Andrew Day
14 January, 2022

We all have opinions about our leaders. Be it on what they are doing effectively, ineffectively, or not doing at all. Some of these views are based on first-hand experience and thought-through judgements whilst others reflect projections, prejudices, or unrealistic ideals. How many of us, however, truly understand what it’s like to be part of the executive team for an institution?

Throughout 2021, we enquired into the ‘lived’ experience of executive teams in leading their organisations. Our findings revealed both the unique challenges that leadership teams experienced during the pandemic and more universal experiences that come with the role.

We discovered that executive teams:

• Increasingly face existential questions, in addition to strategic and operational challenges, that require them to think deeply about their organisation’s role, purpose and impact in society
• Face immediate demands on their time and attention that distracts them from taking a longer-term perspective
• Feel scrutinised from all directions and experience demands that at times feel overwhelming
• Grapple with anxieties and doubts when making important decisions
• Experience structural and cultural dynamics that cause them to fragment, making it hard for them to collaborate and work together, and
• Find it hard to (or avoid) exploring their emotional experiences, ambivalences, and anxieties.

For many teams, the demands on them risked exceeding their capacity to cope. When this happened their attention narrowed and they tended to lose their emotional boundaries. This meant that they were less able to access their capabilities as a team. They were therefore less resourced to engage with the big strategic, operational and existential questions facing them and their organisations. They also experienced stress and felt at risk of burnout.

Executive teams that were more resilient and capable in their leadership tended to:

• Take time to clarify their role and desired impact
• Acknowledge and process transitions in their membership
• Reflect together on their work as a team
• Be mindful of where they focus their attention when they are under pressure
• Explore their ambivalences when making decisions
• Take risks to speak openly and directly with each other, and
• Actively build trust and support with their stakeholders and across wider networks.

This is a high-level summary of our findings. If you would like to read more, you can download a copy of our research report at:

Unspoken Life of Executive Teams

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