NHS England & Improvement

Leadership support circles Managing in a Crisis (Covid-19) Project


In early March 2020, as Covid-19 was breaking out across the world, Chief People Officer of the NHS Prerana Isaar – with the NHS England and Improvement People Directorate – set up a workforce cell to anticipate and respond to the specific needs of our staff across the NHS system. Part of the cell’s work, led by Professor Em Brice-Wilkinson was to provide the physical, emotional and practical support needed by staff contending with unprecedented demands.

The Challenge

The fundamental challenge facing the project team was in providing much needed support to a hard-pressed management community, in a form that would be immediate, easy to access, and which would resonate with a highly diverse audience.  

The Solution

Our starting point was a “buildathon” – a virtual agile design event, bringing together around 30 expert contributors from the Centre for Army Leadership, NHS England and Improvement, the Leadership Academy and from the psychological and wellbeing practitioner communities.  Conveyed by Passe-Partout, the group worked at pace to create the basis of our offer to line managers.   Having a military perspective was particularly valuable for our appreciation of how the most successful leaders operate in crisis conditions. 

  1. The offer is underpinned by a unique ten-point plan on “leading compassionately through COVID-19”
  2. It includes a series of authoritative and support three minute guides, each linked to a theme in the ten-point plan…
  3. There is a range of dynamic supporting resources, including videos and podcasts offering bite-sized guidance from experts like Michael West, and perspectives from leaders and managers across the system
  4. Leadership Support Circles provide an interactive forum for managers, described in more detail below.

Working in this agile way helped the team respond quickly to new developments, ensuring that all content reflected the up-to-the-minute understanding of key priorities and concerns as the crisis unfolded.  One important example relates to the emergence in early April of data showing the disproportionate impact of the virus on BAME clinicians – early appreciation of this critical issue, enabled the team to ensure that inclusive leadership is highlighted and integrated throughout the ten-point plan and supporting resources.

The Leadership Support Circles represent perhaps the most innovative and durable element of our solution – an interactive, virtual format giving leaders a space to come together, share experience and work through the complex challenges arising from responding to COVID-19.    

Outcomes and benefits

Our offer to managers was launched on May 11th – effectively what would normally have been a six-month initiative took weeks and has taught us a great deal about how rapid design can be achieved. 

Reception for the 10-point plan and supporting resources has been universally appreciative  – specifically for the direct, practical messaging; and for the fact that the material recognises and provides guidance on reconciling the conflicts managers are faced with in a pressurised context, such as how to be both compassionate and decisive.

To date the most direct evidence of positive impact is coming from participation in the Leadership Support Circles (LSCs). 

Looking ahead, perhaps the most important outcome so far has been the establishment of a national network of LSC facilitators (300 from 165 organisations) with early adopters from County Durham and Darlington through Manchester University and Guys and St Thomas’ to Cornwall NHS Foundation Trusts. 

Having proved the method works and that the appetite is strong, and with the capability now in place for system-wide implementation, we feel well placed to support health and social care employers through reset and recovery. 

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