How has your leadership been during the pandemic?

As we start to move beyond the initial crisis and head toward a potential rebound phase, it’s a good time to reflect on how you’ve navigated the recent period. In the initial weeks it was interesting to observe how the environment was shifting. It was clear the normal processes of government had been set aside, with all jurisdictions moving to centralise power, largely to speed up decision making. This is a sensible approach given the circumstances, however wouldn’t have been an easy adjustment for many leaders and their teams in the public sector. Acclaimed US author John Maxwell said of leadership, “The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjust the sails”. 


The most effective public sector leaders in recent months will have ‘adjusted the sails’ with the work and chosen the most appropriate leadership approach from their repertoire, enabling them to adapt to the circumstances they’ve faced during this period.


The public service leaders with comfort in demonstrating a sense of urgency, adaptability, being decisive and taking more ‘agency’ than normal would have thrived during this phase. In the normal course of business self aware leaders regularly invest in putting ‘credit in the trust bank’ with their team. Making it a far easier transition to navigate a period when significant stress and pressure ramps up with the work. The leaders that don’t invest in this way usually struggle to lift the discretionary effort of their team when its needed most, reverting to doing much of the work themselves, risking their performance and sustainability.


Our team, peers and broader stakeholders will always observe our leadership behaviour more closely when the pressure is high. If you work off a strong and clear values base as a leader your team will trust the leadership attributes you’ve employed during the crisis period. One useful test is to consider how quickly your team felt empowered to support you with the work during this period. The team members who felt empowered and trusted will have proactively stayed aligned with you over those who were sitting back waiting for direction. One of the obvious patterns emerging is that many leaders across the public sector are exhausted, particularly those closer to the heart of the action (such as those on COVID-19 Taskforces). They have likely been under stress and pressure for an extended period.


One Senior Executive (Band 2) I spoke to has only had one day off in the past couple of months. I worry about his sustainability and performance, even though he is highly capable and a terrific people leader. He’d be fatigued and his performance wouldn’t be at its optimum. He likely hasn’t had the chance to shift from survival mode and consider anything other than a hyperpaced approach to his decision making and broader leadership. His situation is obviously at the extreme end, however isn’t unusual at the moment.


At the other end of the spectrum are the leaders further away from the heart of the COVID- 19 action. Some are feeling like they’ve been left off the party invite list! They have more control of their time and are mostly managing the all important BAU that needs to keep the wheel turning across the public service. Their leadership would have required a more measured and collaborative approach. Many of these leaders have had people in their team redeployed to other parts of the public service that have greater need. It’s easy to feel a little ‘out of the loop’ at this end of the spectrum, however there’s a terrific opportunity to use the extra space to plan for what’s coming and shape the work in a way that wasn’t there before the pandemic.


The ends of these two spectrums highlight the diversity of the current challenge and differing leadership approaches needed. I don’t know anyone that’s sailed seamlessly through this recent period (me included). Most are working remotely, leading virtual teams which adds another layer to their leadership. Good leaders will always find opportunities to pause and consider ways to improve, so take a few minutes to reflect back on your leadership performance over the past month or two.


Your leadership and performance has likely suffered if:


  • conflicting and vague priorities have hindered your team
  • your communication has stymied, with limited flow and cascade
  • feedback loops have fallen by the wayside
  • you haven’t considered the remote working challenges for those in your team.
  • If they’ve needed to juggle home schooling, flexibility with their work would be crucial.
  • you’ve become burnt out or you’ve burnt out your best people
  • you’ve blamed others for mistakes or fostered patch protection.

Your leadership and performance will be in reasonable shape if you’ve achieved results by providing:


  • regular communication, clarity about expectations and what success looks like
  • alignment with purpose and priorities, where possible
  • support for your boss to allow them more scope to manage broader expectations
  • empowerment of others through effective delegation
  • positive role modelling of your leadership behaviours
  • collaboration and sharing across traditional boundaries
  • professional working relationships with peers and stakeholders remain intact.

What leadership adjustments will you make as you look ahead to the challenges on the horizon?

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