Pandemic Leadership: Lessons from New Zealand

The entire world since 2019 has been engulfed by a deadly virus. Who would have thought that lives would be taken over by a microscopic entity that will leave us with the new meaning of a ‘normal life’? The coronavirus pandemic proves to be the largest test of political leadership that the world has ever witnessed. Every leader has his way and ideas to fight COVID-19, leaders are being judged by the statistics that the country has in terms of recovery, deaths, and active cases.

This entire pandemic has been nothing less than a forest fire, which could be put out in some places but not everywhere. It is important to define an intelligible objective, from which a strategy and course of action can emerge. The country which has managed to control this life-threatening disease is New Zealand.

New Zealand, a country of only 5 million people, may have benefitted from its small size, remoteness, and low population. However, there is no denying the fact that its leader Jacinda Ardern has a lot to be credited for in its fight with COVID-19. The entire world is a witness to her exemplary leadership which has made her earn a place in all possible articles and journals that tagged her as the most effective leader. This was not as easy as it seems, she was confronted with three grave situations- a mass shooting by an extremist in two mosques in Christchurch killing 51 people on March 15, 2019; a deadly volcano that erupted on December 9, 2019; and now, the global virus. This entire situation has been nothing less than a test.

Therefore, this paper aims to explore her leadership quotient by drawing a parallel of her style with various models given by professors across the world. The paper will also focus on other factors like public agents, followers, and their roles in fighting a major crisis. The main aim will be to scrutinize the research question and find answers as to whether a leader plays the primary and pivotal role in the country when it comes to a pandemic like COVID-19.

When COVID-19 first clutched the globe in March 2020, world leaders found themselves trapped with an unknown threat. Initially, the countries made rapid decisions which resulted in, their country either flourishing or floundering. Countries found themselves gripped in a major crisis as the future seemed uncertain, thereby making people accept the ‘new normal.’ As many countries have lived with this deadly virus for one complete year and continue to do so even now with different mutants, of course, the situation however has not been the same in some parts of the world.

While some political leaders learned to navigate through this uncharted territory, many found themselves in a leadership and health crisis. It became increasingly comprehensible that countries with the lowest transmission and death rates all had peas in a pot. A study published in the Centre for Economic Policy Research and World Economic Forum found that countries with female leaders at the helm seem to have handled the Coronavirus significantly better than their male counterparts. It was probed by 194 countries hit by COVID-19. However, since only 19 countries had women leaders, the researchers used a ‘nearest neighbor’ method based on socio-demographic factors, pairing Germany, New Zealand, and Bangladesh with male-led Britain, Ireland, and Pakistan. According to John Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker, as of August 20, Germany has more than 9000 coronavirus deaths, while the UK has more than 41,000; New Zealand has 22, while Ireland has more than 1,700, and Bangladesh has reported 3,500 fatalities as compared to Pakistan’s more than 6,000.

The study carried out by Supriya Garikipati, University of Liverpool and Uma Kambhampati, University of Reading, revealed that “proactive and coordinated policy responses” adopted by female leaders in the initial three months of the pandemic in female-led countries saved nearly two times more lives than those run by male leaders despite having a similar number of cases. Moreover, an important facet the study highlighted is the fact that women were less willing to take risks with lives and imposed a nationwide lockdown significantly earlier than male leaders. Concurrently, they were more willing to take risks in the domain of the economy. They also feel that decisive and clear communication along with participative leadership could have played a part.

Why have female leaders fared better than men?

Alison Pullen, Joint Editor-in-Chief of the bimonthly academic journal Gender, Work and Organisation, believes that answers may lie in traditional parameters of what constitutes a leader. Countries like the US and Brazil, which have had high transmission and death rates have male leaders who are reinforcing the traditional value of what a leader is- independent, aggressive and irrational. People have realized that in these difficult times the world needs more empathy, warmth, and honesty. All the feminine qualities, which are generally regarded as irrational in the field of politics, turned out to be significant enough to save thousands of lives.

New Zealand and Britain: A Comparison

Both countries had a contrasting way of announcing the nationwide lockdown. The March 23 press conference announcement of New Zealand’s lockdown is a clear example of Ardern’s skillful approach, and a carefully boated speech, followed by extensive time for media questions. In contrast, British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, pre-recorded his March 24 lockdown announcement, offering no chance for questions from the media, while framing the situation as an “instruction” from the government, with a strong emphasis on enforcement measures. While Jacinda first announced the nationwide lockdown on March 25, she did so via a Facebook Live Session conducted at her home. She spoke gently and sympathetically, taking into consideration citizens’ concerns and offering an apology for the emergency lockdown alert that had been sent out. Besides, the government was quick on its feet and took decisive action right away, and declared a national lockdown with a forty-eight-hour notice before it took effect. Where Ardern blended ‘direction’, ‘care’, and ‘meaning-making,’ Johnson largely sought the approach of ‘compliance’.

