against the randomness, gloom, and burden of the pandemic. And as leaders we need to focus on how our actions can lift our teams, as much as ourselves.
A good place to start is moving on from the fire drill mentality and turn the short-term momentum into long-term advantages. By re-focusing our teams on ideas for the future, we can begin to take decisions now that will offer long term benefits for the business. If business as usual is a thing of the past – what could our business look like in the future? With so many of the usual constraints cast aside, we have an opportunity unlike any other generation of leaders to re-invent what we do, and how we do it.
We have to regenerate a sense of agency and ownership in our teams and we can only do this if we enable our people to be part of determining what the future looks like and how we will build a thriving organisation in that frame.
Secondly, leaders need to be clear about the difference between being compassionate versus consistent. Compassion is important and organisations of course have to establish new ways of working that recognise the situation we all find ourselves in. But we also need the ability to observe and absorb what is going on around you and provide a sense of stability. A “keep calm and carry on” mentality. Stability comes from setting limits, keeping the pressure at the right level, and helping our people snap out of apathy.
There is a desperate need for specific and actionable communication — what to do now and how to get through, rather than top-level speeches about how we are all in the same storm. This in itself helps to re-energize everyone – focusing on sharing success stories, on wins, breaking long projects into sprints. There is a tendency to let things drag on – leaders need to be brutal - shortening endless zoom meetings, killing off zombie projects, and encouraging constructive debate within your teams.
We may not know the disruptive effect of Covid-19 for years to come. Long Covid isn’t limited to just the physical – there’s also damage to mental health, regression on social issues like gender and ethnic equality and loss of whole sectors of the economy. How we lead, and how we enable others to lead over the next few months, will make the difference between surviving and thriving – for our organisations and ourselves.