Chris Nel

Virtual Leadership – Lessons Learned?

THANK YOU to everyone who responded to our August article. There have been so many useful experiences from the last months of C19 that I wanted to use this post to pull together the lessons and challenge myself, and you, to act on the hard won experiences we’ve all had.

I’ll focus on the three most frequently cited families of concerns and split this into what people reported, learned and what advice would they give others to improve their virtual leadership … 

What people reported.

It’s fair to say most of us have found leadership over the last six months to be a challenge. Some leaders have thrived on it and some have found it a bit more of a struggle. We can learn from all of them. The main topics of conversation on both our free helpline (still open 07776 230 198)  and in response to our posts have fallen (when forced a little bit!) Into three buckets. In frequency order:

  1. Uncertainty – We have all had to get used to operating in a very ambiguous environment. The root of the concern seems to have been chiefly in wanting to be able to provide clear direction,  but not having enough confidence in the information available to generate unambiguous intent and priorities. 
  1. Resilience: Comments fall into two categories. Firstly personal resilience and secondly help others develop their own resilience. On personal resilience we have felt a lot of what one leader described as  solution pressure’ … Some have felt that they have been expected to be positive, calm and … have the answers. Both the long term view & the short term fixes. They reported feeling that they were letting our people down. For many the outcome has been exhaustion … The downtime has gone. The gaps between meetings. Lunch with colleagues. Listening to music in the departure lounge. Grabbing a nap on the train etc … for many its been eight hours of screen time a day. 5 days a week. One leader described themselves as a ZoombieLooking after other people, including colleagues, family and friends has been a further challenge for many. At a time when their own resilience is low, they have had to find energy to support others.
  1. Remoteness. Working remotely has been at best a bit awkward for us.  The feedback has included comments about loss of process control, also loosing ‘human contact’ with customers and colleagues. One MD said “Ive learned to really value the our Monday morning ‘board walk’ … Not the tangible status or numbers, I get that on Teams, It’s the intangible feedback that’s missing for me. How my people feel. I realise now how much I need that to lead.”


What did they learn?

Uncertainty – Even before C19, our ability as leaders to cope with ambiguity seemed to be increasingly important. C19 has made this ability vital. Most of the reflections on ambiguity relate to operating in a much more agile way. Being prepared to conduct experiments and accept ‘failure’ as an opportunity to learn. Building a culture that support agility seems to have become more important. New words are appearing in the Organisational Development lexicon … Bias for action, psychological safety, grit, resilience, curiosity, candour are all expressions of ideal coping behaviours. 

2. Resilience. – There are many factors in building resilience (personal clarity, dynamic thinking, physical/ emotional health & supportive relationships), the touchstone we have used in our calls with people on this topic has been has been to control the controllables. In the midst of all this uncertainty prioritise what you can influence and get on with it. 

It has been a particularly tough time for mangers who see their role as solution provider.  On the other hand managers who identify more as outcome facilitators have been thriving. 

3. Remoteness – To be more specific – Leading remotely. Being detached in a physical sense from the people who look to us for leadership has made it difficult to lead. It has highlighted the importance of leaders constantly investing in relationships. 


What should we do ? The advice they offered …


  • “Change the language – talk about experiments we can learn from not solutions we’ll implement”
  • “Its all about honesty. Do your people feel safe enough to be brutally honest?”
  • “You’re going to get stuff wrong! What can you do to ensure you learn from it?”


  • “Be kind to yourself. Take the time you would have commuted to exercise.”
  • “You have to be deliberate about building your own resilience. Plan it!”
  • “Focus on what you can do, rather than on what you can’t.”


  • “Half your day for virtual management meetings. The other half for 1-2-1 leadership calls. ”
  • “Plan non-work work sessions … end of week zoom drinks  / quiz nights / stretch class etc”
  • “Be creative … I had a 1-2-1 with a colleague walking our dogs. Best one ever!”


The context for our leadership has changed. So we have to adapt how we lead. If you didn’t respond but would like or you have any helpful advice please leave a reply below. If you need a some support  or just want a chat –  call our free COVID Leadership Helpline – ‭01733 371340‬.

A former international triathlete, British Army Officer and partner at Tom Peters Company, Chris Nel is a co-founder / Managing Director of Quest Leadership Ltd. He can be contacted at

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