Leadership in a crisis - common traits and the importance of soft and transferable skills

In this first of a series of blogs from Perrett Laver looking at leadership in the current crisis, Imogen Sanders highlights some of the skills and characteristics that will be indispensable at the top of organisations.

Date: 29th Apr 2020

Author: Imogen Sanders, Senior Consultant at Perrett Laver

In this first of a series of blogs looking at leadership in the current crisis, Imogen Sanders highlights some of the skills and characteristics that will be indispensable at the top of organisations.


Strong, contemporary governance has never been as critical as during this current unprecedented crisis. Undoubtedly, those organisations that have invested time and effort in developing this leadership layer and, critically, a positive board culture will see dividends as, whilst the future is uncertain, effective scrutiny and support remain predictors of success.

During the past few weeks, boards have been required to mitigate acute uncertainty and significant immediate risks. Against a backdrop of closures and cancellations, diminished workforces, uncertain income streams, and tested morale, we have seen Directors across all sectors make swift decisions. Furthermore, these decisions have had to be enacted in highly unfamiliar contexts, often with limited access to signatories, and collaborating and debating across virtual platforms. In battling the day-to-day of this new reality, they are also having to prepare their organisations for the future. Directors have had to be decisive and agile to move through the now, yet focused on the future and creative in considering innovation.

The challenges presented by this pandemic have also called for heightened accountability of the Executive and leadership teams. Lockdown has necessitated expert and nuanced scrutiny, balanced with unquestionable empathy and support, all from a distance. In times where many CEOs are making monumental decisions that could impact the future of an organisation, boards have had to be alert and vigilant, yet highly compassionate and available across screens and phone lines without stepping on toes.

As uncertainty and remote working continue as the new norms, it is our belief that many of the “soft” and “transferable” skills so frequently regarded as secondary to track record will prove themselves essential. Of course, the latter will always remain a requirement, but the current situation reminds us now more than ever of the importance of going beyond a candidate’s CV. As well as the words and successes on a page, we must assess leadership style, and we must remember the value of transferable skills and flexibility, as well as deep domain expertise.

Based on our experience working with boards across fields and our most recent research, we present here some common traits of the highest performing leaders and teams, all of which are being bought into strong focus during this time:

Inclusivity and Low Ego

If ever there were a time to realise that not one person can do it all, now is that time. Sourcing ideas and listening to diverse perspectives, founded both on professional competencies and life experiences, will provide the fullest picture of risks and opportunities. By allowing group think or isolated leadership, or hearing only from a narrow range of points of view, you risk missing critical insight, innovation, and buy-in.

Trust and Transparency

With teams feeling potentially removed and distant, battling family commitments and without the usual water cooler moments, leaders must find ways to ensure communication is authentic and purposeful. A board’s responsibility in setting the tone, and likewise retaining a culture of trust and transparency with the Executive and each other alike, will be instrumental. As we try to read body language over video and bring together physically dispersed members, it is inevitably more difficult to build interpersonal relationships and infuse a sense of togetherness. Hence, boards must be proactive in explicitly encouraging openness, ensuring all voices are heard, empowering and showing faith in fellow board members and the top teams, and keeping sense of common purpose forefront of mind.

Independence and Objectivity

At times such as these when the executive team are embroiled in the everyday, non-executives’ neutral perspectives will help pull back from the detail and recall the big picture. Whilst the CEO is naturally immersed in crisis response, non-executive directors are there to ensure that the organisation stays true to its ultimate purpose and values, and to consider the impact on a much wider range of stakeholders. This is perhaps particularly critical in sporting contexts when leadership may have personal, long histories with a sport and its structures, members and volunteers. Whilst leaders need not be entirely dispassionate or disconnected, they must be self-aware so as not to be ruled by these emotions.

Despite undeniably tough and testing times, we feel privileged to have witnessed some of the world’s best leaders in action over past weeks. For the most part, much of what is demonstrated is not sector or profession specific. Of course, knowledge and experience matter, but it is only when these are coupled with emotional intelligence that we see a path paved to success.

Imogen Sanders is a Senior Consultant at Perrett Laver, a leading international executive search firm working with mission-driven sectors worldwide. She is the lead for a major Sport England and UK Sport funded project aimed at enhancing diversity in non-executive leadership across the sector, through the identification, engagement and development of a network of “board-ready” candidates.
You can reach Imogen at imogen.sanders@perrettlaver.com or connect via LinkedIn.