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Leadership in the Shadows: The Unacknowledged Costs of Virtual Leadership


Written By:

Ginny Baillie

Trusted Leadership Coach and Culture Change Consultant



I gathered with some leaders to talk about their experience of hybrid working but found I had to crowbar them away from how efficient and convenient it all was. It was clearly uncomfortable to talk about it since the conversation pooled around how great it all was. With some prompting we were then quickly and easily into the dark side.

Leaders don’t struggle all the time. We all have good days. It doesn’t take much to be triggered into a bad day. You know the feeling, it was all going so well, then just at the end of the meeting someone says something that’s infuriating/upsetting/just weird, the screen goes blank, and you’re left on your own and it’s downhill from there.

We can all find evidence to back up what we want to believe and yes, how very handy being able to manage people in different locations from all over. In one sense, we must believe it works because this is the way it is now. For a leader the landscape has altered irrevocably and there’s little discussion acknowledging this and working out ways to excel at it.

The top stresses that I have seen in my work with leaders is:

  • Little potential for informal knowledge gathering; pre-covid, the office environment provided huge amounts of information from casual conversations, sensing, observing and being able to pop in and out of connections. Leaders feel out of touch now.
  • Poor self-care leading to a rise of the ‘holics’. Workaholic, alcoholic, junk food, caffeine, and energy drinks. For instance, leaders are postponing their morning routines to be on the 7am.
  • Working from home has started to feel like house arrest for those whose companies are entirely virtually led. No change of scenery, blurred time boundaries, and the New York call at odd hours becomes an expectation.
  • Strained mental health: the rise of tears and exhaustion in sessions makes it hard for leaders to be confident in their decision making.
  • Delivering bad news feels higher risk – no physical presence, low confidence in how it's landing – the pressure to get it right is overwhelming.
  • Leaders are expected to be everything for their teams. They risk putting themselves in a vulnerable space to meet a team members need and no-one’s there to pick up on it.

To that last point, who is looking out for the leader? We notice you can’t get a cigarette paper between their meetings. This means that taking time for themselves, connecting with other leaders to talk about this feels impossible – task is king and operational efficiency a (false) god.

Here are some ideas that companies might want to consider.

  • Treat this as urgent. Hybrid working is here now and your leaders might be drowning.
  • Reflect on your experience. If you find it tough, you're not alone. Start talking about it with allies, your L&D team, HR – get the conversation rolling
  • Survey your leaders on virtual working impact and let them know why you are doing it. Make it anonymous to get the real picture. Ask good questions to get what’s truly going on.
  • Explore the market and/or your network. How are other companies/people thinking about this? What are they doing that’s useful for you?
  • Consider Drum thinking spaces. Drum can help leaders navigate these challenges together.

Whether you're saving on office costs or not, get everyone together in real life a couple of times a year. No agenda cramming – focus on things you can't do online. Build relationships, have fun, and talk about what really matters.

Rethinking the realities of what it is to lead strongly in this age means shifting away from task and operations being the only things that matter. There’s a shadow side to these efficiencies, we need to think about how we acknowledge this and work out a way to align what’s truly important in our business.

Business News Wales