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3 Lessons from Jacinds Ardern's Crisis Leadership

This article is part of our series showcasing Leaders with Grit and Grace

“To me, leadership is not about necessarily being the loudest in the room, but instead being the bridge, or the thing that is missing in the discussion and trying to build a consensus from there.”

What picture comes to mind if you were asked to imagine the person who is running for the title of the Most Effective Leader on the planet today? I bet the image is definitely not that of a young forty-year old female with a giggly and girl-next-door demeanour, who live streams discussions with her countrymen in sweatpants from her bedroom and has been seen bringing her toddler to meetings with global leaders! But that is exactly how we would describe Jacinda Ardern, who New Zealand just voted as Prime Minister for the second time and who has helped her country be free of the Coronavirus twice over!

Jacinda Ardern epitomises what the evidence from the COVID-19 crisis has shown about effective leadership styles – that a more democratic, collaborative and personalised leadership style is proving more effective for crisis control than the autocratic, prescriptive and positional styles. Prime Minister Ardern’s success has been attributed to her empathetic, authentic and extremely relatable persona blended with high levels of competence, transparency and text-book communication skills. She has managed to reassure the public, garner their trust and persuade them to cooperate and adhere to tough measures – a mammoth task at which many other Governments have achieved little success. Ardern’s approach ensured an 84% public approval of her government’s COVID-19 crisis measures.

Essentially, Jacinda Ardern has shown that it is not just the “what” leaders do but also the “how” they do it that is important. And there are several lessons from her leadership that would be useful for leaders – for those managing teams and organisations and communities and countries. I have listed three such best practices from Jacinda Ardern’s crisis leadership playbook –

  1. It is Vital to Have a Consistent Game Plan and also Communicate it Clearly

Ardern showed the huge difference that clear and unambiguous messaging by leaders can make during times of uncertainty and crisis. Even before announcing a full lockdown in March 2020, she initiated an ‘Alert System’ with 4 alert levels‘Prepare’, ‘Reduce’ ‘Restrict’ and ‘Lockdown’. Each step up in alert level is associated with incrementally tighter restrictions that have been clearly elucidated on the Government’s website dedicated to Covid-19 measures. Using this framework, Jacinda Ardern eased her country into a well-planned lockdown and then opened up the economy by downgrading the alert levels in the same manner. This transparent, simple and consistent framework for containment measures and quarantine protocols ensured that measures were not ad-hoc or knee-jerk, allowing people to make sense of what’s happening and be clear about what they have to do.

Ardern’s briefings through the crisis have also been to the point but extremely perceptive with a lot of attention to detail. For instance, at the press conference announcing New Zealand’s lockdown, she covered all possible aspects of the life-changing measures she was initiating. Details were as specific as “schools will be shut from tomorrow, except to the children of essential workers such as our doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and police –to give them time to plan”.

To be even more clear and transparent, she gave extensive time for media questions after her lockdown speech. And that was followed up with daily 30-minute press conferences, frequent Facebook Live sessions and even discussions with experts over a Podcast she herself hosted!

2. Exude empathy and be humane

“Empathy” already became synonymous with Jacinda Ardern after the gruesome Christchurch mosque shooting incident in 2019. And she effectively used this trait to garner support of people in the current crisis as well, by making herself relatable and acknowledging people’s pain points and struggles.

While announcing the lockdown, she admitted that “the measures I have announced today will cause unprecedented economic and social disruption… but they are necessary”. She also urged people to “Be kind to each other”.The same night, she followed up with a casual Facebook Live session from her bedroom after putting her toddler to sleep- “I thought I would jump online quickly and check in with everyone”, Ardern said. She addressed all kinds of practical doubts posted by people, right from “where can I safely go to buy food” to “can I walk my dog” to “how do I help my child who is missing out on school”.

In various other briefings, she reached out to people unable to attend loved ones’ funerals, to children waiting for the Easter Bunny and to tenants whose landlords had increased rents. Her Government also announced inclusive measures like a generous wage subsidy for businesses, a learning-from-home package to facilitate teachers and parents, and additional funding to domestic and sexual violence services in light of increased domestic violence cases during lockdown.

And what really helped her connect with people is that she delivered all her messages with a smile and in a motherly tone! In fact she even popped in relatable mommy jokes now and then – like the time she sat down after giving viewers a tour of her room during a Facebook Live and said “This is a fabulous chair. And this is a much better corner, because where I was sitting before was right next to the nappy bucket, which I’m going to admit was not the freshest place to be sitting

3. It helps to Persuade people instead of forcing compliance

Ardern successfully led the public to adhere to restrictions and take precautions by persuading rather than instructing people. The message she conveyed was that she is soliciting her people’s help and support to overcome the crisis and did not just prescribe regulations that she needed them to comply. She directed people to spend the lockdown “only in their bubble” yet mobilised community support by asking her “team of 5-million” to “stay home to save lives” and branding the mission as “Unite against Covid-19”.

Written by Shravani Prakash

Shravani is the Founder of elleNomics, a digital platform aggregating resources for enabling women to advance and thrive. She is an Economist with more than 12 years’ experience in policy research with organisations like ICRIER and World Bank.


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