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Leadership learning from COVID-19

Lewis Thomas, Q member and trainee on the NHS graduate management scheme working at Imperial College Healthcare Trust, shares his reflections on leadership from working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve worked in our Site Operations team in our hospital command and control teams, and now our Medical Director’s Office focusing on initiatives to support our staff and patients at Imperial College Healthcare. Here’s what my experiences have taught me about leadership.

Telling people to blindly follow instructions only erodes trust

Situational humility is vital. Across the NHS we have all been operating in unchartered territory, characterised by complex challenges with no easy solutions. Whether the national personal protective equipment shortage, sudden guidance changes, or the initial creation of COVID-19 “red” and virus-free “green” hospital areas, no one person has had the answers. Telling people to blindly follow instructions only erodes trust. The best leaders I have witnessed have shown humility – “the situation is complex, we don’t know the solution yet, but together we can work it out”.

If you believe in your ideas, be bold. A hospital car park seems like an unlikely place for a trail-blazing collaboration to be formed, but that’s where I was standing as not-for-profit Help NHS Heroes’ founders shared their vision with us to provide food boxes on-site for our staff to take home, removing the need for post shift supermarket queueing. The number of challenges that needed overcoming to get this established seemed daunting, but the strength and determination of their vision drove us to pull teams from across our trust together to turn their vision into reality. As a result, innumerous members of staff and patients have benefitted hugely from their support.

We’ve all had to make hard decisions in a constantly evolving environment. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t.

True leaders embody compassion and support. We’ve all had to make hard decisions in a constantly evolving environment. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they don’t. For me, most important has been knowing that my manager and team have my back if things go wrong, allowing us to all take risks and implement patient-centred innovative solutions without fear of heads rolling. Recently, I worked hard on securing some extra accommodation for our staff but it didn’t all go to plan. When I apologised to my manager, his response was to re-focus me on how much I had achieved on the project. That is what true leadership looks like.

We must proactively value diversity. The NHS is getting better at this, but some leaders just don’t understand why having people from diverse backgrounds and minority identities as colleagues is important. I know that my experiences as a gay man – in my personal life, forcing me to have difficult conversations and being rejected by people based on who I fundamentally am – have made me inadvertently develop empathy and compassion in ways that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. It is those experiences, skills and values based on our combined personal experiences which result in diversity enriching our teams’ and organisation’s successes.

This blog is adapted from an original article in the Health Service Journal co-authored by Lewis Thomas: Charisma + humility = effective leadership during covid-19, 9 June 2020

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