For social and environmental sector leaders, having time to reflect is one of the most commonly cited benefits of participating in a leadership programme. Reflection can’t be easily ‘diarised’ — it arises out of other spaces in two main ways. Formally, through the touchpoints such as team learning sessions, or within coaching and mentoring (and other leadership development processes). And informally, through the happenstance of conversation and meetings — or in the spaces between those, when looking out of a window on the way home from work, or walking. Opportunities for both these kinds of reflection have been reduced during the COVID-19 period; heavy workloads and concern about resources have hampered the more formal reflection points and working from home has brought an end to those often fruitful in-between spaces and journeys to meetings and events.

At the same time, during COVID, many voluntary sector leaders have been under extraordinary pressure, particularly those delivering front-line services. Watching hardship of all kinds unfold — increased unemployment, mental health problems, rising domestic violence — and knowing what this will do to the lives of the people their organisations support can be incredibly difficult to manage. At the same time, leaders feel responsible for staff and volunteer emotional well-being. They may also be witnessing public-facing sources of finance collapse and the trust and foundation funding landscape is redrawn. And, of course, dealing with the all personal pressures that COVID can entail: working from home, supporting elderly relatives and/or children, concern about one’s own financial future or mental health.

At a time of crisis, it is tempting to lean into the operational, to take comfort in process and to focus purely on delivery. Yet from across the programmes our consultancy m2 is working on, we are hearing from leaders that time and space to stop and think is more important than ever. It helps them to reconnect with their passion and purpose, to think about why they do what they do as well as what they need to do. This might open up thinking about strategy, creative solutions to new challenges, or how their unique set of skills and responses will help them to manage. Or it might simply offer a space to rest and refresh.

The benefits of finding space beyond the to-do list are felt beyond the individual. m2 frequently hears that ensuring leaders are supported to reflect enables them to run their organisations more energetically and strategically, benefiting the people who need them the most and helping staff to cope. During this time, leaders should be supported to access formal opportunities, such as those available via IVAR, The King’s Fund, and others — many of which are free to join. Making time to benefit from informal opportunities also matters.

We have heard how leaders are actively reaching out to try and meet one new person a week, having WhatsApp book group chats, or setting aside specific reading time for their teams to try and replicate some of the thinking space that, pre-COVID, would be found with little effort. Opening up these spaces can feel like a luxury when time and resources are under so much pressure, but the evidence suggests that supporting leaders in this way should be seen as a necessity for organisations looking to ensure a sustainable future in a post-pandemic world.