Resetting the relationship between local and national government. Read our Local Government White Paper

April 2020: Resilience and leadership during COVID-19

I have been through some major challenges in my time, and I know my limits. But I do have them. And so do my team. So it got me thinking about how we can be more resilient leaders.

Jim McManus

Jim McManus OCDS is Director of Public Health at Herts County Council and Vice President of the Association of Directors of Public Health

Unfortunately, the epidemic of COVID19 could bring with it an epidemic of mental health issues.  It has come with a tidal wave of communication, new working practices, anxieties, fear, loneliness, the loss of loved ones and almost every bit of normal life. Coping with very different and uncertain worlds at home and at work will bring many stresses for us. How do we avoid going under?

I am very resilient, I have been through some major challenges in my time, and I know my limits. But I do have them. And so do my team. So it got me thinking about how we can be more resilient leaders.

Numerous well intentioned “thought leaders” have sent me and a lot of my colleagues things about leadership and how to lead during these times. Some is useful. A lot isn’t. I don’t want to be getting an email asking, “will you be a good or bad leader during this time?” I feel like replying “thanks, when I’ve finished leading through this almighty mess, I’ll be sure to find the time then to read it and get back to you about how rubbish a job I’ve done.”

But there are some crucial leadership skills for these times. Among them is the under-rated balancing act of being able to hold your nerve and your humanity while at the same time recognising your loss and uncertainty. A second is discerning with others the way forward, communicating it, and knowing how to act as a piece in a jigsaw where everyone has a role to play. We’re not in uncharted waters but it doesn’t mean your average leadership thinker has the blueprint either.

I am drawing daily on lessons I learned the hard way, in my twenties, when people I loved started dying in numbers. In the 1980s and 1990s I cared for and lost many friends from HIV, before the current treatments we have now. I lived under its shadow and lost many people.

I remember the news hysteria. I attended many funerals, endured a great deal of discrimination and went through pressure and stress which looking back is hard to fathom how I survived. But I did. Those lessons I learned the hard way are helping me today. I want to share them with you. 

Develop a strong instinct separating the helpful from the hype and the hokum and be mindful of this in your own communications

The truth is human beings like certainty and our current situation, especially in local government, is fast moving with lots of unknowns but there are things we can do to feel calmer about our circumstances. Know when to turn the news off. I limit myself to an hour a day. More doesn’t help make sense of this, and the news media are of variable quality. One poorly informed journalist monstering a not very well informed “expert” a day is enough for anyone.  And switch off your social media half an hour before bed. Nothing is so important that you can’t sleep.

Develop the skills to keep yourself safe and functioning

Self-care, and make sure others do it. You can’t care for others if you can’t care for yourself. Yes, you may be able to go beyond many in effort and resilience but even you have limits. So keep a safe space for down time like music or books or exercise.

Allow yourself to grieve the changes and recognise them rather than bottle them up. As Bessel Van der Kolk’s book says, the body keeps the score and will go under.

And importantly, get physical exercise, eat well, try to sleep well. Encourage your team to do the same and be flexible with work where possible to allow this.

Care for your team and others

Regularly and in appropriate ways ask people if they are self-caring. Explain to others how you do it.

Disrupt fear and anxiety and build opportunities to be positive and helpful in the team

Using social norms and feeling part of something positive will help to disrupt anxiety and fear. For example, give people positive things they can do to contribute to helping to build team morale, mutual care and feel a part of our work that is so important to our local communities. Take time to acknowledge others and talk about something other than COVID.

Where possible in your dealings with your team, phrase behaviours positively. Not “lockdown” but “doing my bit to stop the virus as an act of charity for the most vulnerable”

Remember the “why”

Remember in local government we are a very important part of how others will get through this crisis and this can give you strength – you are doing this self-giving explicitly because you serve others. You need recharging and replenishing to keep doing that. If you have faith, use it. I couldn’t do what I do without my faith.

Be ready for the signs of recovery

Have an eye to the fragile shoot of recovery. You’ll need to spot that and get people to work with you to get there, too.

One final thought to help build your resilience

During this storm and fire there are many signs of kindness: the hotelier offering their beds; the restaurant offering their kitchens; the person offering their skills; the colleague checking you’re ok. Allow these to be a comfort, because they are the types of things we will need to rebuild when this is all over.

Ultimately, we will win over this virus. The better able you are to stay the course until it does, the better we will be when this is over.