Recently, while researching the effect of the pandemic on productivity, I came across an academic article written by David McGuire, James E. A. Cunningham, Kae Reynolds & Gerri Matthews-Smith entitled “Beating the virus: an examination of the crisis communication approach taken by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during the Covid-19 pandemic”. On reading this article, I started thinking of the implications this research had for every manager and leader in organisations and therefore decided to write a short blog with my own reflections. I highly recommend reading the full study. The full reference can be found at the end of this piece.

Jacinda Ardern has been highlighted by many as an exceptional leader through these initial phases of the current pandemic. The medical and social results in New Zealand seem to prove this. So, what is it that makes her leadership relevant for 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic? What makes Jacinda successful in a time of crisis when populist politicians seem to be failing quite spectacularly?

After studying the communications of Jacinda Ardern and completing some thematic analysis, McGuire et al concluded the following five themes that Jacinda Ardern portrayed:

  1. An evidence-based approach
  2. Decisiveness
  3. Co-ordination and alignment
  4. Social Solidarity
  5. Education and Information

Most striking for me was the absence of “Leading from the front” which we have grown to expect as a required trait from leaders in times of crises (is this what the populist leader is trying to do?). However, looking at the sub-themes, instead the authors identified empowerment, empathy, looking after each other and informality as successful characteristics. It seems that providing evidence and helping others learn the facts puts the power into the hands of the population, not with Government, to have the necessary tools to be in control and decide to act and follow the advice. Overall, this seems to have the impact on building a trusted bond and an amount of goodwill that has taken the New Zealand population on a journey. Indeed, Jacinda, on occasions, referred to the collective voters as “Team New Zealand”; a very collective term.

So what can we learn from this within our own organisations and with our own leaders? Our recent report on Dispersed Team Leadership seems to align with some of this research’s conclusions.

Firstly, building trust through open and honest communication with our often isolated and anxious people is a great way for a leader to calm a situation. Remember that a leader is the organisation’s visual representative and therefore what you say and how you say it is meticulously observed by your teams.

Secondly, empathy and compassion go together well in times of uncertainty. Demonstrating that you understand that everyone’s circumstances are different and showing your own vulnerability and imperfections can go a long way to making an emotional connection with your people. It is emotional connections that build resilience within teams and organisations.

Next, try to role model the behaviours you want to see in others. Jacinda has been shown working on matters of state from her parent’s box room as well as from government offices but still manages to deliver her commitments. Demonstrating you are the same as others and showing understanding in team meetings, not jumping to an attack posture when things don’t go as planned, is a great way to role model empathy and compassion.

Finally, communicate and present yourself in a positive mindset. Try to be optimistic about the future, but in a bounded and realistic way that your peers and team can relate to. We all know 2020 has been a difficult year so we don’t need reminding. Reflect on how much we have all adapted already in the face of adversity. Change, whatever its type, is always an opportunity to innovate and improve. Storytelling a desirable future develops buy-in and intrinsic motivation from others.

My final reflection is that it’s tough to be a great leader in the most benign of times, so this year has tested most of us as leaders to capabilities we didn’t know we had. None of us have been perfect. That’s the point. So, it’s good to identify with a role model, such as Jacinda Ardern, to reflect and improve on ourselves. And hats off to David McGuire, James Cunningham, Kae Reynolds and Gerri Matthews-Smith for helping us understand the leadership characteristics of people like Jacinda so we can try and emulate them in our own way.

Key reference:

McGuire, D., Cunningham, J. E. A., Reynolds, K. & Matthews-Smith, G. (2020) Beating the virus: an examination of the crisis communication approach taken by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during the Covid-19 pandemic, Human Resource Development International, 23:4, 361-379, DOI: 10.1080/13678868.2020.1779543