Three reasons why Jacinda Ardern’s coronavirus response …

Posted: October 19, 2021 at 10:51 pm

Imagine, if you can, what its like to make decisions on which the lives of tens of thousands of other people depend. If you get things wrong, or delay deciding, they die.

Your decisions affect the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, resulting in huge economic disruption, mass layoffs and business closures. Imagine you must act quickly, without having complete certainty your decisions will achieve what you hope.

Now imagine that turning your decisions into effective action depends on winning the support of millions of people.

Yes, you do have enforcement capacity at your disposal. But success or failure hinges on getting most people to choose to follow your leadership even though it demands sudden, unsettling, unprecedented changes to their daily lives.

This is the harsh reality political leaders around the world have faced in responding to COVID-19.

As someone who researches and teaches leadership and has also worked in senior public sector roles under both National and Labour-led governments Id argue New Zealands Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is giving most Western politicians a masterclass in crisis leadership.

When it comes to assessing New Zealands public health response, we should all be listening to epidemiologists like Professor Michael Baker. On Friday, Baker said New Zealand had the most decisive and strongest lockdown in the world at the moment and that New Zealand is a huge standout as the only Western country thats got an elimination goal for COVID-19.

But how can we assess Arderns leadership in making such difficult decisions? A good place to start is with American professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfields research into effective leadership communication.

The Mayfields research-based model highlights direction-giving, meaning-making and empathy as the three key things leaders must address to motivate followers to give their best.

Being a public motivator is essential for leaders but its often done poorly. The Mayfields research shows direction-giving is typically over-used, while the other two elements are under-used.

Arderns response to COVID-19 uses all three approaches. In directing New Zealanders to stay home to save lives, she simultaneously offers meaning and purpose to what we are being asked to do.

In freely acknowledging the challenges we face in staying home from disrupted family and work lives, to people unable to attend loved ones funerals she shows empathy about what is being asked of us.

The March 23 press conference announcement of New Zealands lockdown is a clear example of Arderns skillful approach, comprising a carefully crafted 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 government, coupled with a strong emphasis on enforcement measures.

Where Ardern blended direction, care and meaning-making, Johnson largely sought compliance.

Read more: As NZ goes into lockdown, authorities have new powers to make sure people obey the rules

Arderns approach also strongly reflects what well-known Harvard leadership scholar Professor Ronald Heifetz has long argued is vital but also rare and difficult to accomplish when leading people through change.

Ardern has used daily televised briefings and regular Facebook live sessions to clearly frame the key questions and issues requiring attention.

Also consistent with Heifetzs teachings, she has regulated distress by developing a transparent framework for decision-making the governments alert level framework allowing people to make sense of what is happening and why.

Importantly, that four-level alert framework was released and explained early, two days before a full lockdown was announced, in contrast with the prevarication and sometimes confusing messages from leaders in countries such as Australia and the UK.

The work of another leadership scholar, the UKs Professor Keith Grint, also sheds light on Arderns leadership approach during this crisis.

For Grint, leadership involves persuading the collective to take responsibility for collective problems. Much of the prime ministers public commentary has been dedicated to exactly that and its been overwhelmingly effective, at least so far, with a recent poll showing 80% support for the governments response to COVID-19.

Grint also argues that when dealing with wicked problems which are complex, contentious and cannot be easily resolved leaders must ask difficult questions that disrupt established ways of thinking and acting.

Its clear this has happened in New Zealand, as shown in the suite of initiatives the government has taken to respond to the pandemic, including its decision to move to a national lockdown relatively fast compared to many though not all countries.

Read more: Where are we at with developing a vaccine for coronavirus?

Of course, not everything has been perfect in New Zealands or Arderns COVID-19 response. Ongoing, independent scrutiny of the governments response is essential.

But as my own research has argued, expecting perfection of leaders, especially in such difficult circumstances, is a fools errand.

Its never possible. Nor should we allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good when speed and enormous complexity are such significant features of the decision-making context.

Whether youre comparing Arderns performance against other Western leaders, or assessing her efforts using researchers measures of leadership excellence, as a New Zealander I think there is much to be grateful for in how she is leading us through this crisis.

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