Jacinda Ardern: A role model for empathetic crisis leadership

The New Zealand prime minister has won widespread praise for her handling of the pandemic. Why?

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 22 Apr 2020

In the modern world of personality politics, there are few opportunities to take genuine leadership lessons from politicians. For one thing, they live in a 24-7 popularity contest, which CEOs thankfully don’t.

A crisis like coronavirus perhaps presents an exception. Donald Trump has been true to form in presenting a bad example, initially downplaying the virus and now trying to turn it into a points-scoring blame game. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro is arguably even worse, downplaying COVID-19 as ‘the sniffles’ and leaving social isolation to attend supermarkets and hug fans at rallies.

On the other end of the scale, New Zealand’s centre-left prime minister Jacinda Ardern has won plaudits for her sensitive handling of the crisis. 

In many ways it has been a text-book response to crisis leadership, involving regular media and Facebook briefings; a four-stage alert framework; and unambiguous, open-ended communications. It appears her citizens agree, with some polls suggesting 80 per cent of New Zealanders are happy with the government’s response to the crisis.

Her decisive yet compassionate leadership has been seen as one of the reasons why epidemiologists believe New Zealand could be one of the only western nations to fully eradicate coronavirus. At the time of writing the country has a total of 1072 cases of COVID-19 with nine deaths

Ardern has also announced this week that she and other senior government and public service figures would take a 20 per cent pay cut for the next six months. 

Cutting costs seems like the sensible thing to do in times of economic hardship, but Ardern insists it’s not about loosening fiscal purse strings - her $50,000 saving is hardly going to ameliorate the $1trn hit to the world economy that the UN council’s trade and development committee expects coronavirus to deliver. 

“It is about leadership,” Ardern acknowledged in her televised press conference. “It’s about showing solidarity… this was always just going to be an acknowledgement of the hit that many New Zealanders will be taking at the moment.”

There is a lesson here for chief executives in business. It’s not necessarily that you should take a pay cut, although research from the High Pay Centre reveals that one in four FTSE 100 bosses have already done so

It’s that it matters to show solidarity with the people you lead, whether that’s by hopping onto the same video calls, attending the warehouse that’s pushing key workers to encourage social distancing, or just calling people up to see how they are. 

You will have a lot on your plate, but it’s important for leaders to publicly acknowledge, as Ardern has, that “we’re all in this together”.

The other lesson is that authenticity matters. Ardern has form when it comes to empathy, having been widely praised for her humane response to the terrorist attack on a Christchurch mosque in 2019. If Trump suddenly announced that he was taking a huge pay cut, far bigger than Xi Jinping's, leaving him possibly the most affected person in the world by the COVID-19 pandemic, it wouldn’t exactly win over many critics.

Whether leading a country or organisation of five million, 300 million or 25 people, the principles of good leadership remain the same. Leaders who are decisive, empathetic and authentic - and who back their words up with action, taking some of the burden themselves - will come out with their reputations intact.

Image credit: Hagen Hopkins / Stringer via Getty Images

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