In the current coronavirus adversity, being a leader can be harrowing. Managing competing priorities is an uphill battle, mustering the courage to keep going gruelling. You need to be both tough-minded and tender-hearted with people, looking outward and take responsibility, leaning into tough situations.
Leadership is the art and science of influencing others, keeping your own head above water in the midst of an on-going fire-alarm. But no matter what tumult is thrown into your path, your response as a leader is to take responsibility. It can feel like the whole world rests on your shoulders, but fixing the problem and wrestling it to the ground, owning and addressing the issue, is the primary role of a leader in a crisis.
As leader, it’s up to you to take a hard-nosed, clear-eyed approach, to be the stalwart source of reliability and strength. Put simply, you gain trust by taking responsibility, earning the right to influence people positively and advance your organisation to move forward. People are looking to you. It’s your chance to show them who you really are when the chips are down.
Yet not all leaders step up to be counted. I don’t take responsibility at all, said President Donald Trump on March 13, responding to questions about the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus in New York City. Those words will probably end up as the epitaph of his presidency, the single sentence that sums it all up.
Now, Trump fancies himself a ‘wartime president’ fighting the pandemic. How is his war going? By the end of March, the coronavirus had killed more Americans than the 9/11 attacks. By the first weekend in April, the virus had killed more Americans than any single battle of the Civil War. By Easter, it had killed more Americans than the Korean War. On the present trajectory it will kill by late April, more Americans than died in Vietnam.
COVID-19 emerged in China in late December. The Trump administration received formal notification of the outbreak on January 3. The first confirmed case in America was diagnosed in mid-January. Financial markets in the United States suffered the first of a sequence of crashes on February 24. The first person known to have succumbed to COVID-19 in the United States died on February 29.
By March 20, New York City had 5,600 cases. But it wasn’t until March 21 that the White House begin marshalling a national effort to meet the threat in earnest. What they’ve done over the last 13 days has been really extraordinary, Trump said on April 3, implicitly acknowledging the waste of weeks since January 3.
As late as March 9, Trump was still arguing that the coronavirus would be no worse than the seasonal flu, and on March 27, Trump spoke about reopening the country by Easter. But he finally glimpsed the truth through his mental fog: having earlier promised that casualties could be held near zero, Trump then claimed he will have done a very good job if the death toll is below 200,000.
Of course, that the pandemic occurred is not Trump’s fault, but the unpreparedness of the United States is Trump’s responsibility. He spent ten weeks insisting the virus was a harmless flu that would go away on its own. The strategic fault is more widely shared, but leadership responsibility rests with Trump. He could have stopped it, and he did not. He has blathered, bluffed and bullied his way through a test of leadership that has utterly overwhelmed him.
Compare this to another leader, New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern. When New Zealand had just six confirmed coronavirus cases, Ardern brought in a 14-day lockdown and the toughest restrictions in the world. At the time of writing, they have had just over a thousand cases and five deaths. Leadership matters in a crisis, and Ardern can take considerable credit for this thus far hugely encouraging outcome.
Of course, New Zealand is a small country, but the principles in leading a country of five million people are the same as leading a country with 65 million (UK) 330 million (US). You have to set out difficult choices, make the unpopular decisions, take the country into your confidence about why you are making them at this moment. You have to show sincere empathy for the difficulties your people are facing, show emotional intelligence and take them with you on the journey into the unknown.
Ardern’s public interviews, statements and social media posts are a masterclass in empathy, crisis management and earning the trust and respect as a leader. She gets the big moments right. On the Covid-19 crisis, the two biggest moments for Ardern came two days apart.
On 21 March when Boris Johnson was still resisting a lockdown for the UK, and he and Trump was continuing to send all manner of mixed messages about public gatherings, work, science, schools, and much more besides, she did a broadcast to the New Zealand nation spelling out the strategy for protecting the country. In this rugby-obsessed nation, unsurprisingly, one of the central messages sounded like an All Blacks team talk: We go hard, we go early.
She emphasised the need for firm action to stop the spread of the virus before it really took hold. She set out and explained in detail but in clear, simple language, the four stages of Alert, her strategy, and what each would require of the people, and what the Government would be doing. Her manner was calm, authoritative, engaging and friendly. She talked with the people, not at the people, creating a genuine sense of community all-in-this-togther.
