‘Psychologically Informed Leadership in a post COVID-19 world’

Dr Helen Miles
9 min readJul 10, 2020

10.07.2020: For this week’s Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) blog for the national youth homeless charity; Centrepoint, as PIE Lead I thought I would continue to reflect on some themes that have been in my thoughts and discussions with others around the ongoing development of our ‘People Strategy’ within the organisation. This is a not insignificant piece of work, which combined with psychologically informed (PIE) changes to our Single Operating Model in our Support and Housing Directorate, is hopefully going to bring about significant positive changes for our amazing staff and the homeless young people we support across the UK. As per a PIE approach, we are using this opportunity to reflect on what we are doing well (and consequently do more of this!), and consider how we can makes changes to improve other areas, where we might not be doing the best we can. Consequently, I have been having many positive and productive conversations across the organisation over recent weeks, both with our ‘frontline’ staff as well as with our ‘leaders’. In addition, as noted in previous blogs, this co-produced system wide approach to change is exciting, essential and the most effective methodology to ensure lasting organisational wide change and/or action(s) where needed.

Therefore, in this week’s blog I wanted to reflect more on the concept of ‘leadership’ and specifically, what a ‘psychologically informed’ leadership in this post COVID-19 world might look like. When we think of leaders, we often think of the leader, perhaps the CEO of an organisation, or even a Senior Executive Team. However, taking a less hierarchical approach, I have come to realise over the past year of meeting many amazing staff (and young people) that we have many different ‘leaders’ in the organisation at many different levels. This has also been shown during this COVID-19 period, wherein many individuals have ‘stepped up’ to ‘lead’ on different projects or tasks (e.g. the distribution of food or PPE to our supported accommodation services). Moreover, within each of our different ‘offers’ within Centrepoint’s ‘frontline’ teams (e.g. housing, education, engagement, health) as well as within our ‘support’ teams (e.g. fundraising, events, finance, HR, IT and performance, property management, policy and research), I have had the pleasure of meeting many ‘leaders’ who within their own area are striving hard to do the best they can for each other and the homeless young people we support.

Even in my own professional experience to date as a psychologist, sometimes I have come across individuals in traditional positions of ‘leadership’ that are not really ‘leading’ and others, who may not hold a ‘leadership title’, yet they are quietly leading their teams and inspiring others. Consequently, ‘leaders’ within an organisation aren’t always the ones necessarily at the ‘top’, and the term ‘leadership’ may be a fluid concept depending on the situation or context. Reflecting on my own journey to the position of PIE ‘Lead’ in Centrepoint, I can recall times in my previous roles, when I was called upon to ‘lead’, perhaps explicitly or at other times ‘assumed’ without status or compensation, whilst at other times (e.g. as a women working part time after having children), I struggled to have my voice heard by the ‘leaders’ around me. I am therefore now grateful to be in a position of leadership or influence, but this has also made me reflect on what a responsibility this is (including to ensure I hear other voices to my own), and also what would be the most psychologically informed approach to being a ‘leader’, particularly in these uncertain and unprecedented times.

Consequently, as a psychologist or evidence based practitioner, my first step in any reflection is to consider the evidence. I would argue, that as per a PIE approach, leadership decision making is also about the ability to seek out, understand, reflect on and apply the evidence base (whether formal or anecdotal), and to use this to inform subsequent decision making. Therefore, what does the psychology research say about ‘leadership’? Of course, there isn’t space in this blog to do a full literature review of this huge area spanning the fields of management and occupational psychology, but interested readers can learn more in Ahmed et al (2016) review here: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/293885908_Leadership_Theories_and_Styles_A_Literature_Review (or they can look up the Zaccaro et al (2018) review on leader traits and attributes and/or access this outline: https://www.businessballs.com/leadership-models/integrated-psychological-leadership-models/).

In summary, leadership theory has moved over time to consider leadership as something that one might be ‘born’ with, whether that be specific personality traits or ‘rights’ consequent of your parents status or class (c.f. ‘The Great Man Theory’), to noting that distinguishing between leaders and non-leaders might be better defined by the differences in physical traits or personality characteristics or style. For example, emergent heredity traits such as intelligence, gender or attractiveness, or acquired traits based on learning and experience, such as self-confidence and charisma (Ekvall & Arvonen, 1991). However, the failure to determine exactly ‘which traits’ were common in all leaders, has moved leadership theories on to then consider the role of situational/behavioural/contingency styles of leadership wherein leadership style is dependent upon a number of situational factors, so that ‘what behaviour works’ in some circumstances may not be effective in others (Greenleaf, 1977). Nevertheless, these models (e.g. Fiedler, 1967) have also fallen out of favour because they assume that leaders can change their behaviour in different circumstances and they would not be effected by unconscious beliefs or ‘old habits’. Consequently, functional models (e.g. Adair, 1984; Action Centred Leadership or Kouzes & Posner, 1987; The 5 Leadership Practices Model) were developed that argued that it was more important to focus on what effective leaders ‘do’ rather then how they should ‘be’, suggesting that leaders can learn the most appropriate or functional behaviours through leadership training. However, these models are arguably more about ‘management’ than ‘leadership’.