However, the question is, how can we assess Ardern’s leadership style in making such difficult decisions?

A good place to start is with American professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield’s research into efficacious leadership communication. Mayfield's model of research highlighted direction-giving, meaning-making, and empathy as the 3 key things leaders must address to inspire their followers to give their best. Being a public motivator is key for leaders but the performance speaks otherwise. Mayfield’s research shows that direction-giving is typically overused, while other elements are under-used. Ardern’s leadership uses all three approaches for tackling the situation.

In directing New Zealanders to ‘stay homes to save lives,’ she simultaneously offers meaning and purpose for the action commanded. In freely acknowledging the challenges we face in staying home from disrupted family and work lives, to people unable to attend funerals of their loved ones, she shows empathy and directs actions meaningfully. From coming live on Facebook in casual sweatshirts to being disturbed by her newborn during live sessions, she effortlessly tries to portray the hardships of these uncertain times, and the point that no one is alone and that we are all alike in our experiences.

Unlike other countries, she has been persistent in her commitment to a science-led approach. Effective engagement with the media by New Zealand’s director-general of health, Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, has lent credibility to Ardern’s claims that the political arm of the government has paid heed to every piece of information given by the independent, expert advice. Not only this, but Ardern also has a strong focus on mobilizing collective effort. This involves informing, educating, and uniting people to do what’s needed to minimize harm to lives and livelihoods. She has persuaded many to act for the collective good.

Here comes into play the work of another leadership scholar, the UK’s Professor Keith Grint, who also sheds light on Ardern’s leadership approach during this crisis. For Grint, leadership involves persuading people to take responsibility for collective problems, and Ardern has made sure that she leaves almost no chance to garner people’s support. Not only has she ‘made meaning’ of all the directions given by her but has relied on expert advice for meaning-making which adds credibility to the facts. Her efforts just don’t stop here, she made sure to transfer the scientific advice in simple language via Facebook Live to the people. She valued the people of her country and ensured that they knew the rationale behind every move of the government. Just because Ardern upheld the value of people, she was promised a collective effort by the people of her country, as a result of the trust established in her government.

This is why the Prime Minister’s public commentary has been dedicated to exactly that and it has been overwhelmingly effective, at least so far, with a recent poll showing 80% support for the government’s response to COVID-19. This sums up the three communication skills that every leader needs in such a major crisis. Ardern’s leadership style, therefore, has been wholesome in that sense, as it is inclusive of all three things in equal proportionality.

Comparing the two male-led countries, the USA and the UK with New Zealand, the researcher has come across many other leadership lessons that leaders across the world can take away from Jacinda Ardern. The analysis of their leadership style can be done by having a cursory look at the statements of all three leaders.

Country: USA

“We have it totally under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

  • Donald Trump, 22 January 2020

“The federal government is not supposed to be out there buying vast amounts of items and shipping, you know we are not a shipping clerk.”- Donald Trump, 12 March 2020

Trump’s statements during the pandemic showed that he downplayed the gravity of the situation. His character and leadership style is of an autocratic, self-centered populist, whose actions were more personality-driven than strategy-driven. His statements and actions divided states, governors, and citizens; trivialized the severity of the virus; spread misinformation and conspiracy theories; ignored experts; and failed to build public trust and confidence.

To conclude, lack of ‘soft power,’ that is, good governance, crisis management, and effective communication, is one of the major reasons why the richest and most advanced country in the world with the highest expenditures on health, and the greatest concentration of scientific and medical talent, has utterly failed to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

Country: Britain

“Britain would soon send coronavirus packing; an option is not to close schools or sporting events but to take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease as it were, to move through the population.”- Boris Johnson, 5 March 2020.

The statement by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson shows a lack of urgency or seriousness of purpose. Like Trump, he too initially underestimated the extent of damage that the virus could bring, and spread misinformation. He was ‘task-oriented and, therefore, carried on with business as usual when other European leaders were shutting down the non-essential business, schools, and universities. Frequent U-turns ruined Johnson’s credibility with local governments as Manchester’s mayor defied the government’s lockdowns norms. As if this was not enough, he failed to consult the local governments of four nations (England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland) which resulted in poor enforcement of laws. He has been widely criticized by the press and distinguished scientists, and two parliamentary inquiries have been held for leadership failure and crisis. Having missed five meetings of SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group of Emergencies), he was nicknamed a “part-time Prime Minister” who was ‘Missing in Action.’

