Leadership touchstones for chaotic times

Howard Atkins and Myrna Jelman, members of faculty at Hult Ashridge, share four leadership touchstones based on their research "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" for leaders who seek to offer coherent leadership in turbulent times.

The last year has been an extraordinary time for leaders and their organizations. Our research paper “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” (Jelman, Marshall, Smallwood, Atkins and Wiggins, 2021) conveyed the experiences of senior healthcare leaders during the first wave of Covid and offered four leadership touchstones. We believe these are relevant for leaders in all industries and sectors who seek to offer coherent leadership in turbulent times. They are not exhaustive. However, they are a great place to start.

Four leadership touchstones:

1-   Act with your core purpose in mind

When dealing with multiple demands and fast shifting sands, a common reaction is to just ‘keep going, try hard’ and hope that somehow you get through the work. It can be challenging to reconnect with why you are doing what you’re doing.

- Look up. Remember to look up every now and then, giving yourself time to remind yourself and others of why you are doing this, the purpose you are trying to fulfill, the direction you need to be facing. This need not take long, it can be a pause for reflection at the beginning of the day, or a brief reminder for the team before beginning a task. Perspective is essential to spot the essential purpose served by your products or services and how it might change.

- Look down. Notice where you are currently standing and your immediate next step. Every meeting is an opportunity to do something that has importance. Each interaction allows you to act on what really needs doing, to spot distractions and the possibility of transformation.

- Look ahead. Keep walking. There is no perfect way. Don’t allow the search for the perfect response to prevent you from taking action. Trust that you are already good enough to lead, as are others around you. Follow your instinct, trust yourself, take one step at a time.


1.     When in my working day do I ‘look up’?

2.     When do I think about our purpose as an organization?

3.     How do we as a team spot when this needs to evolve?

4.     Are you waiting for permission to take the lead?

2- Build human connection and encourage robust dialogue

Leadership can be lonely. Connecting with others, and developing a culture where human connection is cherished, helps everyone develop resilience and clarity in tough times. It makes for better decision-making.

- Be yourself. Connect with your team as you are, rather than how you think you should be.

- Be connected. Have people around you with whom you can reflect, learn, download, laugh, gossip. Feeling connected, supported, and understood helps you gain perspective, make sensitive decisions, gain courage. Know who will tell you the truth and challenge you.

- Be real. Let people know what’s happening and how you are too. Name what is really going on, the good and the bad. Encourage people to share their perspective and their feelings.

- Be curious. Be ruthlessly curious with those who disagree with you. They have a reason, and it does not mean you have to agree with them. Demonstrating genuine curiosity in other views and creating conditions for robust dialogue is essential for teams to make good decisions in complex times.


1.     How do I know that all viewpoints are expressed in our team meetings?

2.     Do I avoid those who I think may disagree with me?

3.     Do I share what matters with those around me?

4.     To what extent do I provide opportunities for others to connect?

5.     How much time do we spend talking about things other than the immediate task?

3 - Develop healthy selfishness

There is no one recipe for self-care. Time alone, with friends, family, pets, exercise, meditation, reading, TV, sleeping, cooking... Unless you know what you need, it is hard for any meaningful action to take place.

- Know what you can control. Nothing changes unless you are willing to try something, to make a gesture, and see what happens. It is the act of making choices that can liberate you from ever-encroaching thoughts, feelings, bad habits. There is no shortcut. It means taking control over small things you can have influence over, the amount of time reading the news, how often you go for walks, etc.

- Know yourself. If you struggle to prioritize your own needs, inquire into why. We all have personal patterns, scripts about what you ‘should do, e.g. a desire to ‘be strong’ or to ‘please people’, recurring guilt... An awareness of these inner voices gives you the opportunity to choose your response. Know the constraints, institutional pressures, and organizational culture that might make this hard to do.

- Know when to say no. In chaotic times, it is even more important to know when and how to say no. Certain tasks have lost importance, they are not aligned with the most important purpose of your role or your organization. You may be doing things out of an outdated personal pattern that says: ‘I need to be helpful’.


1.     For the sake of my health or mental health, what do I know I need to stop or restrain?

2.     What makes me feel refreshed and re-energized?

3.     What is a personal pattern I can be trapped by? What can I choose to do instead?

4.     What commitment do I make to myself?

5.     What is the ‘no’ I need to declare?

4 - Find your courage

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” (Viktor Frankl). When we step beyond fear, we can reach curiosity and with it the freedom to explore new ways and choiceful action.

- Treat fear as a signpost. We all experience fear or anxiety at times. This may be a fact, a feeling, a decision, or an action. You have a choice to dismiss the feeling or to step forward to examine it. Knowing what causes you anxiety is already one significant step towards transformation.

- Treat courage as a practice. Once you know what causes you anxiety or fear, you can choose how to act. It will never feel easy, but it can become a practice, a commitment. Notice the transformation you have created by moving towards and through your fear.

- Treat your role as Chief Anxiety Officer. As a leader, you also need to help others around you to face their own fears. You both want to contain anxiety and allow it to surface. Too much anxiety means panic, too little means powerlessness and possibly avoiding tackling the real issues.


1.     What do you do with what scares you?

2.     For what issues have you stepped forward, towards your fear? For what issues have you stepped back?

3.     When was the last time you were courageous? How did it feel and what was the outcome?

4.     How do people express their fear or anxiety around you?

5.     How do you create the conditions for people to talk about the real issues?

Howard Atkins and Myrna Jelman are members of faculty at Hult Ashridge and authors of the research paper ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’: Insights from UK Healthcare Leaders during the First Wave of COVID-19.

Hult International Business School
Hult International Business School 
Ashridge Executive Education