Two former directors general –  now leadership coaches – share their insights into how civil service leaders are navigating the coronavirus crisis and the opportunities for new ways of working

Over the last few weeks, we’ve had the privilege of talking to a cross-section of leaders in the civil service and civil society at large about their role in the Covid 19 response.

Some are sharing responsibility for very big decisions affecting the whole nation. They’re having to anticipate critical decisions coming down the track, and manage a wide range of stakeholders, as well as keeping the public informed and on side.

Some are working to shift their business online, and training their people to work in different ways.


Others are focused on organisational resilience: the long haul of keeping “normal” business on the road, taking decisions on redeployment, managing their finances, and thinking forward into a sustainable future.

And others still are feeling a bit on the periphery as their work has had to be paused, and they’re waiting to see how they can best contribute.

Leading well in these unprecedented times places new demands on our flexibility, resilience, and ability to think in new ways. Everyone needs a level head to make effective decisions – but that only happens if we manage the emotional and physical impact of prolonged pressure.

Just before the crisis broke, we spoke to many senior leaders about what can undermine their resilience, and what strategies help them recover. Nearly everyone talked about warning signs such as not sleeping, feeling exhausted or constantly anxious. They might feel overwhelmed and unable to think straight. Depending on their personality, they could go into command and control overdrive, or be frozen by fear of failure.

 “Many of the leaders we spoke to said that if a decision could be taken by others, they were pleased to delegate it and focus on the things that only they could do”

Successful strategies again depended on personality, but we heard a lot about recognising the triggers, knowing yourself and your anchors, having a sense of purpose, and adopting a positive, yet realistic, mindset. We were struck by how many leaders mentioned breathing and mindfulness techniques, short walks round the building or a burst of exercise as a way of switching off their racing brain for a few minutes.

Leaders knew they needed to stand back regularly and get a sense of perspective. They needed to identify which decisions and actions were critical, and which could wait. If a decision could be taken by others, they were pleased to delegate it and focus on the things that only they could do. They reminded themselves that it’s OK – and often essential – to ask for help. The last thing they wanted was a culture where people thought asking for help was a sign of weakness.

One leader said: “It’s not about you, it’s about the team. As the leader, you take responsibility, but it’s the team who will bring you all through together.” They talked about subsuming individual egos to the common goal, encouraging the best contributions from each other and being committed to each others’ success. They helped each other to contain anxiety and give others’ confidence in their leadership. They remembered the need to put on their own oxygen masks before helping others – and they created moments to celebrate and socialise, even if virtually.

Every crisis brings opportunities. In speaking to civil servants in the last couple of months, we’re hearing that people are far more open to radically different ways of working, and that barriers between departments are coming down. We’ve repeatedly heard comments that more progress has happened in the way data is shared in two weeks than had been assumed would be possible in two years. Digital transformation is being accelerated, and people are rapidly learning about leading and working virtually.

As one of our interviewees said: “I try to look back on a difficult experience and ask myself – how has it made me stronger?” The same might be said for whole organisations.

Read the most recent articles written by Hilary Douglas and Peter Shaw - ‘What is it that can only be done by us?’: preparing your team for a difficult winter

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