Leadership in the age of COVID-19

What does great leadership look like in a crisis? Read on for an analysis of Jacinda Ardern’s leadership of Aotearoa / New Zealand’s response to COVID-19, and some lessons for how we can become great leaders ourselves.

On Monday 23 March 2020, NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced sweeping new measures to combat the effects of coronavirus on New Zealand. At any other time in history, restricting freedom of movement would have seemed draconian. But through the announcement details of how our lives were about to take a turn for the worse, one thing shone through brightly: Jacinda’s leadership. Three key messages stood out: Be kind, We’re in this together, and I’m not scared because we have a plan.

Be kind now seems to be official New Zealand government policy, as it becomes part of official communications. The PM knows that tempers will be frayed, and a little kindness will go a long way in promoting healthy social interactions, even at a distance. This simple directive ensures that we pay attention to those around us, and treat them with empathy.

We’re in this together is important as physical and social distancing will have a natural tendency to drive people apart. At the same time, we are working to achieve a collective outcome, “flattening the curve”, which can only be achieved if everyone complies. “We’re in this together” provides cohesion, and creates a team spirit at a time when people might be feeling helpless and isolated.

I’m not scared because we have a plan is critical as we have no real control over the virus, but we can control how we respond to it. We know that both New Zealand’s and the world’s best minds are completely focused on the problem. We’re implementing the best plan possible, informed by science. Our leader is confident, and those around her are confident, so we too can be confident. This confidence creates a virtuous cycle, avoiding panic and enabling coordinated forward motion.

In delivering these directives, Jacinda provided a textbook example of how to be a great leader. But around the world, in politics as well as business, good leadership seems to be in short supply. COVID-19 is putting the difference between great leadership and substandard management into stark contrast.

Beyond Jacinda’s direct messages above, there are a number of additional qualities that will help us become better leaders in these troubled times. No matter what your existing vision and values are, we need a new layer on top – call them the three C’s of leadership in a crisis: Compassion, Collaboration, and Creativity (in that order).

Compassion means putting people first. People are, and will always be our most valuable asset, as reflected in the whakataukī [proverb] “He aha te mea nui i te ao? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata: What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.” Difficult tradeoffs will be required, and as leaders we need to look after the overall health of society and our organisations first and foremost. But we also need to demonstrate compassion in our actions, give people the benefit of the doubt, and do what’s necessary to look after the mental and physical well-being of those affected by the decisions we make. This goes well beyond basic kindness. When you meet someone a year from now who has been affected by the actions of your organisation, will you be able to say, “I did the best I possibly could have done for you?”

Collaboration means engaging with the people affected by the decisions we are considering, seeking their input, and welcoming their suggestions. People can be surprisingly generous, flexible, and innovative under stress, especially when they see their leaders demonstrating common values. Collaboration is a two-way street, and implies some give and take. Be prepared to do both.

Creativity means thinking about new possibilities for the future that are informed, but not directed by the past. We have no idea what the future may bring, so the validity nearly every assumption we make can be called into question. Now more than ever, there’s no such thing as a stupid idea – just ideas that need more validation. As leaders, it’s up to us to provide an environment where people feel safe proposing ideas that may seem outlandish but are actually genius.

What’s the best way to deliver these messages and express these values? Here are some things we can do to amplify the impact.

Be transparent. If the people around you feel you’re holding back or hiding important details, they will lose trust in you and your enterprise. Front-foot your communications – be frank about the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. Avoiding, deflecting, or even worse, sugar coating bad news will lessen your mana and people may question your motives. Be up front, honest, open, and authentic.

Be clear in your vision and your communications. If you can articulate things as you see them in a way that’s easy to understand, people will be more open to backing you. Keep it simple. In complex times, setting clear intent is much more important than rigid or complicated rules. Giving people license to self-organise will give them the agency they need to contribute their own creativity while working to fulfil the common vision.

Inspire the people around you through your actions and speech, leading by example, and setting a tone that aligns with the 3 C’s. Your team is your greatest resource. Get them focussed on common purpose, and give them license to innovate. Don’t waste this precious resource.

Express some vulnerability. All of us are better than any of us. We are all interdependent, and a great leader relies on the support of the people around them. Those people will appreciate this acknowledgement.

Know when to stop talking, and be a good listener – keep the signal-to-noise ratio as high as possible. Don’t waste people’s time listening to your voice.

Be decisive. Collect the facts, collaborate to reach a decision, make that decision, and move on. After a point, each additional fact you collect will likely have diminishing marginal value, especially when so many assumptions cannot be validated. Meanwhile the clock is ticking, and every hour you spend trying to get more certainty on a decision path is an hour that other decisions are not being made. Sensibly prioritising your own time and your interactions by potential impact will help a lot. Consider using optimal stopping as a way to time-box your decision making.

Finally, remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Make sure that your actions are sustainable, and that you don’t ask the people around you to commit to unsustainable efforts. Burn-out is a risk which could thwart our efforts to respond, recover, and reinvent. Be as kind to yourself and each other as you would to a dear friend.

Jacinda has expressed all of the above qualities in her handling of the crisis. I believe she would be the first person to say that everyone has the capacity to display these qualities too – she is everywoman. It’s just a question of how we nurture the development of these qualities within ourselves and others.

We are entering a new phase for society, and we control whether that will be better or worse than the past. In future, we may feel nostalgic about the good old days. But it’s clear there are many things about the past that shouldn’t return. We can and must invent a better, fairer future. What can we learn from this crisis, and the events that led up to it? It will be up to great leaders to inspire the action that will kick-start a stalled economy back into life and lead the way to this better future. Each of us has the capability to be one of these great leaders, even if only in a small way. Will you be one?


  1. I enjoyed your analysis Dave. I’ve always admired Jacinda from the day I first met her as a newly elected MP. In her leadership of our country in these extraordinarily dynamic times, I am so grateful for her compassion, her kindness, her intelligence and her decisiveness. So many around the world are lamenting the quality of their leadership – you seldom hear those laments in NZ. We are indeed blessed.

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