Leaders in Lockdown: How and why resilience is key for the new year by Atholl Duncan

By Guest Contributor Atholl Duncan

Author Atholl Duncan explains why resilience will be so important in the new year, based on his newest book Leaders In Lockdown.


By Jackie Kay

Remember, the time of year
when the future appears
like a blank sheet of paper
a clean calendar, a new chance.
On thick white snow
You vow fresh footprints
then watch them go
with the wind’s hearty gust.
Fill your glass. Here’s tae us. Promises
made to be broken, made to last


New Year is a time for renewal – a time for a fresh start. This year perhaps more so than at any other time in our lives.  So many will want to leave the pain and anxiety of 2020 in the past and imagine a better future.

Most of us will make resolutions. These traditionally focus on fitness, diet and weight loss. Eighty per cent either fail or are forgotten about by February. (It takes 66 days of repeating a new habit for it to become permanent. But that’s another story.)

The pandemic has shown that the way we used to live and the way we did business is not fit for the future. But will we seize the moment and transform business and society? Or will we be too busy being busy?



For the book Leaders in Lockdown we captured the thoughts of 28 global business leaders on how the world must change because of what we’ve been through in 2020. The views of the world’s most thoughtful business leaders were aligned. “With COVID-19 every single long-held belief has been thrown out of the window,” according to Christian Lanng, the CEO of Silicon Valley tech unicorn Tradeshift.

The US four-star General Stan McChrystal, the man who commanded the mission to capture Saddam Hussein, puts it like this,

“There are a few organizations that sadly have leaders who are waiting to snap back in muscle memory and get back to the way it was. That’s a false idea. There is no going back because your competition is going to a better place. Anyone who gets caught going back to the rear is going to pay a terrible price.”

While the EMEA CEO of Zurich Insurance Group, Alison Martin, articulated the choice that we really face as we head into 2021.

“This is an opportunity for a huge wake-up call to be heard. This could be the reset year for all of us to say – what is that world we want to aspire for our children to live in? Can we try and build that one rather than the one we were destroying six months ago?”

The challenges that we face in 2021 are mind numbingly colossal. For a start, we are staring into a massive unemployment crisis which will impact disproportionately on the young and the poorer in society. Some depict this as the possibility of a “lost generation”.

Leena Nair, the Chief Human Resources Officer for global giant Unilever sees it like this,

“We’re staring into one of the defining challenges of our times, which is unemployment. We need to really lean into it and solve the social inequality. It is my hope that we will tackle these issues head on. My fear is that organizations might just go back to bad behaviours. A vaccine comes along, and people go back to doing things we did in the past. There is a hope and a fear. The jury is very much out on which will win out.”



But it is not just individuals who are staring into poverty. The cost of the crisis will also weigh disproportionately on the poorer countries in the world.

Gary Liu, the CEO of the South China Morning Post is a sage observer,

“We are going to see the rich countries dominate access to the vaccine and the poor countries have almost none. The speed to get to the vaccine is going to determine the speed of economic recovery, because getting everyone back to work the way that we’ve had in the past is going to require a fully vaccinated population. There are going to be countries that come out of this many years faster than other countries. And the countries that are going to come out of this faster will be the ones that are already developed and economically stronger. So, the inequality issue is going to be so much larger.”

Sacha Romanovitch is the CEO of Fair4All Finance. She used to run the accountancy firm Grant Thornton in the UK. She says,

“The one thing this proves is that trickle-down economics doesn’t work. Much of caring for the most vulnerable has been delegated to charities. What we are seeing with the fallout from COVID-19 is that it’s the most vulnerable who are being squeezed the most.”

She believes, “We really need to create space for insight and reflection. People must have the opportunity to appreciate – what has been different about their lives over these months and what do they want to be different in the future? It may be a zillion little changes by individuals that create the new normal. But we need to actively redesign our lives in this new context.”

Osvald Bjelland, the CEO of advisory firm Xynteo, describes our future challenge like this,

“This growth model has ended up on the rocks. The conflict between humans and nature is untenable. We can no longer avoid the conflict between the few and the many with more and more money in the pockets of the few. The intergenerational stress between young and old and between short term and long term needs to be seriously addressed.”



All our leaders in lockdown agreed that COVID-19 had brought society to a crossroads. We can choose one path or another.

We owe it to our children and our grandchildren not to go back to the way we were. We owe it to the millions who’ve been infected and the many hundreds of thousands of people who died to not let this moment pass idly by. We must use the memory of the experience of COVID-19 to make this year’s New Year resolutions stick. It is only thought the new habits of many that we will improve our world and improve the lives of the eight billion people who inhabit this planet. How successful will we be in this endeavour? In the end, as always, it all comes down to leadership.


ATHOLL DUNCAN is the Chair of the leadership development business, Black Isle Group. He worked as a journalist, TV producer and executive for the BBC for more than 20 years. He was Head of News and Current Affairs for BBC Scotland from 2007 to 2011. Atholl is an Insead certified executive coach, who has studied leadership at Harvard and Cranfield. He is currently Chair of the Scottish salmon industry, which is Britain’s largest food exporter; Audit Chair of a cinema business; Chair of UK Coaching, and is a Non-Executive Director and former Chair of the British Horseracing Authority. He works mainly in London and internationally and has a home in Scotland.

Website: https://blackislegroup.com/lockdown/ 

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/athollduncan

Suggested Reading

Leaders in Lockdown is a unique insight from the women and men who were on the front line of leading the business world’s fight against COVID-19. From New York to Singapore to Hong Kong to the City of London, it captures a remarkable moment in time – when the global economy was brought to a shuddering halt in the struggle to contain a deadly pandemic. These first-hand accounts of 100 days of lockdown tell stories of leadership in a crisis. They also share the wisdom of some of the world’s most thoughtful business leaders as they predict how the world will change because of COVID-19.

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