“Leaders are the culture carriers” (Leading our self and others out of Covid)

We are a small specialised consultancy whose Directors have been involved in personal and organisational change for over 25 years working with different individuals, groups, sectors and organisations. We have a particular interest in values-based leadership and the impact these behaviours have on the people and the business.

Recently Karon Clark, one of our Directors, was invited to facilitate a discussion with a group of CEOs from the voluntary, community, and social enterprise sector on their role in leading their organisations out of ‘lockdown’.

This article is adapted from that well received discussion.

“Our focus as SneddonClark when working with organisations of any size, and from any sector or discipline, is the culture and how this is influenced by the leadership at all levels. Our experience of this type of change programme is that we are working with a whole range of behaviours both current and past, and much of what we find embedded are the legacy behaviours from past leadership. Some of you who may be relatively new to your organisation, or to your role, will be able to identify the elements of normal behaviour that is positive and helping with the management of challenges both new and old and conversely the negative which will, and does, hold an organisation back.

In this short piece I would like to invite you to take a step back from the practical applications and challenges of establishing new ways of working, to allow you all time as a group of senior leaders to think about how individually and collectively you might consider your own needs and what you might need to have in place as support over the coming weeks and months as we define and create the new norms for our businesses.

Although our present course is through unchartered waters, as leaders you will all have experience of change and I wondered if it might be useful to revisit some of the very basic premises of change so that we have something familiar upon which we can hang our current experiences and build the new future.

I’ve put a few short slides together that I hope will facilitate our discussion. I would like to begin with VUCA, and I am sure many of you will be familiar with the acronym. The model has been around for many years and as you see was first coined in 1987 and later adopted by the US War College at the time of the Iraq War and has been increasingly used in business for many years.

Never before have we found ourselves in a more interconnected, and fast changing environment that extends into the farthest reaches of our individual and collective worlds than at this present time.


It’s a fact that we are working in a climate of disruptive transformation creating VUCA and it is up to us to develop new ways of thinking, doing and being. One of which will be to create a new cultural norm based on consistency, creativity, and compassion.

So, turning to the topic of change we need some frame of reference and one that I feel sure we’re all familiar with considers three different types of change.  The 3types identified here are:

  • Developmental
  • Transitional
  • Transformational
Three Types of change

As you can see from the curve we begin with developmental. These are the many different changes that happen every day in organisations. We do something, quicker or simpler. This might be that in a community meals service we would process 20 meals a day rather than 15 or perhaps look to increase capacity on a helpline by another 5% to meet demand. These changes are the lifeblood of most organisations. They are relatively straight forward and people adapt to the change quite easily requiring very little change to ways of thinking.

Transitional change is a bit trickier. It’s generally about more complex change for example, the implementation of a new IT system; major changes to policies and practice; simple mergers or the appointment of a new CEO. Not only are people often required to do things differently, they also need to adopt a different mindset and this is often difficult for people to do and we begin to see some resistance to the changes. People are required to adopt a range of new behaviours in order to accomplish the required change.

Transformational change is a different issue altogether and is where we are right now with Covid-19. We have set off on a journey with no destination in sight but the strength and trust in our abilities to invent the future as the picture emerges. We know it’s going to be different but have no clear idea of how and what the ‘new ‘will look like. The future state keeps shifting and moving and it’s difficult to imagine what it will look finally look like.  And we may not know until we get there.

This ‘transformational change’ term is used and often misused in organisations which can lead to of confusion over the complexity and challenges of true transformation.

In the case of Covid-19 we are putting things into action and testing out as we go along. We’re all learning together and combining open-mindedness, generosity and true strength of character that’s the reality of most major culture transformation programmes. These behaviours have been well evidenced not only in the community and charity sector but in our society more widely with increasing commitment by volunteers; many organisations from public sector outwards prepared to think differently.  One of the challenges remaining is the building of trust.

We know that what we did yesterday will not take us where we need to go or put us on the path we need to be on tomorrow. A different strategic mindset and approach is required where we are inventing our futures. This is both exciting and scary at the same time.

Most transformational change programmes are made up of loads of developmental changes and many transitional which is why it’s so complex and requires a real shift in thinking and behaving to create something new.

We know that true transformational leadership will require new ways of being from leaders in all organisations across all sectors in this time of crisis and opportunity.

As leaders we need the strength of our support networks and to have the confidence in those groups that we feel safe and can be vulnerable sharing our concerns and worries without fear of judgment.

