Panic and pandemic: a series of coaching and leadership conversations – part 7

In this series, leadership coach Rachel Ellison MBE shares a beneath-the-surface approach to what’s going on around us, for leaders and coaches.

Part 7: immersive leadership in lockdown



The pastoral side of being the boss during Covid-19

Some leaders are leading with half their team off sick. Others have a full crew but are mindful of staff who are struggling with the overwhelm of childcare, productivity at work, the need for exercise and shopping that feels fearful and takes ages. Managers are also conscious of employees facing the opposite: loneliness.

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, who still has an income. But the outbreak of this virulent disease and its consequent societal lock-down may also be a leveler: 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 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 teams and organisations all about increasing the capacity of those in charge, to tolerate discomfort and to sit with ambiguity?

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

Investing in empathy

Many conversations dwell in the empathy for longer than usual. This may frustrate. Or appear to delay getting on with the business of the day. But this is the business of the day. Leaders should view these interactions an investment. Investment in relationship. Investment in seeking to understand the other’s position. 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 important business deals that faltered because not enough time was taken to emotionally connect or ‘invest’ in the culture and 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.

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 corona virus context. The culture of pandemic is reformatting the way we work, walk, talk and create. A suite of new boundaries and barriers have sprung up. Ditto, a plethora of enablers from PPE (personal protective equipment) to online learning and meeting fora.

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: learning about others, learning about themselves and learning 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. What do you want to make sure you carry into your leadership post-pandemic?

When lock-down lifts

When the lock-down lifts  – even if it descends again with force, as some predict it may have to – we will have new wisdom 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 which have moved you. Or ones which have made you squirm. You might consider asking your team for contributions, including their view of what excellence in leadership in emergency conditions 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.

Have a 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

–     lock-down

–     trust

–     emotional containment

–     hold but not ‘hold on to’

–     sitting with ambiguity

–     enough

–     good enough


A version of this article first appeared in the online publication Training Zone.

About the author

Rachel Ellison MBE is a former BBC news reporter, now executive leadership coach. Rachel was awarded an honorary doctorate for her book, Global Leadership & Coaching – flourishing under intense pressure at work. She takes a beneath-the-surface psychological approach to leadership challenges and events in the world around us.

Rachel is currently offering short-burst 30 minute virtual ‘emergency coaching’ packages, for leaders and those supporting them during the Covid-19 pandemic.


The Leader’s Way: the art of making the right decisions in our careers, our companies and the world at large.

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