How New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Demonstrated Effective Leadership Skills to Cope With the Pandemic
Sat, December 3, 2022

How New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Demonstrated Effective Leadership Skills to Cope With the Pandemic


Imagine making decisions that would change the lives of your citizens for the better (or for worse). Each decision will affect every aspect of their daily life, including livelihood and economic or social disruption.

Although you are uncertain that the decisions you make will achieve what you want for your country’s future, imagine turning these decisions into concrete and effective action plans that will win the support of your people. As world leaders grapple with the new norm the pandemic has brought, Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, demonstrates the power of crisis leadership to most Western politicians.

New Zealand’s Opinion Poll On Government Satisfaction, Mental Health, and More

The Spinoff— a New Zealand site that tackles politics, pop culture, and social life— commissioned social media polling firm Stickybeak to assess the country’s mood on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 meaning "very" and 1 meaning "not at all". David Brain, Stickybeak’s co-founder and The Spinoff’s contributing writer, shared the results of the poll, revealing that a total of 61% of 600 respondents were concerned (47% of those who answered “very” or 1 and 14% of those who answered 2) about the health effects of COVID-19. Only 22% of respondents said they were not concerned (10% who said “not at all” or 5 and 12% who chose 4) about the virus’s health effects.

When asked how concerned are they about the effect of the pandemic on their personal financial situation, 64% were concerned (45% “very” or 1 and 19% of those who chose 2) while 17% were not at all concerned (11% “not at all” and 6% who answered 4). Regarding the government’s response to the pandemic, 80% said the response was positive (59% “excellent” and 21% number 2). Only 9% of respondents believed that the response was negative (4% “terrible” and 5% number 4).

When asked if they stocked up on supplies or shopped more heavily than normal, 62% said no and 38% said yes. The government said that citizens need to stay at home, not go to school or work, not travel or socialize with people for at least four weeks and when asked if the respondents plan to comply, 91% said yes and 9% said no.

When asked if they agree that the government will arrest and prosecute those who will not comply to the quarantine, 80% said agree, 7% disagreed, and 13% said they don’t know. With regard to the immediate future of New Zealand, 62% said the pandemic is more likely to make the country’s citizens more united and supportive of each other. 16% expressed that the pandemic is more likely to make them more suspicious and less trusting of each other. 23% answered neither/unsure.  

Regarding the question, “How do you think that four weeks at home will affect your mental health,” 42% said they will feel better or much better (18% who answered “I will feel much better” and 24% who said “I will feel better). 37% said they will feel no better or worse; however, 21% said they will feel worse or much worse (14% who chose “I will feel worse” and 7% who said “I will feel much worse).

On the other hand, 52% of respondents said they check up on updates and information on COVID-19 and its spread several times a day. 23% said they check less than once a day, 7% seek news about the outbreak every hour, and 18% said they seek information almost constantly. Likewise, respondents relied on TV news (54%) to gain information about COVID-19, followed by online news (51%), social media (43%), search engines like Google (24%), radio (21%), and printed newspapers and magazines (4%).



How Did Prime Minister Ardern Approach the Coronavirus Outbreak?

1.     Communication Skills

American professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield researched on effective leadership communication, in which their model emphasizes on “direction-giving,” “meaning-making,” and empathy” as the three key traits leaders must possess to motivate their people. The research showed that direction-giving is overused but the latter two are not utilized properly.

Ardern’s response to the pandemic leverages all three approaches. For example, when she instructed New Zealanders to “stay home to save lives,” she offers meaning and purpose to what her people are being asked to follow. Ardern also shows empathy with regard to the challenges of staying at home, including social disruptions such as being unable to attend funerals. On March 28, Ardern’s press conference announcement was composed of a carefully crafted speech. This also gave the media ample time to ask questions.

"Jacinda [Ardern] is a brilliant communicator and an empathetic leader. But what she's said also made sense and I think people really trusted that. There's been a high level of compliance," stated Prof Michael Baker from Otago University's Public Health Department, who helped advise the government on its response, as quoted  by the BBC, a British news channel.



2.     Caring for Her People’s Well-Being

Ardern went on to Facebook Live to “check in with everyone” as she announced the lockdown. A regular Facebook user, she dresses casually with a smile on her face and shares some aspects of her personal life. However, this does not mean she is downplaying the pandemic as Ardern also answers questions from her viewers.

Thomas Weston, an Auckland-based insurance administrator, told the BBC, "Every decision is made with the disclaimer that she knows how difficult it's going to be for people." Weston added that the announcement was delivered with kindness, “but very decisive.” The press conference was also clear on what citizens should and should not do. Let’s compare it with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approach to the pandemic. Johnson gave a pre-recorded March 24 lockdown announcement, preventing the media from asking questions and framing the outbreak as an “instruction.”

The announcement emphasized enforcement measures. Johnson highlighted “compliance,” but Ardern approached the outbreak with empathy, direction, and meaning-making. Along with Ardern’s ministers in her cabinet and public service chief executives, she would take a 20% pay cut for the next six months to express their solidarity with New Zealanders.

3.     Helping Citizens Cope With Change

She developed a transparent framework for decision-making, which is the government’s alert level framework, to help citizens understand what is happening and why. The four-level alert framework was released and explained early—two days before the government of New Zealand announced a lockdown.

New Zealand’s approach focuses on empathy and direction to help its citizens cope with the pandemic. Giving instructions is helpful to motivate people, but in order to be an effective leader,  you also need to demonstrate empathy and meaning-making.