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Through the looking glass: two years on from lockdown

Two years on from the UK's first lockdown, Caron Bradshaw OBE reflects on some lasting lessons on leadership and life.


Reflecting on the last two years as we mark the second anniversary of the first lockdown caused by the pandemic, you would be forgiven for feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland. Finding a flask marked ‘drink me’ or a piece of cake marked ‘eat me’ would not, frankly, have made the past couple of years noticeably stranger!

But just as the puzzling and risky situations Alice encountered helped her to explore what did and didn’t make sense, the pandemic has also been a valuable source of lessons for me. Two years in, I thought I’d share six things I’ve learned about leadership and life.

1. Inequity and disadvantage

Early on during the pandemic I heard someone say that Covid was a great leveller. I couldn’t disagree more.
Of course, the virus could infect anyone with devastating consequences, but there is no doubt its impact on the most disadvantaged in society was significantly worse.

The gap between the haves and have-nots has increased, of that I am certain. It is essential that, whatever our cynicism or misgivings, we grasp with both hands the invitation to ‘level up’ society. The terrible murder of George Floyd in the US, the murder of Sarah Everard and the mistreatment encountered by Child Q here in the UK, are just three horrific cases where we have all been prompted to face realities that are different to our own. And we must face them, with unflinching honesty. It is our job to confront painful truths.

2. Speaking up with purpose

The evidence of the past two years has cemented that civil society is never more needed. Whether supporting the vaccine roll-out, responding to spikes in demand or channelling enthusiastic new volunteers wanting to help their neighbours, this period has reinforced the merits, worth and necessity of civil action and the importance of dissent.

It is beholden on us to speak uncomfortable truths to those in power, particularly as we rise to the challenges highlighted by the war in Ukraine. It’s our job to support and find solutions to, for example, the refugee crisis. This must include encouraging the continuation of newly-found positive language around those fleeing war, so that those seeking refuge on our shores from Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and countless other places are also welcomed and cherished, not othered and demonised.

Speaking up and supporting are not mutually exclusive – we can do both. We can both be grateful for what is given and highlight where it is not enough, at the same time. It is clear, looking at the response to both the pandemic and the traumatic scenes of the last few weeks that resources are not the issue; lack of political will is. So, we owe it to those we serve to find ways to demonstrate our value and demand that we’re included as a partner and not a player to be wheeled out when it suits.

3. Leadership itself

I wrote recently about the importance and absence of leadership. From Brexit, to Covid and now the Ukrainian crisis, it has been proven unequivocally that we need more than buzz words and catchy phrases. If leaders come to ‘power’ purely on the basis or personality and pizzazz, we cannot be surprised when they are found wanting in times of real challenge.

4. People and culture

It’s an age-old truism that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Going into the Covid-19 crisis CFG had a great bank of goodwill from the team and from the people we partner with and serve. That cultural surplus stood us in good stead as our world changed beyond all recognition.

I realised quite quickly that people achieve huge amounts under immense pressure. But even under the most extreme of circumstances, we cannot take that, and culture, for granted without suffering fall-out. The world in which we build our teams and establish ways of working is very different now.

We must make sure that the energy and importance we attribute to culture is maintained. You can read more on this in my recent article ‘Rethinking talent risk’ in Quilter Cheviot’s excellent Annual Review for Charities: 2021 in perspective.

5. Stronger together

Repeatedly I have experienced the blessing of collaboration. We can be greater than the sum of our parts and can achieve so much more when we work together. Gone are the days of big personalities and personal triumph. Now we win together and work towards longer-lasting solutions.

6. Resilience and vulnerability

I’ve spoken openly about my own mental health and that time showed me the importance of being vulnerable and seeking help. During the past two years I have been tested, through work and personally. And I’ve realised again that resilience isn’t about tooling up and pushing through.

Resilience is achieved by reaching out and connecting with each other. It’s about sharing and taking care of our fellow human beings. It’s about recognising the imperfection and fragility of systems and still, somehow, finding ways to carry on Now isn’t that just the sector we know and love in a nutshell?

The final lesson is not a lesson at all, but a timely reminder. As the Duchess said to Alice: “Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love, that makes the world go round!”

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