Leadership in lockdown is like piloting a plane with the engine switched off

20 May 2020

I don’t mind admitting that I’ve found it incredibly hard being a human being let alone a decent leader over the past month or so. On the leadership front I’d give myself a four out of 10 tops.

Perhaps this is not surprising due to the nature of the events we’ve been living through. One day you’re in the agency making good progress on the plan you’ve set for the year; the next, you’re at home counting the projects on hold and the spend cancelled, asking people to take pay cuts and announcing furloughs by video call, worrying about whether the advice you’re giving clients is well informed enough and if it’s really possible to build chemistry in new business via Zoom, all whilst juggling home learning times three. It’s been the sort of hugely disorientating experience that Mike Tyson refers to when he says, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

And, though a new routine has formed, I still haven’t found a replacement for my most effective management technique … walking around. There’s no stopping by desks for an informal chat about client or imminent presentation x or y, no overhearing bits of gossip on a trip to the kitchen, no corridor chats where you get off-the-cuff feedback, noticing who’s gone quiet, which teams are up, which are down. I hadn’t realised or appreciated how reliant I was on this informal interaction to efficiently move things along on a daily basis. Leading in isolation has been, for me, like piloting a plane with the radar switched off.

Having been slow to adapt to the new remote reality, I’ve vowed to be better prepared for lockdown exit than I was for lockdown entry. Thoughts have started to gather that I’ll take forward in various ways to ensure I come out of this a better leader, better balanced as a person and, I hope, The Gate a better company.

Let’s not waste a good crisis

The first takeaway from the experience so far is knowing that, though on occasions overwhelmingly stifling, this period of isolation will ultimately be liberating. Everything about the way we work has changed. We’ve broken the manacles of received wisdom and slipped the leashes keeping us at our office desks, at times present but unproductive, forever. The future of work will be a more fluid blend between being apart and being together, working from home, the office or wherever … and all the better for it. The balance we’ll need to strike is between the best blend for personal productivity and company productivity. The two won’t always align.

The second is not to waste a good crisis. A time of change is a good time to make changes. Sure, you may drive yourself nuts trying to plan too far ahead in such changeable times. But, it’s also the perfect moment to take out a blank sheet of paper and ask what needs to change to be more successful on the other side of this. How can we better serve clients? What do we need to do to help our people thrive? How can we be faster, better, cheaper?

The third is stylistic. At the same time as trying to lead, I’ve been acutely aware of being led by those who are trying to navigate their countries through this crisis. Wanting to seem strong and in control, their optimistic tones come across as weakness and their bold claims prove brittle. It feels like the waves of fake news and false promises have broken over this crisis. Tell it to me straight, tell me what you’re doing about it and keep me updated on the progress. This is no time for sugar-coating. Indeed, amongst the best experiences of the past five or so weeks have been the refreshingly candid chats I’ve had with peers through the IPA Council, the AAR Town Halls and informally – it seems adland is less guarded in a good way in its virtual guise.

Thoughts four and five are more inwardly driven. I have a much clearer sense of where I get strength from and what keeps me sane. Regarding the former, it’s well-documented that those with faith have more resilience and self-control, helpful in times like these. I don’t have faith, but I have taken great comfort from reading poetry every day. It has helped get stuff in perspective (try Robinson Jeffers ‘Be angry at the sun’ for some of that) and given me something else to think about. Regarding the latter, this radical experiment in stress creation and management has also underlined the importance of taking exercise every day. Don’t take it and control ebbs, take it and everything feels much better. Two Ginger Nuts dunked in tea at about 11 have also become essential to keeping a sense of equilibrium.

Every agency’s experience of the past chaotic few months will have been different. The issues you’ll have been dealing with will depend on the type of work you do, your ownership structure, the sectors your clients are in…and much of it will have come down to good or bad luck, too. There isn’t a manual for this sort of crisis, so it’s all the more important to reflect. I hope this means I’ll be better than 4 out of 10 on the leadership front as restrictions lift. Maybe an annual voluntary period of self-isolation would be no bad thing to freshen things up.

Jamie Elliott is the chief executive of The Gate. He tweets on @thejamieelliott

This article first appeared in The Drum https://bit.ly/3blEo9Z