She didn’t use the repeated phrase we hear from the UK Government representatives – we are relying on the scientific advice – thereby ducking absolute responsibility, which you know will come back in the future to deflect failure. Instead, she focused on the human as much as the economic consequences of the changes that would come as the country went through the different Alert gears.
She spelled out clearly how difficult it would be for everyone, making a personal connection. She spoke to New Zealanders’ sense of self-belief – creative, practical, country-minded – and she ended by urging everyone to be strong, be kind, and unite against COVID-19.
Two days later, moving from Alert level two to three, giving the country a further two days to prepare for the lockdown of Alert level four, she delivered this memorable line, which helped frame the public’s understanding: We only have 102 cases – but so did Italy once. Admitting she was demanding the most significant restriction of movement in modern history, she set out how lockdown would close all organisations, from schools to businesses.
She said without it New Zealand could see the greatest loss of life in our history and she was not prepared to let that happen. She said other countries had chosen not to go early, go hard, and she was not making that mistake. Ardern gave immediate clarity sadly lacking in the US and UK, and spelled out and shared her plan in a way I have never felt the US and UK leaders have done, which has allowed an impression to develop that they are rather making it up as they go along. Yes, there are unknowns, but show open, clear leadership.
Natural empathy has always been a strength for Ardern – in the current crisis, could any other leader have stood at a Government live broadcast as she did recently and talked directly to children about how yes, the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny were key workers, but they might not be able to get everywhere because they were so busy in these challenging times? Ardern is the only leader I’ve seen who seems to be smiling in this crisis, which gives a feeling of positivity to the people. A leader is a dealer in hope.
I’d argue Jacinda Ardern is giving most Western politicians a masterclass in crisis leadership. But how can we assess her leadership in making such difficult decisions? A good place to start is with American Professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield’s research into effective leadership communication. Their model highlights direction-giving, meaning-making and empathy as the three key things leaders must address in a crisis. Ardern’s response to COVID-19 uses all three approaches.
Direction giving In directing New Zealanders to lockdown, she simultaneously offered meaning and purpose to what people were being asked to do. Importantly, her 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 the UK and US. She shows empathy about what is being asked of her people.
Make yourself available Ardern’s press conferences comprise 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 opportunity for media questions. Where Ardern blended direction, care and meaning-making, Johnson largely sought compliance. Trump just seems to apply bombastic rhetoric.
Lead with empathy, not the argument Ardern’s approach is to use daily televised briefings and regular Facebook live sessions to clearly frame the key questions and issues requiring attention. She has regulated distress by developing a transparent framework for decision-making – the four stage Alert framework – allowing people to make sense of what is happening and why. Much of her communication has been dedicated to persuading the collective to take responsibility for collective problems. It’s worked, at a time when we have police in the UK patrolling the streets to enforc social distancing and ‘stay at home’.
When dealing with problems which are complex, evolving and cannot be easily resolved within a set timeframe, leaders must ask difficult questions that disrupt established ways of thinking and acting. It’s clear this has happened in New Zealand. Of course, not everything has been perfect in Ardern’s response, and independent scrutiny of any Government’s response is essential. But expecting perfection of leaders, especially in such difficult circumstances, is unreasonable, when speed and enormous complexity are such significant features of the decision-making context.
But Ardern has got more right than Trump or Johnson. Watch her Facebook video post from her sofa, answering people’s questions as they come in to her iPad. It is a masterclass of compassion, clarity and calm. She is taking responsibility on behalf of her country, for her country. She cares, and that creates a sense of calmness and confidence. The fact the number of infections and deaths is so slow, is quantifiable evidence she got her strategy right in terms of its implementation and timing.
So the next time you’re in the midst of a crisis, don’t try to deflect or underestimate it. Choose to take responsibility as the leader. Own the problem, take a hard-nosed, decisive approach but reach out with compassion to your folks, present a solution, get to work, build trust, and sort it.
You have to take responsibility for your choices. This is the real test of our maturity and emotional intelligence as a leader. Jacinda Ardern hits the mark for her open, transparent communication that oozes humanitarian concern and asserts ‘the buck stops with me, I am your leader’ responisbility, and if you add the outcome of that single-figure death toll to her performance as a strategist, Ardern is the standout global leader of this awful crisis.