Positive organisations and developing a ‘paradox mindset’(INSEAD)

As we’ve already mentioned, there’s no route map in developing our transformational plan, we need to write our own. Accepting that this is going to be the new norm gives us, as leaders, an ideal opportunity to invent the future. What a time for us to take and harness all of the goodwill and positive energy that’s been created over the past 2months and use that as the basis to change the way we lead and manage, bringing in a new way to create those coaching and learning organisations that we have always strived to achieve. We can adopt a new posture and test out new behaviours. We have right now and can continue to build on the positivity by adopting a ‘paradox mindset.

Developing a Positive Organisation using a paradox mindset

Moving away from ridged top down hierarchies allows us to let go of the rigidity that stops us from devolving responsibility and empowering others to step up. By considering a new way of thinking and encouraging others to do the same we can redefine the mental map which is often driven by self-interest and fear.

This letting go will facilitate the building of agility and fluidity to evolving transformational change, and, In turn, we will be able to tap into the motivation that drives a desire to learn, grow and serve a larger goal.

In order to achieve this, we must remember to address and work with our teams to build resilience and help people move on from what, for some, has been a real ordeal. Our support systems need to build the capacity to provide a culture and mindset of enhancement and enrichment.

Adopting a ‘Paradox Mindset’ we can learn to accept and live with the tension when there are competing demands. We can do this by:

  • Reframing the question to move from the traditional“ either/or” to the “both /and sitting in the A of VUCA” manage complex and competing demands without resorting to binary decision making;
  • Accepting the tension and developing comfort with the discomfort;
  • Distancing yourself as leader from the day today and the ‘noise’ to afford yourself thinking time and space to search from new possibilities

So, moving forward what strategies might we deploy as leaders in seeking to build a truly transformational leadership culture?

Here are four strands of thinking and being that could make a really valuable contribution to you as a person and leader at this time:

  • Create a new personal behaviour bank:
  • o  Keeping calm and assertive restoring a sense of meaning and a clear direction
  • o  Managing your own emotions and those of others
  • Create culture changes by working with fear-based behaviours
  • o  Understanding the drivers of such behaviour and how to manage and mitigate them.
  • o  Being prepared for the unexpected - you might not see what you expect to.
  • o  With people handling fear in different ways; being prepared to see a whole range of emotions on display and associated behaviours.
  • Lead by example and build your own and others resilience
  • o  Recognising the changes and transformation will take time and that the new norms need to be adopted before embedding
  • o  Being courageous and confronting the challenges ahead
  • Regain a sense of the new normality and what needs to be communicated going forward
  • o  Sustaining the sense of unity, cooperation and collaboration that has grown during the recent past
  • o  Constantly communicate in realistic terms giving a sense of future purpose
  • o  Yet being honest with what is unknown

To help you, as leaders, build and extend your personal support network here are some reflective questions to ponder.

Acknowledging that ‘leadership’ is often described as a ‘lonely activity’

  • Make a list of 3-5 people who you can have alongside you, some from inside and some outside of your organization, to support you in leading this transformational change
  • List the reasons for your choices? E.G. is your Chair on the list? Just a question?
  • If you could identify 1 change from this time that you’d like to take with you to the future ‘post lockdown’ position, what would it be and why?
  • In starting the transformational change journey, as leader, what will you leave behind in the ‘old world’ and why?
  • Asa leader what support can you offer to your peers in this transformational change environment?

Many of the principles in this article have also been highlighted by McKinsey & Co in their publication of 3 June2020 ‘How to demonstrate calm and optimism in a crisis’.


In their article they assert that‘ when the path ahead is uncertain, people turn to leaders to help them gain clarity and a grounded hope for a better future. They want someone with a positive vision, who is confident about tackling the problems we face yet courageous enough to confront uncomfortable truths and admit they do not know. Leaders need to act with deliberate calm and bounded optimism’.

They advocate six steps for leaders:

  • Adapt your personal operating model
  • Set your intention
  • Regulate your reactions
  • Practice reflection
  • Reframe your perspective
  • Manage your energy’

None of us knows what the future will hold for us as individuals, for our organisations, for the work we do, for our wider stakeholders.  The only certainty is it will not be the same as it was in January 2020!”

As Directors of SneddonClark specialising in values-based culture change and executive coaching we hope that this short article might have prompted some helpful thoughts for you as a leader that will enable you to move forward to greater success in meeting your challenges.