Coping in a crisis – the role of the effective leader during COVD-19


12 May 2020

Coping in a crisis – the role of the effective leader during COVID-19

In difficult times, we look to our leaders to lessen the burden of crisis. Who is at the helm of your organisation really counts when the chips are down. David Slatter, Associate Director in our Executive Search team, reflects on his conversations with CEOs and MDs in his network on what the top-job look like in times of crisis. 

Over the past weeks we have, quite rightly, been standing in our windows, on our balconies and on our front steps to applaud the phenomenal work being achieved by a wide range of key workers across the NHS, social care, retail, local government and emergency services. On social media, we’ve seen many messages of support from the Chief Executives guiding these legions of key workers.

For some of us here at Penna, our daily lives involve working with the hidden leadership heroes every day of the week – the people who divert all the positive attention to the front line by ensuring their organisations are ready and prepared to deliver in these unrelenting times. These are the Chief Executives, councillors and service leaders – the people who are so easy to criticise without seeing quite how much they are contributing.

There are actions a leader can take before, during, and after a crisis to effectively reduce the duration and impact of these extremely difficult situations. At its centre, effective crisis leadership is comprised of three things — communication, clarity of vision and values, and caring relationships. All even more difficult when we are presented with one that has come to us as a bit of a shock. Let’s look at how these key factors have manifested in our leaders during this time.


Now is the time to communicate trust and thanks. A small act of gratitude from a leadership figure can go a long way to keep workforces motivated during difficult times.

Council leaders have also been quick to support the range of outstanding work in their local area. Councillor Abi Brown, the Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council is a big contributor to Twitter and has been out every day with facts and figures based on the achievements of all the council’s teams across adult and children’s services, highways, housing and refuse collection to name but a few.

The communication skills and the stance they have taken are very similar – give the big messages about the plans and the strategy but make sure that their values and those of their organisations are visible to those that make it all happen.

Clarity of vision and values

Effective leadership goes hand-in-hand with clarity. Uncertainty in your workforce is only tempered by true vision. Make the time to be transparent, it will pay off.

The COVID-19 fronting Chief Executives and leaders have been many and varied.  The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, responded to the coronavirus pandemic by deciding to close the country’s borders with a strategy based on eliminating rather than containing the virus and the country saw a decrease in cases 10 days later. This brave decision set the tone for a wide range of critical services to follow her lead.

Closer to home, we have had the benefit of seeing first-hand the leadership, bravery and strength of local government chief executives across the whole country. They are, inevitably, the ones in the traditional and social media platforms making sure that their teams, their partners and their stakeholders are all front and centre for their momentous efforts to treat those unfortunate enough to be susceptible and keep the rest of us safe and well during these ongoing challenges.

Caring relationships

Leadership through crisis is about action. Making decisive calls, difficult decisions and dealing with the issues your people bring to you. But it’s also about the softer skills; looking after your key relationships is just as important as your deeds. Those key relationships span everything from your residents, to your partners, to your leadership team, right through to your wider workforce.

There are examples up and down the country of effective leaders who are making difficult decisions but, behind the scenes they are enabling their teams to deliver and being quick to give them the credit they deserve for their own bravery in delivering some outstanding outcomes.

It is for all these reasons why we have made sure we can continue to support our public sector clients virtually, in the same way we have always done. Recruiting new leaders to their organisations might not be the priority today – if it is we’re here to help – and if not we’re ready to support them when they are. 

Want more leadership insights?

At Penna, we speak to top-table individuals in different sectors every day. As executive partners to organisations across the public sector, we’re hearing the stories of leadership through lockdown. Our job is to get you the talent you need to steer through this crisis.

We’re here to help, when you need us.

Speak to David Slatter to find out what we can do to help.