3 min read

Lessons in leadership we’ve learnt from the Covid inquiry

  • Business transformation

Susie Lee-Kilgariff

Group Head of Marketing


Watching the Covid inquiry, we’ve enjoyed adding some new words to our lexicon thanks to Dominic Cummings’ WhatsApp messages. But beyond the Whitehall gossip, it occurred to us that there are some important lessons we can take away that apply to business leadership. Particularly in times of rapid change.

D & I is really all about diversity of experience

We learnt that the lack of diversity amongst decision makers meant some of the key impacts of lockdown on certain groups were overlooked. For instance, the treasury didn’t have people with in-depth experience of self employment around the table, and were slow to consider how the nation’s 5 million+ freelancers and contractors would survive outside of the furlough scheme.

Diversity in the workplace is often viewed through the prism of gender, race, disability or age. Whilst it’s certainly true that having a certain characteristic can often mean your experiences can be different, are you sure you have a diversity of thought and that everyone in the room is listened to?

In software development and product design, the good practice of working with different use cases is well established. If you look at your own team, do you feel that the needs of different service users are always properly understood and mapped out? People don’t intend to have blind spots, so make sure you gather a variety of views on big decisions.

Calling out bad behaviour still doesn’t happen enough

When asked for her response to the Cummings WhatsApp messages, Deputy Cabinet Secretary Helen MacNamara said “It’s disappointing to me that the prime minister didn’t pick him up on the use of some of that violent and misogynistic language.”

Many people still find it hard to call out bullying behaviour, even those in positions of power. Many leaders like to be liked, and can find it easier to brush off inappropriate comments as “Dom being Dom” rather than hold people to account. It’s even harder if you’ve let other bad habits slide or are guilty of joining in yourself on occasion.

But the consequence of not tackling bad behaviour is that it becomes normalised within your culture, hastens your team losing respect for you and it desperately demoralises the people on the receiving end.

Let’s hope one of the lessons from the enquiry is that more leaders feel empowered to have the difficult conversations sometimes needed in the workplace. Preferably delivered with more empathy and less swearing!

To lead is to choose

In the chaotic first months of Covid, people making decisions were described as having short attention spans, superficial understanding of topics and being easily swayed by different arguments depending on who they last spoke to.

Various officials described this behaviour as exhausting and frustrating.

And perhaps you heard this, and could recognise the patterns in someone you work with? Or maybe even yourself?

The best leaders have a plan, and then stick to it consistently. That’s not to say that you can’t change course if new information comes to light, but every time you move the goalposts, you chip away at a team’s goodwill and energy reserves.

In a business setting for instance, you may have started a project to deliver a better customer experience, but got sign off based on the money savings to be realised. At some point, these two objectives may come into competition with each other and a budget or resource decision in favour of one, risks demoralising the people who thought they were trying to achieve the other. Successful business transformation is most often achieved when a well-considered plan is communicated consistently and transparently, with the ability to flex when you need to.

There is ongoing debate about whether the dysfunction in government was a critical factor in the outcomes the UK experienced in the pandemic. But one point everyone can agree on is that a toxic workplace is a miserable workplace, and rarely leads to success.

Ready. Set. Go.

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