7 things we learned in 2020 that made us more empathetic leaders
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7 things we learned in 2020 that made us more empathetic leaders

Well 2020, thanks for that. 

Flash back to this time last year and I don’t think any of us could have imagined what lay in store for us for the following 12 months. Teams were stretched to their limits, every day there was a new absurd, *utterly absurd*, news story and everyone was still expected to carry on as if none of it was taking place. 

The year felt relentless and the beginning of 2021 is shaping up to feel the same. So, if we’re set to face a set of circumstances that feel a little too familiar, how can we make it better? What did 2020 teach us that can make us all a little bit kinder and empathetic going into 2021? 

Greg and I have attempted to summarise our thoughts on what is one of the most difficult years in recent history (2016, you’re looking mighty manageable right now) and how we came out the other side much more empathetic. 

Here are seven crucial things we learned in 2020 about being more empathetic leaders –

  1. Compassion is critical yet underrated
  2. Kinship & Solidarity – we share more in common than separates us
  3. Social conscience and responsibility is more important than ever
  4. Remote working ain’t so bad, so long as you give a shit about wellbeing
  5. Chief Execs are just as messy and tired as the rest of us
  6. Your version of struggling looks different to everyone else’s
  7. Only you can carve rest into your day

Sound familiar? We thought so. Read on with a good brew to hand. 

1. Compassion is critical yet underrated

So many things have changed for so many people since the start of the year. Health is often a great leveller and it’s true that pretty much everyone has been personally affected by COVID-19. However, some people have experienced greater distress and worse health outcomes than others. For many reasons, health and social inequalities have been exposed this year and if we are to ‘build back better’ then, surely, compassion has to be at the heart of that. We don’t always know what is going on for people, this year has been cruel and ruthless; so let’s be kind.

2. Kinship & Solidarity – we share more in common than separates us

It can be easy to focus on our differences and feel resentful when our hardships aren’t recognised or acknowledged. This can create an unhelpful divide of feeling and action. One of the most heartening things we have seen this year has been recognition of the ‘unskilled’ workforce who have been keeping our communities going. The health service has been under immense pressure, so the very public show of support and gratitude for the NHS was very welcomed, and we should do more of that. Not just clapping on a Thursday but standing shoulder to shoulder with people who are being mistreated, take action in whatever ways you can. 

Black lives most definitely matter, let’s not congratulate ourselves for simply doing the bare minimum of not being dead shitty to someone else. Be actively anti-racist: challenge, encourage, support, invest, share. Lift people up, celebrate the diverse voices that strengthen our society. Our communities are stronger if we invest in them, and that’s not just about time or money – truly value people and relationships. Stand up for each other, offer a helping hand, a shoulder to cry on – whatever it is, just be there for people.

3. Social conscience and responsibility is more important than ever

Put your hand up if you’ve seen more local independent businesses and organisations actively getting involved in the community this year. Considering so much has been out of our control, we have also seen people make massive positive changes for our society and our local communities. 

We can’t all be Marcus Rashford, but even in the face of closures and heavy restrictions, local businesses and socially-minded people have stepped in to help fill the gaps left by industry, government and policy. This year has proven that people need more than a job to exist and feel valued. Treating our people and our environment properly shouldn’t be a bonus, if we’ve got time. It should be built into the fabric of what we do, we’ll all be better for it.

4. Remote working ain’t so bad, so long as you give a shit about wellbeing

I miss seeing my friends and family. I miss seeing my co-workers. I don’t miss the time it takes getting to and from work, and I don’t miss the cost or the stress. I now have a healthy breakfast every day and I’m not rushing to the office. 

For us, the transition to working from home wasn’t immediately too difficult. Our systems and processes made it very easy to be in the office one day and work from home the next. The biggest challenge was about recognising the ongoing external factors – the coronavirus situation deeply affected how people felt and behaved, especially over time. It’s silly to expect otherwise. We’ve never really been in this situation before so we had to listen and adapt. 

I realised at the start of the lockdown that I needed to find the routines and rituals that would help keep me productive but also recognise that we have all been experiencing an immense amount of stress and uncertainty. Hopefully, we’ve found a good balance of structure and flexibility. Right now, it’s difficult to imagine that we will ever completely go back to the way we used to work. 

5. Chief Execs are just as messy and tired as the rest of us

I’ve often been interested in the idea of what people see as ‘professional’. Is it the way you dress, compose yourself, how you speak? I used to think that I had to look a certain way for client meetings, especially when I worked higher up the food chain. However, this only compounded my Imposter Syndrome™ and made me feel like I was being disingenuous. 

In business, it’s easy to get consumed by the veneer of ‘professionalism’. I think, two weeks into lockdown, it became abundantly clear what people are really like. Even the Chief Exec has to deal with an impromptu delivery; dodgy wi-fi; a shout across the room from their parent, child or partner; the unruly pet causing chaos in the background or even walking across the keyboard and showing its bum right in the webcam. 

Let’s drop the pretense – we’re all just people in a weird situation. 

6. Your version of struggling looks different to everyone else’s

This is a hard lesson as it takes a lot of patience and empathy. When you’re leading a business and you’re struggling to meet several deadlines, keep people employed and grow something from the ground up, your emotional capacity begins to run out. Everybody struggles differently and it takes a deep level of empathy to understand that over working and procrastination are the same problem in different manifestations. Making room for people and their different responses to a crisis is a lesson we all need to take into 2021. Our struggles are the same, they just look different. 

7. Only you can carve rest into your day

And from all of these struggles comes an inherent need for rest. Rest is so underrated and never was it more needed than in 2020. With everyone’s working patterns shifting it felt like we were living at work, rather than working from home, and rest went out the window. Why not work past 6? Why not work over the weekend, what else is there to do? There’s living to do – even if it looks different and has more restrictions in place. To have real rest we have to be strict with ourselves and carve it into our day – and put clear boundaries in place for everyone around us. Use your Out of Office as if your life depends on it – because it does. Also, read this book called The Art of Rest, then you’ll take it seriously. 

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