He became a disappointment of agents and followers alike, despite his generally appreciated communicative skills. This was largely due to the use of only one aspect of communication skills i.e., direction-giving. His approval rating for handling the crisis by the public had a free fall, from 40% in May 2020 to -6% in July. This failure can only be accounted for by his inability to make meanings of the instructions that he gave, and his lack of value for people. The first step towards the declining public trust in the government was the development of the pandemic, and second when the once deaths started soaring.

Eventually, when Johnson decided to do some course correction and announced stay-at-home and social distancing measures, the public initially did not conform to his call. Thus, the prime minister’s frequent U-turns further gnawed public confidence. The government neglected the point of consulting nations, local governments, and the people, which led to public defiance and low compliance. Public mistrust was further fuelled when Johnson and his advisers- Cummings and Ferguson flouted social distancing and lockdown rules but demanded the public to comply.

Country: New Zealand

“Go hard and go early, and do everything we can to protect New Zealanders’ health.”

  • Jacinda Ardern, 14 March 2020.

Young and amateur, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern showed determined leadership, acted quickly, mobilized people and communities, and accepted expert advice. She was quick to learn from the lessons of China and Italy and imposed an early lockdown, recognizing that the underfunded healthcare system would not be able to cope with the epidemic if the virus was allowed to spread. She empathized with the general public and set a personal example by ordering a 20% cut in her salary for 6 months along with her cabinet colleagues and public servant CEOs’. Her regular interactions through Facebook Lives added an extra feather in her cap and ensured her of large public support. Trust can only be built when leaders are willing to follow the rules and enforce them efficiently. For example, unlike Johnson in the UK who himself flouted the COVID norms, and defended his political advisors who did the same, Ardern on the other hand dismissed the Health Minister who breached the rules.

The above analysis shows that the statements are enough to determine the action plan of the leader. This is why communication stands as a key factor in the foreground for every effective leader. However, communication as a whole is not of prime importance; what is even more significant is its t3 key elements: direction giving, meaning-making, and empathy. Not only should they all be used but should rather be exercised in equal proportions and this is what has set Ardern apart from all the leaders across the world.

After doing a detailed analysis of various journals, articles, and leadership models, it occurs that a leader’s role is the most prominent one in fighting such a major crisis. However, after scrutinizing Mayfield’s and Jacqueline’s effective Leadership Communication Model, it appears that the role of public agents and people is of extreme importance, but is often underestimated. While leaders’ contributions are important, they are not sufficient.

However, after carefully analyzing the country with the most successful fight against the virus, it will not be wrong to say that it is the leader’s style and charisma that brings the people, and public agents into action. If it was not for Jacinda Ardern and her charisma, New Zealand for sure would have been on the list of countries still fighting this life-threatening disease. So, while the success or failure of leaders will depend as much on these actors (public agents and people) as on their competence, commitment, and sense of responsibility. The leader’s role, however, will of course be primary, and the reason behind the active engagement of public agents and people in fighting such a pandemic. This is where New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is giving most western-politicians a Masterclass in crisis leadership. From direction giving to meaning-making to empathizing with the people of her country, she has done everything that each citizen expects their leader to do. There does seem to be another valuable leadership lesson here: warmth, empathy, and honesty.

It is time that the world comes out of these narrow gender complexities and sees politics as a gender-neutral field where both ‘masculine and feminine qualities fit perfectly when needed. The challenges of the 21st-century call for a new type of leadership, different from the one based on command and control. Challenges like climate change, healthcare failure, the depletion of the Earth’s resources, etc. call for a collective responsibility where nations join hands in harmony to bring solutions rather than zero-sum solutions.

This is exactly what the entire world can take away from Ardern’s rule in New Zealand which emphasizes authenticity, the importance of trust, and the priority of the common good. The public trust and support have also minimized the flouting of COVID-19 norms, a scenario that is difficult to maintain in a country like India where the government is having a hard time seeking people’s compliance. The only reason people are seen flouting the COVID-19 norms is that they are completely unaware of the rationale behind the government’s order. The order is nothing less than instruction with no meaning and purpose attached to it. So, after analyzing countries like India, the US, and the UK it would not be wrong to say that Ardern’s leadership style does offer some crucial valuable lessons.

201 views70 comments

Recent Posts

See All