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Crisis Leadership Lessons That India Should Learn From NZ’s Jacinda Ardern

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

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.

Having A Consistent Game Plan And Communicating It Clearly

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!

Exuding Empathy And Being Human

“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.

Persuading People Instead Of Forcing Compliance

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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