‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’: Insights from UK Healthcare Leaders during the First Wave of COVID-19

Myrna Jelman, Brian Marshall, Janet Smallwood, Howard Atkins, Liz Wiggins

COVID-19 has touched everyone and everything. There have been a range of ways of showing appreciation to NHS and other key workers but what did it really feel like to lead in such a context of fear, uncertainty, anxiety, guilt and need?

Complexity theorists talk of leading on the edge of chaos. This, for many leaders, was a time unlike any other, where at moments it felt more like leading in the middle of chaos. What sense did leaders make from their practical experience of leading in the first wave of the pandemic? What helped them to cope? What insights did they have that might be useful not only for themselves but also for others going forward?

We recognize that, at the time of publishing, many leaders are now in the eye of the second wave and that their experiences may be potentially even more challenging today than they were in the spring/summer of 2020.

We hope that this account will nonetheless reflect some of the key dynamics that will remain relevant and more importantly, helpful, to any leaders involved in leading during a time of significant crisis.

This research report synthesizes a number of themes which emerged from talking with 60 senior leaders from the NHS and related organisations in the UK in June and July 2020, in the later stages of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. These themes are offered in the spirit of providing a range of perspectives that may confirm or challenge other leaders’ experiences, but with the hope that they might be a helpful prompt for curiosity, inquiry, conversation and learning.

Download the full report

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