By Anne Evenson
What leadership lessons can we learn from New Zealand’s swift and decisive reaction to the pandemic?
“To me, leadership is not about necessarily being the loudest in the room, but instead being the bridge, or the thing that is missing in the discussion and trying to build a consensus from there.”
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand
In late January 2020, just weeks after discovering a viral outbreak in Wuhan, China, epidemiologists worldwide were almost certain that the coronavirus would become a serious pandemic. In New Zealand, despite their geographic isolation, the government understood that the arrival of the virus was unavoidable due to the large numbers of tourists and students from Europe and mainland China who travel there every summer. Disease models predicted that the virus would spread quickly and widely across New Zealand’s two islands, overwhelm their health care system and disproportionately overburden the indigenous Maori and Pacific people.
Fortunately for New Zealanders, their prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her leadership team understood the threat and launched a successful crisis strategy that prevented the rapid spread of the virus resulting in the lowest Covid-19-related mortality rate (4 per 1 million) in the world.
Every crisis is inherently disruptive and can highlight either the fragility or the resilience of a society or an organization. The coronavirus pandemic has emphasized the importance of strong leaders who know how to face adversity and steer their organizations away from trouble. Experienced leaders know that during tumultuous times, it’s critical to understand the nature of the crisis, communicate clearly and often, and act swiftly and decisively. They are prepared to empower their team and care for their people during conditions of uncertainty and volatility.
Take a closer look at New Zealand’s early, assertive coronavirus response to discover the tactics that effective leaders use when forming a strategic response to a crisis.
1. Define Priorities
New Zealand identified its first coronavirus case on February 26, and by mid-March, there was clear evidence of community transmission. The government quickly realized that they had insufficient testing and contact-tracing capacity to contain the virus, so they implemented a framework for action called the “New Zealand Influenza Pandemic Plan,” created in 2002 and revised in 2009 during the evolving threat of H5NI influenza. This plan features the definitions, characteristics and phases of a potential pandemic and offers planning and preparedness strategies and actionable government measures.
Informed by robust, science-based advocacy, national leaders decisively shifted their strategy from mitigation to elimination. First, the government instituted a color-coded 4-level alert system based on new scientific knowledge about Covid-19 and information about the efficacy of intervention measures in New Zealand and elsewhere. This alert system helped people understand the current level of risk and the restrictions they must follow. These alert levels could be applied based on a specific geographical location or at a national level.
In addition to preparing hospitals for an influx of patients and instituting border-control policies, they also issued a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all incoming travelers. On March 20, New Zealand closed its borders entirely.
The first step to managing any crisis is to see the situation in all its complexity. Take the time to comprehend the problem thoroughly and understand how it affects your organization before executing a response. Don’t worry about projecting an outward impression of control; instead, accept the circumstances as they are and implement your strategy quickly. And don’t forget that old saying, “Don’t let perfect become the enemy of good.” Big-picture thinking calls for organizational versatility and innovative action.
Begin by listening to members of your team and those closest to the situation to identify the most pressing issues and priorities. Bring in external expertise if necessary, and respect different points of view. Priorities could include things like employee welfare, customer care, financial solvency and operational cohesion. Make sure that you and your team are ready to address any conflicting priorities. Some issues may require urgent action versus things that are merely important for future growth. Remember that this list of priorities can change at any time.
Keep a daily dashboard of your most urgent concerns to compare your top five priorities and course-correct when necessary. Crises are often fluid, so your initial plan of action may need to adapt to changing circumstances. Understanding and prioritizing these issues will help you and your team create a concise, logical, adaptable and flexible plan.
2. Communicate Effectively
By giving clear direction, communicating empathy and defining a shared purpose, Prime Minister Ardern convinced five million New Zealanders to commit to one of the world’s most extreme lockdowns in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Her pre-pandemic communication style included speaking directly with the populace via Facebook Live, where she came across as competent and caring. This style was the model for her public communication during the pandemic.
Ardern’s most popular Facebook Live video, with over 5.3 million views, came just before the start of the lockdown. In this message, she directed New Zealander’s to “stay home to save lives,” which simultaneously communicated a clear and specific request and the purpose behind it. Ardern also acknowledged the social and economic disruptions everyone would face during the lockdown and how this would affect people. By recognizing and addressing challenges like people being separated from loved ones and unable to attend funerals, Ardern displayed a clear understanding of what she was asking people to do.
During a crisis, effective communication should be honest, transparent and frequent. Lines of communication must remain open between leaders, followers, peers and stakeholders for successful crisis response. Leaders need to communicate often with employees, so they continue to be informed, feel heard and stay motivated. Provide trustworthy and factual information about the situation and include the strategy with the list of priorities, so everyone works together towards the same goal. Ensure organizational, and team leaders are on the same page to help coordinate communication and provide administrative insight, infrastructure and support.
