Coaching Through COVID – The how of leading a team to enable growth out of crisis by Lindsay Wittenberg & Rachel Ellison

What are the leadership lessons from the success of this pro-bono emergency response intervention?

Coaching through COVID was an experiment. It went from concept to initial design to the first person being coached, within 10 days – three days after the start of the first UK lock-down in March 2020.

The numbers so far

  • 260 coaches
  • 406 NHS and care frontline workers have received coaching
  • 48 hospitals in the programme
  • Core team of 12

Its aim is to support NHS and care staff to find meaning, purpose and growth from their experiences of working through the coronavirus pandemic. A pro-bono programme, it offers each coachee up to 12 one-hour free coaching sessions. It offers space to attend to one’s own wellbeing, before looking after others. The coaching builds resilience without having to pretend, supporting the avoidance of burnout and the management of trauma.

Coaching through COVID serves healthcare workers from consultants, nurses and porters to midwives, physiotherapists and hospital pharmacists. Helping individual front-liners to cope better supports the wider NHS and the social care sector, and therefore all of us.

The leadership ethos

We began like a turbo-charged start-up, operating at speed. The four co-founders are experienced executive leadership coaches who embody exceptionally high levels of compassion and psychological safety, and an adaptive leadership style. Psychological safety, based on research by Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard University, requires creating an environment in which people believe that if they make a mistake, propose a new idea, ask for help, or say ‘I don’t know’, they will not be overtly or implicitly undermined, criticised, ignored, shut down or punished. In the presence of psychological safety, the best thinking of the team is released, enabling creativity, agility and collaboration.

This is leadership that is ego-minimised and adaptive. This way of working is about being rather than doing. The focus is consistently on the work, the coach and the coachee, not on dominating, winning, status, or fear of what you can and cannot say. Ego-minimised leadership creates an ease of experimenting, learning and growth, and adaptive leadership enables the capacity to thrive, calling on experimentation and relying on diversity.

Ego-minimised and psychologically safe teams are more agile than the converse. Their members can revisit and change things faster, and they are not overly attached to their own ideas. Thus a collective intelligence emerges – and collective intelligence is always superior to a single person’s intelligence, releasing more options and possibilities.

Our core team has doubled. Our coach cohort is now around 260. We are constantly harvesting a multitude of new ideas: everything is heard. And with the addition of agility, what was a good idea today can be nimbly adjusted when circumstances have changed tomorrow. We are serving the whole rather than helping or fixing.

More about success

Our team meetings start with a shared mindfulness practice (which allows us to become more aware and conscious) and a check-in to tune in to how we really are and what each of us is noticing, so that we can enquire into what needs most attention and harness collective intelligence. It is not just about speaking but about the quality of listening we all give. Everyone in this team has an equal voice.

Our psychological safety and mindfulness account in large part for why we have got up and running so fast, and why we have had such impact.

Diving inside the NHS: getting onto the wards

Coaching through COVID began with a pilot at the Royal Free Hospital in London, and is promoted in hospitals from within, by champions who are frontline staff. We also work with some hugely helpful organisational development and learning & development managers who have promoted the programme and have enabled us to avoid becoming bogged down in a tangle of bureaucratic process. We wanted to start coaching straight away. And we did.

The right blend

We needed highly experienced, mature coaches, with high passion and high compassion. They need to be able to sit with or offer ‘containment’ for difficult, upsetting or even traumatic issues without pushing for solutions as a less mature coach might. They also need to be psychologically- and systemically-minded.

The ethos of the core team transmits to the coaches. Psychologists call this transference. Our compassionate stillness of stance somehow threads its way through the core team, our volunteer coaches and on to the clients. Those receiving coaching consistently report renewed confidence, higher resilience, better capacity to prioritise and delegate. They tell us they feel less alone when under intense stress. They are more productive. Many say they have rediscovered their purpose in coming to work.

This teaches us that how managers and leaders behave infuses the system – influencing and changing the people they lead and the quality of their patient care.


Coaching through COVID is working. These are some of the outcomes our clients tell us about:

‘My coachee told me she saved a patient from committing suicide, and she reflected that she couldn’t have done this without the coaching support she’s been receiving’

I feel empowered, curious, confident, valued, calmer, happier’

‘I’m noticeably calmer, more resilient’

I used to stress about shifts before they happened. Now I’m learning mindfulness techniques and ways of approaching this’

We are acutely aware of the implications for coachees’ sustainability, patient safety, team effectiveness, leaders’ and team members’ wellbeing, and even family relationships.

Leaders can take learning from these outcomes by reflecting on a more collaborative style of leadership and behaviours that bring valuable results: truly listening (which raises engagement, motivation, morale and team effectiveness and cohesion), responding to team members’ real needs, and setting aside a ‘heroic leadership’ style in favour of compassion, psychological safety and collective intelligence.

Leadership themes

You can use these themes to create discussion and reflection for yourself and those you lead. Don’t feel you have to convene a special meeting. Do it at the water-cooler. On a walk with the dog. Think in nature.

  • Finding meaning, purpose and growth
  • Attending to your own and team members’ wellbeing
  • High psychological safety
  • High compassion
  • Ego-minimised and adaptive leadership
  • Agility versus rigidity
  • What has been heard, and what has not been heard today?
  • Equal voice: capitalising on diversity and inclusion
  • Empowering and influencing others
  • Unload to reload

Lindsay Wittenberg Ltd.

Former human rights leader, now executive leadership coach. Specialist knowledge of wellbeing, resilience, trauma and psychological safety. Co-founder of Coaching Through COVID programme, leading on client relationships, and serving frontline healthcare workers in the NHS and the care sector. @LindsayWittenbg

Rachel Ellison MBE Ltd.

Former BBC news reporter and international project manager, now executive leadership coach. Specialist knowledge of emerging economies, international conflict zones, resilience & burn out. A coach on the Coaching Through COVID programme, serving frontline healthcare workers in the NHS. Author: Panic & Pandemic – a series of articles on leadership in crisis.

Declaration of interests 

We have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: Lindsay and Rachel offer both paid and pro-bono coaching to leaders across the commercial, public and third sectors.


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