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7 learnings from an ‘unprecedented’ year to improve your leadership, voice and presence in 2021

Updated: Mar 10, 2023

If you are anything like me, 2021 couldn’t get here fast enough. Who doesn’t want the year of lockdown behind them? But the thing about last year is it was bursting at the seams with ‘unprecedented’ events – and that offers some useful learning.

So, as we head into what I hope will be a much healthier and happier new year for everyone, I wanted to reflect on several ‘unprecedented’ events from last year and what they might teach us about leadership, voice, and presence for the year ahead.


What happened in 2020?


The Prime Minister gave a live broadcast locking down the UK. 27m people tuned in – it became a ‘most watched’ in British history.

A week later the PM disappeared from public view – hospitalised with coronavirus.

Six days later the Queen gave her first ever Easter message.

What Her Majesty can teach us about leadership, voice and presence

In times of crisis and change people want visible leadership. No matter how dire the circumstance or what is unknown – people need to see and hear from their leaders.

The Queen stepped up, bridging the communications gap. She used her Easter Saturday message to reassure and unite - addressing those “of every culture, all faiths and of none”. She used the lighting of (Easter) candles to symbolise: “Light overcoming darkness”. Powerful imagery to inspire hope at an uncertain time.


What happened in 2020?


A month before he turned 100, Tom Moore set himself a goal. He wanted to raise £1,000 for ‘NHS Charities Together’. His plan: to walk 100 laps of his garden – 1.6 miles.

By the end of the year he:

· Raised more than £32m

· Was knighted

· Saw his birthday honoured with an RAF flypast, and

· Became the oldest cover star for British GQ magazine.

What Captain Tom can teach us about leadership, voice and presence

The smallest steps can lead to the biggest achievements – you just need to find the courage to take them.

You need not start with a big audience to make your mark.

Your age makes no difference to the power of your voice. In his 100th year Captain Tom addressed and inspired a nation...


What happened in 2020?


I don’t regret what I did.” That’s what the PM’s closest advisor, Dominic Cummings, said. He was giving a press conference about flouting lockdown rules. National rules he’d help put in place.

The PM came under fire for failing to call for his resignation. But the reprieve didn’t last long. Less than 6-months later, after continued infighting, Cummings left.

What this tells us about leadership, voice and presence

Walking the talk is more important than talking the talk.

How you think impacts your words and body language.

What you say and how you say it matter.

Cummings didn't look confident from the interview’s outset. He read at length from a script, barely looking at his audience.

When the crunch question came - about whether he was sorry – Cummings’ body language screamed disinterest. It mirrored his words: ‘I don't regret what I did’.

Watch Dominic Cummings’ full press conference (below) especially, at the 15-minute marker, his body language as he responds to ITV’s key question as to whether he’s sorry for what he did.


What happened in 2020?


As the school holidays approached, Marcus Rashford was obsessed. Not about professional football, but food… or rather a lack of it.

Rashford spoke about his struggles with food poverty growing up - to lobby government for free school meals, so thousands of children wouldn’t go hungry over the holidays. A campaign he won - with the Prime Minister personally phoning Rashford with the news.

What Marcus Rashford can teach us about leadership, voice and presence

You can broaden your expertise and what you are known for. Anyone can do this – it is not the preserve of celebrity.

A lone voice can make a connection and a difference – more than a million people signed Rashford’s petition.

Lived experiences:

· Are a great way to broaden what you are known for

· Enable you to speak authentically from the heart

· Connect you with those you might not otherwise meet.

You can see one of Marcus Rashford’s brilliant first interviews about his campaign here: Marcus Rashford speaks of experience with childhood poverty in bid for free school meals – video | Football | The Guardian


What happened in 2020?


At 94 years young David Attenborough joined Instagram.

His purpose: To warn us ‘the world is in trouble’.

David Attenborough's Instagram
David Attenborough's Instagram

In just four hours Sir David broke a world record, becoming the fastest to reach a million Instagram followers.

Just two months later Sir David stopped posting. His account is still live to host his closing message and now has 6.2M followers.

What Sir David can teach us about leadership, voice, and presence

Doing something unexpected can grab people’s attention.

Where and when you choose to speak matters.

Showing up outside your ‘usual’ environment extends your network.

In a noisy world knowing when to stop speaking is a critical skill.

Sir David’s closing message is powerful given its just 1m26s. It’s a short, hopeful message in which we learn:

· Climate change means our world is in trouble.

· Sir David has passed on the things he wanted to share.

· This isn’t his story, it’s everyone’s, so it’s time for him to be quiet.

· The world’s next chapter remains unwritten.

· And there’s still time for us to determine how that story ends.

You can watch Sir David’s strong, succinct closing message in this article:


What happened in 2020?


Pfizer CEO, Albert Bourla, had game-changing information. A COVID-19 vaccine with results indicating 90% efficacy.

But Bourla also had a critical decision to make - when to speak. The trial results he had were from partial, unpublished, data – yet to be peer reviewed.

Bourla decided to go public. The news saw Pfizer’s share price jump 7.7%, and global stock markets hit record highs.

What this can tell us about leadership, voice, and presence

What you say is critical but when you say it can be a game-changer.

Leaders must often speak, even when they don’t have a full picture.

You don’t need to speak first to make an impact, but when you do it can take real courage. Bourla shared this in his filmed interview:

I was feeling the pressure of the hopes of so many billions of people… I was humanly worried, but to know it’s 90% positive… that gave me a joy I cannot describe.

Watch Albert Bourla’s game-changing interview – he comes in at the 1 min marker.


What happened in 2020?


Both Michelle and Barack Obama won awards for their voices.

Michelle’s a Grammy for best spoken word for her audiobook ‘Becoming’.

Barack’s an outstanding voice in literature award from PEN America, for his memoir ‘A Promised Land’ which sold more than 1.7 m copies in its first week.

The Obamas understand the power of their own voices, both opting to personally narrate their own audiobooks. Barack’s runs to 29 hours of narration. Michelle’s (just) 19 hours. ‘Becoming’ has spent seven months topping Audible’s chart.

What the Obamas teach us about leadership, voice, and presence

You don’t need to hold the top job to get people to listen to you.

Your role doesn’t define you – your actions, your voice and your presence do.

It’s five years since this couple occupied The White House yet both continue to confidently use their voices and remain in demand.

People love to hear the human voice. Lockdown has intensified demand for the spoken word. Audiobooks and podcasts both surged in 2020.

Speaking with confidence is critical to happiness and success. You may not start with the vocal confidence the Obamas project, but there are practical things you can do to make your voice more impactful.



I want to close this piece with two events that signal hope and optimism for 2021. Both are evidence that you can make an impact without saying a word.

Following months of protests about the killing of George Floyd, a ‘far right’ protestor lay beaten on the ground at a demonstration. Black Lives Matter supporter, Patrick Hutchinson, stepped in – picking up the beaten protestor and carrying him to safety. The photo of his actions made a powerful statement.

You’ll find it and Patrick’s subsequent message: "Anything that descends into violence, you lose the message" in GQ here.

And, then there was New Zealand’s rugby team, the All Blacks, who did something unexpected before their game against Argentinian team, Los Pumas. Earlier that week Argentina had said goodbye to football legend, Diego Maradona. Before their traditional pre-match Haka, the All Blacks lay a rugby jersey bearing Maradona’s name and number on the halfway line. That gesture crossed countless invisible boundaries and moved millions.

These silent acts, and the extraordinary efforts of humanity to combat Covid-19, are for me images of unity that I will draw on to navigate whatever ‘unprecedented’ events this year brings.

Happy New Year.

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