3. Appoint and Empower Decision Makers
Since the pandemic began, Prime Minister Ardern has held regular briefings and live question and answer sessions with public health officials to disseminate information and target misinformation about the virus. Ardern empowers health experts like Dr. Ashley Bloomfield, the chief executive of the Ministry of Health and the country’s Director-General of Health, and Dr. Siouxsie Wiles, an associate professor of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases at the University of Auckland, to cultivate public trust through their depth of knowledge and experience. Falling back on years of medical training and quick recall of statistics, Dr. Bloomfield calmly fielded questions daily early in the pandemic and is known as one of the key architects of New Zealand’s successful coronavirus management. Dr. Wiles, a prominent science communicator passionate about demystifying science for New Zealanders, has been the go-to expert for journalists and government officials for reliable answers about the virus.
Using technology and a network of local leaders and health experts, Ardern and her team communicated critical messages to the community, resulting in public confidence and adherence to a list of relatively onerous pandemic-control measures.
You cannot manage a crisis response on your own, so appoint some decision-makers and ensure that everyone on your team knows their role. Empower your team by letting them make their own decisions whenever possible. Accept that you don’t have the solution to every problem and trust that you are surrounded by dedicated, talented team members who can help you plot a course of action and disseminate the workload.
Give people a sense of direction and purpose by fostering an environment of collaboration and evidence-based decision-making. Align the focus of your team(s) by establishing new metrics to monitor performance and create a culture of accountability. Choose three to five of your most important metrics every week and ask team leads and managers to report back on them regularly.
4. Take Action
On March 26, the New Zealand government assigned Alert Level 4 to the pandemic and launched a countrywide lockdown. As cases increased exponentially, many people wondered whether these exhaustive controls would be enough to slow the spread of the virus. Five weeks later, at the end of April, the number of new cases declined rapidly, and New Zealand moved to Alert Level 3 for an additional two weeks. The last person in the community with a known case of coronavirus was isolated in early May, which marked the end of the identified community spread. On June 8, the government announced a move to Alert Level 1.
Taking action may seem like the obvious next step, but a crisis can often cause even the most accomplished leaders to freeze like the proverbial deer in the headlights. Don’t vacillate, stick to your decisions and only pivot when necessary. Commit to action, but also be flexible and ready to adapt to changing scenarios. Agility is the name of the game here, so remember to anticipate the unexpected.
Be open-minded to new possibilities that may grow out of adversity. See the opportunities in all circumstances, and use creative thinking to solve problems. Be wary of misinformation during a crisis. Put your ego aside so you can assess information without bias, and don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know. Practice self-awareness and understand your values and perspective to remain impartial and evaluate options with more objectivity.
5. Meet the Needs of Your People
To alleviate the adverse economic effects on the country, the New Zealand government offered interest-free loans, mortgage deferments and rent support. They also initiated a tax reform measure of 3 billion New Zealand dollars (1.8 billion USD) to support companies and supplement the incomes of employees who were furloughed or laid off from their jobs. Additionally, along with Prime Minister Ardern, government ministers and public service chief executives took 20 percent pay cuts.
In turbulent times, great leaders show up with fortitude and heart. They are honest and transparent and acknowledge people who are feeling fearful and anxious. They encourage resolve and model compassionate behaviors during stressful times.
With a recession added to COVID-19 health threats, the stakes are high. Your employees are looking to you to maintain their livelihoods, and depending on your industry, protect their lives. Understand that these stressful situations affect everyone differently, so remember to be compassionate. Be flexible about when, where and how people do their work whenever possible. Employees who feel supported by leadership during challenging times will go above and beyond when you and your organization need them the most.
By late September 2020, with less than 2,000 total cases, 25 deaths and only 269 cases per million people, New Zealand has one of the lowest rates of Covid-19 in the world. Though the country is currently responding to the second outbreak in Auckland, the country’s largest city, with an Alert Level 2, they have once again implemented their strategy of elimination, and life in most areas of New Zealand has returned to near normal. Some parts of the domestic economy are even operating at pre-coronavirus levels.
As a leader during a crisis, you must navigate new and changing priorities, often at a breakneck pace. People expect you to be empathetic, provide protection, offer direction, and learn and implement lessons. Moments of crisis reveal whether you have developed the principles and ethical boundaries necessary to find your way through challenging conditions and unforeseen events.
Crisis preparation could mean the difference between success and failure or even life and death, which is why it’s crucial to invest in your leadership readiness now. The UT Center for Professional Education offers training like Critical Problem Solving and Decision Making and Unlocking Your Leadership Through the Power of Emotional Intelligence to help you steer your organization through the troubled waters ahead.
Anne Evenson is a native Austinite and a proud Veteran’s spouse with over 20 years of marketing, communications and program coordination experience in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. She is also a sculptor, jeweler and all-around dabbler in the arts and loves to help military-connected individuals discover their inner creativity.
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