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From 2020 I have been talking with leaders about their responses to the pandemic. Our 2020 series had an unexpected reprise in 2021, as anticipation of a New Normal turned into ongoing need for resilience. Now we have entered in our third year of living with COVID-19, we reflect on what we have learned about leadership in a pandemic.

Thinking back to Shanghai, 2020

Fosun Foundation, Shanghai February 2020

Fosun Foundation, Shanghai February 2020

Shanghai mallIn Shanghai during the lunar new year 2020, I saw surreal scenes of one of the world’s most dynamic cities in a COVID-stasis. Returning on the last direct Qantas flight to Sydney, as the national borders closed in around us, it was clear that COVID would create shockwaves through not just the worldwide human biological network, but other networks too: global supply chains, and the vital talent flows and migration of students that are integral to the cyclic renewal in innovation and higher education.

The world soon thereafter went into pandemic, and crisis control, and with my team I set out to collect, and share, insights from leaders to help us to see and plan a way ahead. Interviewing the senior management of universities, cultural and research institutions, in their homes, we crafted short but authentic messages out of their responses to the same three questions that we asked every single one of them.

2020 Interviews with Leaders about Navigating the New Normal

During the shock of 2020 lockdowns, our first question was always, ‘What keeps you going?’ A very basic question that connected our immediate lived experience. Our leaders spoke about being inspired by their communities, connecting with their teams,  and time away from meetings to be with family and enjoy time outdoors. Instead of rushing to be physically present at countless meetings and engagements around the world, we had to embrace being stuck in one place.

Our second question asked our leaders what they had learned from the pandemic that might change the way they lead. They talked about trying new things, measured risks, daring to fail. Adapting to constraints forced innovation.

The final question we asked our leaders in 2020 was what leadership qualities would be most valuable to adapt to the new normal. The turmoil put a new frame on what was important in organisational leadership. Themes emerged about the creative and human sides to leadership: the best leaders were authentic, engaged, and able to see continuing purpose and a vision ahead, or be able to lead their communities on exploratory journeys, to co-create the future. As Rossie Ogilvie put it, leadership that “put colour and light back into what’s possible.” Leaders opened up to a shared journey to find answers, even to showing a vulnerability within leadership. A comment from Professor Pascale Quester that resonated with social media audiences: “we need leadership that doesn’t pretend to know the answer”.

Caring, authenticity, vision and inspiration, agility and responsiveness were frequently mentioned. The humanness of leadership was at the fore. Indeed, the way our speakers allowed us to see them in these clips was more real than many would have seen them before in their senior corporate roles.


2021: Resilience

Going back into lockdown in 2021, we decided to reprise our series, with just one fresh question. As a word nerd (my PhD is in literature) I couldn’t resist to ask our leaders to nominate a new collective noun for lockdowns. While light-hearted in approach, this elicited some dark, visceral responses that captured the collective mood. We heard suggestions of

  • a “reverberation” of lockdowns (Alec Cameron)
  • a “dreary” of lockdowns (Maryanne Dever)
  • a “crush” of lockdowns (Carolyn Evans)
  • a “recluse” of lockdowns (Paddy Nixon)
  • a “shock” of lockdowns (Debbie Terry)
  • an “avalanche” of lockdowns (Michelle Trudgett)
  • a “chain-gang” of lockdowns (Robyn Ward)

Trish Davidson captured a collective, hopeful view of the repeated lockdowns when she said, “none of us will be okay until we are all okay”.

The year 2021 may end up being a forgotten year. When we expected to be moving on from 2020 to a ‘New Normal’, instead we felt caught in a repeat. In speaking with our leaders, the focus had shifted. Instead of looking to the horizon, there was more resignation to ongoing adaptation, and what we had to get through, and reflection on what had been valuable to the journey with the pandemic. The role of science, of universities for serving communities and sharing creativity and world-changing research all featured. Leaders championed the efforts of individuals on campus, of student groups and the collective will of staff to engage in new ways and still come together and get things done. What persisted from 2020 was a leadership imbued with human themes: kindness, a basis in human contact.

We started out in 2020 calling our interview series “Navigating the New Normal”, then in 2021 our second set was named “Resilience”. Now in January 2022 we are not sure when we will be through this pandemic, but what’s clear is that we are all in it together like never before, and things will never be the same again.


Thanks and credit go to our participating leaders who shared their vision, feelings and in many cases, homes with us online

Leadership under lockdown – Resilience Series 2021

Navigating the New Normal Leadership Series 2020

De Sailly team credits

Special kudos to Monica Trezise, who has brought this series to life in social media through concept, production, editing, and posting, and to Dr Santi Dharmaputra who brought in people of influence from her network in South East Asia, including from higher education, government and industry.