Most recently, leadership theory has moved to a more ‘integrated’ psychological model (e.g. Scouller, 2011; Three Levels of Leadership), which notes that an individual leader has public, private and personal leadership roles. In other words, a leader needs to understand and perform as a leader in their public role, but also be aware of the importance of developing themselves personally and privately so that they can behave skilfully, flexibly and authentically (e.g. ‘values based leadership’). Moreover, it is argued that leadership is a process that involves (1) setting a purpose and direction, which inspires people to combine and work towards willingly, (2) paying attention to the means, pace and quality of progress towards the aim, (3) upholding group unity, and (4) attending to individual effectiveness throughout.

This ‘integrated’ model also fits with and applies the ‘servant hearted leadership’ philosophy that our organisation has been underpinned by for some time, as I learnt on the Personal Leadership Journey training that I attended last year when I first joined Centrepoint. Specifically, this is an approach to leadership that requires the ‘leader’ to be a steward (servant) of the VISION of the organisation, to clarify and nurture this with others, and to focus on the needs of those they lead to help them to become more autonomous and knowledgeable. The ‘servant leader’ is also concerned with the ‘have-nots’ and recognizes them as equal (Greenleaf, 1996). Nevertheless, regardless of ‘leadership theory’, ‘philosophy’ or ‘style’, research indicates those leaders who practice relational and transformational styles have better quality outcomes than those who demonstrated autocracy (Cummings et al, 2010), and transformational and relational leadership styles improve positive outcomes at individual and organisational levels (Ahmed et al, 2016). This therefore highlights the importance, as per a PIE approach, of the key role of ‘relationships’ in leaders to bring about positive change, growth and development.

Therefore, how does this all fit with the current context, and our journey into this ‘new normal’ post COVID-19 world? Arguably, many aspects of our life have changed, or are still changing and so I was wondering this week if the things that we have previously valued in our leaders are still important? Whatever your view on the current UK government leadership around COVID-19, arguably what we need now is transformational and relational based rather than reactive or autocratic leadership, and arguably it has never been so critical or indeed life dependent to ensure that we get this right. In reflecting on this question this week, I came across the image for this blog, which I believe illustrates some ideas about re-thinking leadership in this new reality. In particular what struck me the most was the importance of highlighting the need for ‘psychologically informed’ leadership, or to put it another way, having leaders that are compassionate and whom display an emotional intelligence or psychological awareness of themselves and others.

This is important because one key aspect of this new reality, highlighted by COVID-19, has to be the interconnectedness of us all. This has been a global viral pandemic, which has made us all vulnerable, albeit to varying degrees. Moreover, we are likely to face increased global threats to our species (e.g. climate change) in the future. Consequently, we need leaders who can see the ‘bigger picture’ of the wider system as well as see the ‘individual needs’ within that system so that they can lead with a moral authority and inspire a more positive vision of the future than that which has gone before. Understanding that Gestalt psychology principle that the ‘whole is often greater than the sum of its parts’ is key. We also need passionate and enthusiastic leaders, who become leaders not just because of the ‘power’ or rewards that such a position grants them, but because they want to enhance the efficiency, commitment and outcomes of their team and see that raising up one person, doesn’t mean that we push down others.

Moreover, in the current era of ‘fake news’ and PR, we also need leaders who have intellectual honesty and humility. Our leaders therefore need to provide truthful, useful and correct information to others, as transparency and honesty are at the heart of relationship building and collaboration. Thus, having honesty or self-awareness of the limits of our own knowledge and experience, and be willing to seek out advice and support from others is a sign of strength not weakness (as it can sometimes be perceived). Giving space to others to learn and develop, and learning from them is arguably also critical to unlocking the full potential of any team you are leading. Our leaders also need to be persistent and preserve in these challenging times. I am certainly learning that there may be different ways to do something, and I have previously learnt the importance of continuing to try to pursue something valuable and not giving up at the first challenge!

Furthermore, as per a PIE approach (e.g. Rogers, 1959; Person Centred Counselling), our leaders need to be empathic, trustworthy and respectful/respected, for these features of our attitudes and behaviours towards others are critical in building the relationships through which leaders create results. As noted above by Scouller (2011), leaders need to have awareness of not just the psychological needs of others but also themselves, so being willing to reflect, learn and develop, as well as secure enough to give spaces for other voices to be heard, is critical. Good leaders are also role models, provide others with self-confidence and self-esteem, give them a sense of purpose and vision, encourage development and autonomy in others, and ensure that good communication, with an open and consultative approach underpins their actions (Ahmed et al, 2016).

Finally, in thinking about these attributes of a leader in this ‘new normal’, I have also wondered this week about how we can create, nurture, develop, support or train the next generation of leaders within an organisation. How do we create spaces for those with potential to become leaders? Do we see leadership as something that is just the hierarchy of an organisation or something that can be situation or context specific? How can we co-produce or even devolve some decision making in an organisation to the benefit of all those within it? In addition, how do we build the resilience of our current and future leaders, and provide the psychological support that they need so that they can support others? This last point is key, as research shows that increased psychological distress (e.g. depression, anxiety, substance use) amongst leaders led to more abusive supervision behaviours and reduced their capacity for transformational leadership (Byrne et al, 2014). These remain our challenges not only as an organisation for the Leadership pillar of our People Strategy but also as our challenges to transform our wider society. However, I would argue that psychologically informed approaches have a lot to offer to start these conversations and evidence of what might be useful to consider. We may not have all the definite answers about leadership but we do know that as per a PIE approach, ‘leadership is an art … more a weaving of relationships than an amassing of information’ (Du Pree, 1989)…



Dr Helen Miles

Consultant Clinical & Forensic Psychologist & Head of Psychologically Informed Environments (PIE) at Centrepoint @orange_madbird