Reimagining Leadership in Light of the Pandemic

Reimagining Leadership in Light of the Pandemic

There are few organisations that have not been challenged and forced to adapt in the face of the pandemic. Whether it was finding new ways to serve customers or shifting a workforce to remote working, leaders have had to deliver rapid and often dramatic change.

To get to the heart of the impact of the pandemic on leaders, we made it the topic of our June leadership Foundation event and invited leaders from various sectors to join us to discuss. This article summarises the key themes, takeaways and discussions from the morning. A huge thank you to all of the leaders who participated and shared their personal experiences.

Key themes and takeaways


With the first lockdown, the pandemic demolished the line between work and home life, and for many, juggling the two became a challenging balancing act. We saw much more of our colleagues’ personal lives than ever before, and as interruptions in zoom meetings became the norm, we became more forgiving, more empathetic to each other’s circumstances.

Takeaway: As you move forward beyond the pandemic, keep empathy as a guiding principle to help you find the best solution for each individual on your team. Most importantly, be forgiving of each other (and yourself!). The pandemic has quite literally changed how our brains function and we will all need to do some relearning and adjusting as we move forwards.


It is not unreasonable to say that the pandemic dramatically changed how we communicate with colleagues, friends and family. Video calls challenged our brains, and we were forced to work much harder to connect. Communication became much more deliberate, and the limitations drove new thinking and creativity when it came to connecting both socially and for work.

Takeaway: Maintain the progress made during the last year and continue to think carefully about your communications as a leader and an organisation. Include some of the new ways that you found effective during the pandemic and don’t forget the importance of those casual chats or check-ins – our brains really benefit from them.

Leading through and beyond the pandemic

At this leadership Foundation event, we had the pleasure of being joined by James Needham, COO at Help for Heroes. James shared candid reflections of his leadership experience during the pandemic, on both a personal and organisational level. While this was not the first time Help for Heroes has navigated dramatic change, like many organisations, Covid-19 accelerated thinking and pushed its leaders to make bolder decisions than perhaps they would have previously.

Key themes from this session and the lively discussion that followed, include:  

Be ‘relentlessly focussed’

A brilliant phrase from James that captured the laser focus with which the leadership team guided the organisation through change. For Help for Heroes, this was being relentlessly focussed on two key areas: 

  1. improving outcomes for beneficiaries and 

  2. supporting the business’ main asset – their brilliant team of people.

This mindset can be a hugely useful approach to identify and block out distractions and concentrate on what is important to you (as an organisation, team or individual).

Support your brilliant team of people

Many tips, strategies and ideas were shared from leaders across various sectors on how their organisation’s approach changed as a result of the pandemic. Here are some of the initiatives and adjustments that worked well:

  • Dialling up leadership communications and messages, sharing certainty when it was available and admitting when you don’t have all the answers

  • Putting team managers in control to make decisions for their teams, overtly empowering them as the experts

  • Introducing a listening programme to encourage employees to make their voice heard

  • Revisiting and improving the induction process to onboard new starters successfully when working remotely

  • Improving flexible working options and empowering people to do their best work in a way that suits them

  • Sharing success stories to remind people of the organisation’s purpose and the impact of the work they do

Deliberately create social connections

More than any other topic, it was building social connections that came up as an area of concern and progress for leaders during the pandemic. This is not surprising given our social brains' need for community and the loss of the casual interactions that would have occurred naturally in an office. Here are some of the tips shared:

  • Mix initiatives from HR with those driven by team members to offer choice and flexibility

  • Small informal connections are key. Don't underestimate the power of a quick message to ask ‘how are you?’

  • Routine meetings or check-ins to connect can help to stop negative self-talk and/or worry that occurs when individuals are left alone with nobody to talk things through with

  • Creating formal opportunities for socialising are needed but don’t worry if you don't always get as much buy-in as you would expect. Sometimes having the option available for individuals is enough.

  • Relying on technology to facilitate socialising forces you to be creative. Embrace the opportunity!

  • Different ways of connecting or socialising will appeal to different people. As a Manager, make sure you find the ones that work for each of your team members.

  • Ritualising celebration supports engagement. Successful celebration initiatives shared included:

    • Creating an agenda item on a team meeting for celebration or ear-marking a day for it each month e.g. ‘thank you Thursday’

    • Sending postcards, video messages or certificates to each other to show appreciation

    • Inviting clients and employees to share their success stories and anecdotes (no story too small!) in a particular place or forum for the wider organisation to see

What a year of lockdown has done to our brains

It may be too early to know the full effects of the pandemic on our brains but there is no doubt that it has had an impact. As our brains are constantly adapting and reconfiguring in response to new environments, it is unsurprising that the shift to living most of our lives online has changed how our brains work. Dr Eagleman, who teaches brain plasticity at Stanford University, goes as far as to say that "the amount of change our brains have gone through in this one year is so much more than any other normal one-year period in our adult lives" (The Times, A year of life online: What it’s done to your brain). How have our brains changed?

Our memory isn't as good as it used to be

The monotony of lockdown has affected our memory. The hippocampus (the part of the brain associated with memory) needs variation and novelty to fully engage. Doing pretty much the same thing every day, in the same place, has hindered this part of our brain and made us more forgetful as a result. The first area to go when it comes to memory is word-finding - so don’t be surprised if your verbal fluency has reduced or you just can’t remember the name for that thingamabob over there.

We have had the opportunity to re-evaluate life

The pandemic has thrown new challenges at our brains and knocked it off of its default path of least resistance. Being forced into rewiring may not feel comfortable but it has given our brains some space to think differently. This is good news for our brain health and has allowed us to re-evaluate our values and what we want out of life.

Our brains miss in-person social chit-chat

Without the casual breaks and social chit-chat that naturally occurred in the office, our brains are missing a much-needed break between intense periods of work communications. Combine this with an increase in screen time, back-to-back meetings, and the extra strain video calls put on our brains and we have ‘Zoom fatigue’. This extra strain occurs as our brains have to try and decipher communication with far fewer inputs (such as non-verbal clues) than they would receive in person. They are constantly trying to fill in the missing gaps.

Our body clocks are confused

At the beginning of the pandemic, stress, anxiety, and disrupted schedules played havoc with our brains and levels of insomnia increased significantly. Experts even gave the phenomenon a name - ‘coronasomnia’. As working from home became the norm, a lack of daylight and an increased exposure to blue light (from screens) at all times of day continues to disrupt the body’s circadian rhythm.

Our attention spans have reduced

Already on the downward trend thanks to mobile phones and social media, working from home has made our attention spans even worse. By centring our workday even further around technology, our brains are more susceptible to interference from that email, text message or Twitter notification. Research has also suggested that there is added temptation of distraction while working from home, as there is nobody else around you to check on what you are doing. Similarly, on a video meeting (especially with your video turned off) you can easily check your phone or send emails without anybody noticing.

About the First Ascent Foundation

The First Ascent Foundation brings leaders together to share and discuss the latest ideas and solutions around a contemporary leadership subject.

Foundation workshops create the opportunity for new learning and sharing of experiences amongst leaders committed to excellence and excited about progress and improvement.

In-person events typically start with an evening meal, allowing you to meet your fellow attendees in a relaxed environment. A full-day workshop then follows on the next day with contributions from guest speakers, an insight into the latest thinking and science around the topic, interactive practical activities and peer discussion. Online events do not include the networking meal beforehand (we will let you know when we’ve figured a good way to do that virtually!) but follow a similar format, condensing the event into a few hours. 

Launched in 2009, the Foundation is a not-for-profit initiative and presents events every year, each themed on a different aspect of leadership. Find out more about the Foundation.


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