Pandemic leadership: I didn’t sign up for this

In the early stages of the global pandemic, Lisa landed the job of her dreams, overseeing an international team of communication specialists who are rock stars in their field. Lisa has spent years preparing herself for the role, even taking on extra assignments to learn about parts of the business she wouldn’t normally be exposed to in the daily course of her duties.

I’ve known her for a number of years and have watched Lisa grow into a committed and accomplished leader. She isn’t afraid to do the work required for success.

Recently, Lisa contacted me for help with developing her team. “They don’t know me, and I don’t know them, since I’m new to this position. What can we do to turn this geographically dispersed group of professionals into a high-performing team that feels valued?”

Together, we agreed that a good start would be exposing the team to work that would reveal their passions and help them apply those passions to their roles. We would follow this with one-to-one coaching for each person and include action planning that allowed them to connect their passions to professional and personal goals. My discussions with employees revealed the totality of the challenge that Lisa was up against.

During the individual action planning sessions, I learned that several employees were new to the organization and hadn’t integrated with the team. In fact, due to the pandemic, they’d never met their co-workers in person. Other, longer-serviced employees revealed that they didn’t have a positive relationship with Lisa’s predecessor and received little in the way of professional development. They coped with the situation by segregating themselves and interacting with each other on an infrequent basis.

Needless to say, these same employees were a bit skeptical about their new manager and what might be required of them under her leadership.

Most significantly, I found many on the team to be exhausted and downtrodden. A number were in countries where the threat of COVID-19 loomed large because vaccines were not readily available. They had been largely confined to their homes for nearly 18 months.

More than half of the team members were also having significant problems in their personal lives, from health issues to pending divorces to depression, all while battling to keep up with the unrelenting pace of a demanding organization. Individually, the serious issues they were coping with would have been a blow to anyone’s psyche, but these employees, like many others, were trying to manage personal challenges and a global pandemic simultaneously.

The toll it was taking was evident. I watched individuals struggling to hold it together emotionally while working with me on their action plans. Tears were shed, and I watched as even the most stoic employees took deep breaths and swallowed hard as they shared their experiences.

I thought about Lisa’s challenge with leading this team and was reminded of a scene from “The Wizard of Oz.” In it, Dorothy arrives in Oz with her faithful dog, surveys her surroundings and says, “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

As a leader in these uncertain times, you aren’t either.

I sat down with Lisa to review my recommendations for her team and discuss what she might need to do in the short term to deal with the pain her team was experiencing. As I shared my concerns about the overall well-being of each team member, Lisa began to sink in her chair.

“I didn’t sign up for this,” she said. “I’m barely keeping my own life together through this pandemic and now we have the additional threat of the Delta variant, just when I thought we might be coming out of this. I’m working ridiculous hours with a team that’s spread all over the world. I feel like I’ve been taught how to be a leader, but managing this kind of prolonged global crisis was not in any management book I studied.”

Lisa is facing the same leadership dilemma that so many of my clients have been grappling with for more than a year: how do you lead when the pain is coming from every angle? It’s the kind of leadership challenge that few of us are prepared to handle. It requires dialing back the egoic mentality that we can singlehandedly do anything that the job requires. Most of us can’t manage this new set of leadership realities, at least not without help.

I suggested to Lisa that she keep three guidelines in mind as she navigates the next few months with her new team. They apply to every leader who’s facing a similar situation.


Remember, your first responsibility is to yourself. You can’t lead well if you’re not taking care of your own needs and your own health. It’s never been more important to take time for exercise, healthy meals and down time. Set a specific schedule for working hours that you adhere to, one that allows more normalcy in your life, even when everything around you seems anything but. These are the best behaviors you can model for your team. Encourage them to follow your good example.

Seek support

Your job is to lead, to develop and to set the vision for the way forward. Your role is not to become the therapist for your team. Encourage any member of your team who needs it to seek professional support and do the same for yourself. Managing the impact of another’s pain is no easy task. Seek support and guidance from professionals so that you don’t end up carrying the emotional load of another person’s difficulties — you’ve got enough of your own.


Nearly every organization I’ve worked with in the last 18 months has increased the pace and demand it is requiring of employees. In the beginning of the global crisis, there was an “all-hands-on-deck” mentality in most organizations, and rightfully so. Companies were trying figure out how to survive and needed all of the brainpower in the organization focused on that objective.

But those same companies are still running in crisis mode. Every day for 18 months they have operated like a hospital emergency room treating crash victims from a 30-car pileup. This kind of pace is unsustainable, and it’s up to you to change it.

Begin by establishing “no meeting zones” and “no call hours” in your weekly team schedule. Give your people time to breathe, time to think and time to decompress. You’ll end up with a far more resilient team when you make space for reflection and focus.

As a leader, it’s your job to manage the environment your employees are experiencing, which is even more difficult when the environment is not the office. If you’re wondering what actions you can take to introduce a modicum of sanity into your daily work experience and that of your team, begin by slowing down.

This article was first published in SmartBrief on Leadership, August 2021.

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