India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently noted in his address at the UN Economic and Social Council session,“In India, we have made fight against Covid-19 a people’s movement,” indicating the extent to which India is relying on its people to defeat the spread of the virus. It would, therefore, be befitting for PM Modi as well as India’s other national, state and local leaders, to take leadership inspiration from the one leader who successfully used exemplary people management skills and mobilisation of public support to control the virus in her country — and that’s New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Ardern has received unending global appreciation for her crisis leadership that helped New Zealand eliminate the COVID-19 virus. Her success has been attributed to her empathetic, authentic and extremely relatable persona, blended with high levels of competence, transparency and text-book communication skills.
While many argue that she had an easy task of controlling the spread of virus in a small and remote country with a population of only five million, it is her leadership approach that actually got the results. She managed to reassure the public, garner their trust, and persuade them to cooperate and adhere to tough measures, ensuring an 84% public approval of her government’s COVID-19 crisis measures.
It would be useful for India’s crisis managers to take inspiration from Ardern’s leadership practices. This would help them garner necessary trust in government’s measures as well as persuade people to self-comply to necessary precautions. I have listed three practices from Jacinda Ardern’s leadership playbook that can inspire India’s crisis leaders.
Ardern showed how clear and unambiguous messaging by leaders can make a huge difference during times of uncertainty and crisis. Even before announcing a full lockdown, she had initiated an ‘Alert System’ with four alert levels — ‘Prepare’, ‘Reduce’ , ‘Restrict’ and ‘Lockdown’. Each step up in alert level is associated with incrementally tighter restrictions that have been clearly elucidated on the government’s website dedicated to COVID-19 measures.
Using this framework, Ardern eased her country into a well-planned lockdown, later opening up the economy by downgrading the alert levels in the same manner. This transparent, simple and consistent framework of social distancing measures and quarantine protocols ensured that measures were not adhoc or knee-jerk. This allowed people to make sense of what’s happening and be clear about what they have to do.
Ardern’s briefings throughout the crisis period have also been to the point, but extremely perceptive with a lot of attention to detail. For instance, at the press conference announcing New Zealand’s lockdown, she covered all possible aspects of life-changing measures she was initiating. Details were as specific as “schools will be shut from tomorrow, except for the children of essential workers such as our doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and police — to give them time to plan”.
To be even more clear and transparent, she gave extensive time for media questions after her lockdown speech. And that was followed up with daily 30-minute press conferences, frequent Facebook Live sessions, and even discussions with experts over a podcast she herself hosted!
“Empathy” already became synonymous with Jacinda Ardern after the gruesome Christchurch mosque shooting incident in 2019. And she effectively used this trait to garner support of people in the current crisis as well, by making herself relatable and acknowledging people’s pain points and struggles. While announcing the lockdown, she admitted that “the measures I have announced today will cause unprecedented economic and social disruption… but they are necessary.” She also urged people to “be kind to each other”.
The same night, she followed up with a casual Facebook Live session from her bedroom after putting her toddler to sleep: “I thought I would jump online quickly and check in with everyone,” Ardern said. She addressed all kinds of practical doubts posted by people, right from “where can I safely go to buy food” to “can I walk my dog” to “how do I help my child who is missing out on school”.
In various other briefings, she reached out to people who were unable to attend funerals of their loved ones, children waiting for the Easter Bunny, and to tenants whose landlords had increased rents. Her Government also announced inclusive measures such as a generous wage subsidy for businesses, a learning-from-home package to facilitate teachers and parents, and additional funding to domestic and sexual violence services in light of increased domestic violence cases during lockdown. And what really helped her connect with people is that she delivered all her messages with a smile and in a motherly tone!
In fact, she even popped in relatable mommy jokes now and then — like the time she sat down after giving viewers a tour of her room during a Facebook Live and said “This is a fabulous chair. And this is a much better corner, because where I was sitting before was right next to the nappy bucket, which I’m going to admit was not the freshest place to be sitting at.”
Ardern successfully led the public to adhere to restrictions and take precautions by persuading them instead of instructing them. She conveyed the message that she is soliciting help and support for her people in order to overcome the crisis, and did not just prescribe regulations that she needed them to comply. She directed people to spend the lockdown “only in their bubble”, yet mobilised community support by asking her “team of five-million” to “stay home to save lives” and branded the mission as “Unite against Covid-19”.
How is the Jacinda Ardern model of leadership relevant for India? Evidence from four months of pandemic management indicates leadership style and influence of leaders is proving to be a key determinant of the outcome of a country’s crisis recovery efforts. And Ardern has shown it is not just the “what” but also the “how” of leadership that is important for creating a successful people’s movement. Therefore, India’s crisis leaders could apply Ardern’s leadership tools and practices in various aspects of crisis management.
Following her example, India can not only make guidelines and protocols more consistent, but also focus on consciously building in clarity and empathy in their communication. Using multiple as well as personalised channels of communication, like live social media sessions or video discussions with experts, could be useful in building faith in the policymakers’ actions.
Smartly reframing the narratives to more community-building storylines might just prove to be a game-changer in persuading people to consistently adhere to precautions like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, as well as addressing the existing stigma around the disease. In addition, diversifying crisis leadership teams by including more women would help bring in feminine traits of empathy, compassion and reassuring kindness — all things that people yearn for in times of uncertainty and fear.