Jacinda Ardern, a masterclass in leadership

I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to lead a nation, to make decisions on which the lives of tens of thousands, or millions, of other people depend. If you get things wrong, or delay deciding, they could die. You’d have to make hundreds of daily decisions that affect the livelihoods of your entire country. You’d have to act quickly, without having any real certainty your decisions will achieve what you hope.

For a masterclass in crisis leadership, look no further than Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand. They have had the ‘most decisive and strongest lockdown in the world’ and it’s the only Western country that’s got an ‘elimination goal’ for COVID-19.

Everyone seems to love this world leader and new mum, and her leadership style is putting most Western leaders to shame. But what exactly is it that she is doing so well?

Take a look at most leaderships models, and you’ll see they all tend to share similar key attributes that leaders must address to motivate followers to give their best, including:

  1. State a clear direction
  2. Give meaning to that direction
  3. Show empathy

Unfortunately most leaders over-use 1)

And under-use and 2) and 3)

I think what sets Ardern apart from the rest, may be her ability to display genuine empathy, whilst blending direction, care and meaning-making to her decisions. She has the ability to persuade ‘the many’ to act for the collective good. This is rare and exceptionally difficult to accomplish when leading people through change or crisis.

Leadership involves persuading the collective to take responsibility for collective problems, asking difficult questions that disrupt established ways of thinking and acting.

And a recent poll suggests she has got this bang on, with 80% support for the government’s response to COVID-19.

She is instinctive – she trusts her gut, and does what feels right, which may explain why she says everything she does seems quite ordinary; less deliberate.

Jacinda Ardern is a magnificent example of a leader who is mentally tough, but contrary to popular belief, that does not mean she is in any way aggressive or macho. Empathy is clearly a valuable trait of leadership that is under-utilised  and all too often, over looked.