As we close in on a year of living in a time of pandemic, it’s hard not to look back on the changes and challenges brought on by a viral outbreak. The basic pleasures of grabbing coffee and a bagel on the way to work, catching a lunch out with friends, or even going to a movie became much more difficult and, in some cases, often impossible. Typical work meetings tended to migrate online, where an entirely new language of gaffes and faux pas became commonplace. Terms like self-isolation, social distance, and quarantine became part of our everyday lexicon. Working from home—something that once seemed a distant rarity—is now the norm for many, but the adjustment wasn’t without its own challenges.

Some of us adapted well, while others were increasingly challenged by the looming shadow of isolation. For me, it felt a lot like a deployment. Three weeks into the initial round of self-isolation, I wrote, “Instead of becoming frustrated at the seclusion forced upon me, I’m embracing it. I was made for this.” Nearly a year later, my thoughts remain consistent. I’ve had to adapt. I’ve had to find new ways to do things that seemed a lot easier before all of this. I’ve had a lot of good days, but I’ve also had a few bad ones.

10 Leadership Lessons from the Lockdown

Along the way, I learned some things that might be useful one day. For example, I now know that I can make a roll of toilet paper last for ten days. I’ve also developed a keen appreciation for retail therapy; while my home office is now far more efficient than my pre-COVID workspace could ever be, I need to do something with the life-size Rocket Racoon in the corner. However, it’s what I learned—or re-learned—about leadership in the past year that will endure beyond the pandemic.

1. Take care of your team.

Six months into the pandemic, it was like watching people hit the proverbial wall on a long deployment. They’d slip into the weird malaise that strikes at about the six-month mark and just retract into their shells. While you might be used to hitting that wall and powering through it, most people aren’t. Remind your team to take a break, to step away from time-to-time and give their minds a rest. This is marathon, not a sprint.

2. Take care of yourself.

Nine months into a year-long deployment, as I was preparing to make an R&R trip home, my boss calmly told me, “Officers don’t take R&R. It sets a bad example.” Not only is this stupid, it’s wrong. If we learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that taking a break is absolutely essential to your mental and physical well-being. Get out. Breath some fresh air. Listen to the sounds of spring. Then go back in and tear into your day.

3. Lead by listening.

This was a tough year for a lot of people. Not everyone could revert to a deployment mindset and push on through. Not everyone had stability in their lives. And not everyone could deal with the alone-ness that came with lockdowns and self-isolation. This was a year with a lot of late-night phone calls with people on the edge; leading with a compassionate ear proved to be a critical skill.

4. Communicate clearly, often, and early.

The longer the effects of the pandemic endured, the more important it became to maintain an open and active line of communication to others: email, text, phone calls, and even (shudder) Microsoft Teams. Whatever it takes to keep the wheels of progress moving and people feeling connected.

5. Patience is a virtue.

This year tested my limited patience unlike any other. People who could be trying in the best of times found their own “new normal” and it wasn’t good. They went out of their way to make long days longer and bad days worse. Along the way, I had to remind myself that patience wins out in the end, and that Karma has an exceptionally long memory.

6. Encourage creativity.

A year into this rollercoaster ride, very little is being done in quite the same way it once was. If there was ever a time to spur a little creativity in yourself or your team, it’s now. Experiment a little. Find new ways to do old things. Along the way, you just might spark a little innovation that goes a long way toward making the future a bit brighter.

7. Maintain a battle rhythm.

In a world where chaos became the norm, it’s all the more important to stick to a routine and maintain a certain degree of structure in your days. Not only will this make you more productive, it will do wonders for your mental stability when you’re working in isolation on most days.

8. Be agile and adaptive.

These are two of the most overused terms in leadership lexicon. But even as the pandemic flipped much of our daily lives upside down, it gave new meaning to a couple of otherwise forgettable buzzwords. As COVID-19 created its own “new normal” it also created opportunities for agile, adaptive leaders to step into the void and take the initiative in new and inventive ways. The opportunities were everywhere if you just had the ability to adapt on the fly and the agility to step into the fray at the drop of a hat.

9. Be decisive.

If you’re trusted to lead, you’re expected to make decisions. That didn’t change because of a virus. People count on you to make the hard decisions when it matters most, not kick the can down the road until “all of this is over.” Being decisive became all the more important now—a decisive hand in the midst of chaos calms the seas for everyone. Be that kind of leader.

10. Remember the end goal.

As chaotic as the pandemic proved to be, it also underscored the necessity of staying focused on the task at hand. Now more than ever, we’re surrounded by distractions. Incessant white noise that threatens our ability to concentrate on what matters most. Stay focused, stay organized, and stay ready for whatever comes at you.


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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a senior fellow at the Modern War Institute; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options, and the podcast, The Smell of Victory; co-founder and board member of the Military Writers Guild; and a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal. He is the author of five books, numerous professional articles, countless blog posts, and is a prolific military cartoonist.