Leadership Lessons from Home: 5 Things Leaders Should Do

Posted in : Supplementary Articles NI on 15 May 2020
Deborah Sloan
Ulster University
Issues covered:

As a mum of four daughters (two teenagers, one pre-teen and a nine-year-old), one of the best things I did at the start of lockdown was not to start home schooling. I realised that in the midst of all this disruption, I had no desire to also fail as a teacher and that really academic achievement was probably the least of my worries. If my productivity was low, I could hardly expect theirs to be better. If I was disorientated about lockdown, then they probably were too.

So, in the first couple of weeks of lockdown, my priority was quite simply to re-orientate my girls and create an environment which would enable them to thrive as best as possible during this new way of living. We had a bit of a running joke in our house where I would regularly pop into their various rooms during the day, not to check on what school work they were doing but rather to ask “How is your social and emotional well-being”. When explaining on the first few occasions what this meant, I would just say “Are you ok?”. I was like the friendly boss popping her head around the door!

In my house, I am the leader, I set the tone. If I am calm, then those around me are also likely to be too. If I am consistent, then everyone understands how we do things. If I am demanding, I am likely to meet resistance.

So, what does my life at home have to do with leading an organisation? Well, it’s the only place I see at the moment (!) but like my role leading at home, the role of all leaders is quite simply to look after their people and help them to perform at their best. Normally, this would include articulating a vision, having a plan and steering everyone purposefully towards this but those plans may require a little adjustment at the moment.

I am certainly not suggesting that leaders manage their employees like children (you may want to give them some credit in terms of their maturity) but that there is something powerful in how you set the tone which will cascade through an organisation and determine the ok-ness of people at this time.

For one thing, it is likely that your communication strategy will make or break the situation. It will probably be the decider between people feeling emotionally stable or emotionally unstable. If you are a leader of a large organisation reliant on a PR department to construct or deliver your messages to staff, you may want to carefully consider if those messages are really grasping where your staff are currently at.

Here are my five leadership lessons for anyone who has been given the privilege of leading others during this crisis.

Talk to people

Every day, I still ask my children how they are. Over the last few weeks, no one responsible for leading me has asked me how I am. Generally, I am fine but that’s not the point. Alongside my ‘day job’ in a large University, I lead its women’s network. If you are expecting someone to lead something in your organisation, check in on them.

Due to the cancellation of our network’s planned programme from March through to June, one of the first things I did was set up regular half-hour chat sessions on Zoom with topics including dealing with home learning guilt, establishing good habits for the working day, feeling disconnected and generally struggling with lockdown.

These chats were never about providing solutions, they were just about opening up conversation, encouraging people to talk to each other and realise they weren’t on their own. Many just valued the opportunity to talk about themselves rather than a pre-arranged agenda.

So leaders, if possible make your day less about meetings and more about conversations. Talk to people and ask them how they are. Then listen to what they say. Nothing more than that.

Set the reality

When my children ask, I say I do not know when lockdown will end, I have no idea when they will get back to school. In the workplace, do not use this time to try to predict the future and put plans in place which may never come to fruition.

Over and above everything else, leaders need to set the reality. I will accept that you do not have the answers and that there may be tough business decisions to make. At the moment, no one knows the future, yes not even you. All you need to do is explain that this is today’s plan but tomorrow, it may be different. I would prefer your stubborn optimism that we will do our best in the context of an unknown outcome rather than your attempts to control the uncontrollable.

Show your emotions

My children have cried tears of frustration over the last two months. They are missing their friends, social activities, their sport. It hasn’t all been plain sailing. What is really helpful for people at this time is to hear from leaders that they too are facing struggles, feeling demotivated, maybe even occasionally, feeling angry and disappointed.

What works well is authentic selective vulnerability. If you are leading me, I don’t need to see you crying, this is not a counselling session, but I definitely do need to see you being real. Tell me that some days are a struggle for you. Tell me you can’t get motivated but that you are trying. Tell me you are exhausted from video calls. Tell me your favourite part of the day is closing down your laptop and going out for a walk in the fresh air.

If expressing your emotions isn’t self-focused but rather is intended to encourage or move people forward, then it is absolutely key that you do this.

Give me connection, not information

There is a real danger at the moment of giving employees lots and lots of information, communicating everything but with no clear overall intention. With levels of concentration at their lowest levels, I am unlikely to process very little of these communications unless I can specifically connect them to me. In my organisation, there has been a focus on sharing new structural changes, but without the context of seeing the face to face impact of these, it feels untimely and more likely to create anxiety than stability.

One excellent way of creating connection is through stories. Over the next few weeks, our women’s network is planning a series of ‘Life in Lockdown’ sessions with a number of our senior leaders. During these online chats, they will candidly share their stories of how they are experiencing lockdown, the issues they have faced, how they are preparing for life after lockdown and what they have learned about leadership. The intention behind these is to create a connected community, a sense that we are all in this together.

Be consistent

Finally, one of the main ways we have coped as a family of six living in such close proximity for two months has been through the consistency of how we navigate each day. Whilst, academic learning is not a priority, we do have a daily structure with a number of rules — everybody must breakfast by 9am, each child is responsible for preparing lunch one day a week, no one disturbs their parents during certain hours and screen time should be managed sensibly!

If, as leaders, you are pushing out guidance to your staff, ensure this is consistent. If you are advocating home life must come first at all times, then don’t expect everyone to be glued to their laptops from 9 to 5 every day. If you are pontificating that it is ok not to be as productive as before, don’t ask for that document to be with you in the next hour. Mixed messages are just confusing.

Leadership is hard and it is especially hard during these times but for those who lift the challenge and do it well, it will bring its own reward! And if nothing else, try these lessons at home!


This article is correct at 15/05/2020

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Deborah Sloan
Ulster University

The main content of this article was provided by Deborah Sloan. Contact telephone number is +44 28 9036 6097 or email dj.sloan@ulster.ac.uk

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