Skip to the content

Guest contributors: Gemma and David Sole, Partners at School for CEOs (Written 26 March 2021)


In times of crisis we look towards our leaders. We need reassurance. We need certainty. We want control.


In April 2020, at the beginning of lockdown, School for CEOs invited our Faculty of over 100 CEOs and Non-Executive leaders to share their insights on leadership through a crisis.


Above all, the prevailing piece of advice was the one thing that leaders forget in the melee – to look after themselves. Your performance as a leader will be severely hampered if you are not physically and emotionally fit to take on the challenge.

School for CEOs were concerned about the mental health of senior leaders in business; that they may have struggled to find the space and time to ‘Manage Inwards’ and that they were putting their organisation’s needs ahead of their own, making a personal sacrifice that inevitably would lead to a lose-lose situation.


To understand this better and to help organisations support their leaders, School for CEOs partnered with social psychologist, Dr Mioara Cristea, to understand the psychological impact of lockdown on senior leaders.


The research surveyed over 700 CEOs and senior business leaders from around 50 organisations across sectors. Their first finding validated these concerns: 42% of senior leaders experienced high levels of burnout during lockdown. This figure is extremely concerning, given the duty of care that business leaders hold both for the success of the business and the safety of their workforce.


However, more concerning was the inequity experienced by leaders of different ages and gender. Despite young people generally being healthier and less likely to experience the worst symptoms of Covid-19, 24-38 year olds were twice as likely to experience burnout than over 50s.


The research also put the spotlight over the role of women at home and it was surprising to learn that 25% of female leaders that lived with children took full home-schooling responsibility. So 1 in 4 women running businesses that have kids at school are simultaneously adopting the role of full time tutor while leading a business through a pandemic.


There is a huge body of research that highlights the disproportionate ratio of ‘unpaid work’ that women do. Clearly there is still much progress to be made to level the playing field.


What helped these leaders cope?

Leaders drew on a number of trusted advisors to help them lead through lockdown, although it was perhaps surprising to see that they favoured personal connections (friends, family, partners) over their colleagues.


After personal connections, leaders were leaning on their managers for support, with executives leaning on the CEO and the CEO leaning on the Board and their HR Director, who in most cases has been a close ally throughout the pandemic.

Leaders also threw themselves into the online social activities and online learning opportunities provided by their organisations. This gave them an opportunity to ‘be one of the gang’ and build trust among their wider workforce, and the learning opportunities helped reassure them and provide some external validation that they were making well informed decisions.


Today, leaders have to be more agile and adaptable than ever before. While this research presents some concerning statistics around the mental health of business leaders, it also demonstrates their desire to engage and to be open which will continue to reassure and provide certainty (where possible) to their workforce, suppliers and customers.

It is critical that these leaders do not forget about their own needs, and that they prioritise their physical, mental and emotional fitness in order to withstand the pressures of leadership in a crisis unlike any other.


What recommendations do School for CEOs have for employers?

School for CEOs offer three ‘E’s to leaders as they deal with the leadership challenge:


First: educate yourself on two levels. Understand yourself better and understand burnout and stress better. What are the situations and environments that you might feel most challenged in. When does stress become distress for you? What are your triggers?


The ability to identify triggers and the emotional and physical symptoms of burnout and poor mental health, is key to being able to address them successfully. Learn about the varying symptoms of stress but also the environments or situations that you might feel most challenged in.


Second: engage. This means asking for help, or simply just talking about things. Talking out loud helps to process thoughts and emotions in a more cognitive way which enables us to address them more effectively. It also helps build emotional connections with others, which has played an important role in coping during lockdown.


Role modelling is the single most effective lever for driving cultural change. The more leaders have these types of conversations the more this will happen through the organisation.


Third: explore. Explore different ways to promote good psychological wellbeing. Explore techniques and tools that could help build personal resilience and develop neuroplasticity, and try them out.


To have a conversation with a member of School for CEOs, email or call 0131 225 5886.


To read the full report, visit:

School for CEOs

The School for CEOs is a new executive education concept which equips senior executives with the tools they need to perform strongly as CEOs of quoted, private or family companies.

They provide practical tools for immediate use rather than academic theories and models. Pragmatic and effective, the School was founded on one premise: delivering results.