Coronavirus: New Zealand's masterclass in 'pandemic leadership' can be adopted by all leaders - expert

New Zealand has "a lot to be proud of" regarding the Government's impressive COVID-19 response, according to a leadership scholar, and the approach can be effectively deployed by other nations struggling to control their outbreaks. 

From January to March, senior Massey University lecturer Suze Wilson undertook a detailed examination of the Jacinda Ardern-led Government's leadership approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, the disease caused by the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus strain.

The study identified a set of key leadership practices guiding the Government's successful response to the virus, an approach the research suggests is "transferable" and holds global relevance. 

The research suggests that the findings, formulated into a 'pandemic leadership model' by Dr Wilson, could be adopted by any leader grappling to control an outbreak of the virus.

Her analysis found the Government was guided by a core aim of minimising harm to New Zealanders' lives and livelihoods, which helped navigate the country through its COVID-19 outbreak with minimal casualties compared to most other nations.

"There is a lot I think we have to be proud of and frankly relieved that the Government took the approach it [did], especially when we start comparing what is happening in other countries," she told Newshub.

The aim provided a strong foundation for effective leadership amid the health crisis, while identifying and following a clear trajectory helped unite Kiwis with a shared purpose. 

The leadership model developed by Dr Wilson comprises three key components: being led by expertise, mobilising collective effort and enabling coping. 

Being led by expertise

As New Zealand's response was largely informed by leading health specialists, Dr Wilson says governments must accept they aren't experts on the subject matter and be willing to seek and listen to advice. Scientific fact and evidence can then be used to guide their decision-making, a critical aspect to effective pandemic leadership.

According to the study, "the consequences of ignoring or being slow to act on such advice are now evident in countries who have been unable to contain the spread of the virus". 

"It involves leaders putting their own egos aside to listen to other experts, knowing they don't necessarily know everything that they would need to make wise decisions," Dr Wilson told Newshub.

Mobilising collective effort

Mobilising collective effort involves informing, educating and uniting people to adopt the actions needed - and explaining why these actions are important. 

Leaders should convey empathy for the disruption the actions - such as social distancing - will have on people's lives. Avoiding defensiveness when being questioned and soliciting feedback are also paramount to enabling collective effort, as it helps demonstrate genuine concern and authenticity. 

For example, a strong emphasis on public health messages such as good hand hygiene and social distancing have been reinforced many times in Government advertising, and in the near-daily Ministry of Health press conferences. Held predominantly by Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the media briefings - which were also streamed live for the public - provided the latest updates on New Zealand's COVID-19 outbreak and response. Questions by reporters were always welcomed at the end to ensure leaders were being held to account. 

"Having credible and timely information creates the foundation for the kind of shared understanding of the nature of the problems, and what needs to be done about them, that is needed if mobilisation of collective effort is to occur - and helps build trust," says the study. 

Enabling coping 

Enabling coping involves leaders taking actions that will help people to plan ahead, build knowledge and skills to survive the pandemic and make sense of an uncertain, turbulent time. Fostering kindness and creative responses to the disruption are also important, such as encouraging and modelling new ways to carry on with life during a 'new normal'. 

For example, the alert level framework provided a clear outline of what New Zealanders could expect under each stage of the response, Dr Wilson said. Aided by the Ministry of Health's daily press conferences and Ardern's frequent briefings, the public were informed of what was coming and how best to prepare for the changes. 

"While subject to ongoing elaboration about what activities are permitted at each level, it has nonetheless been a critical tool that helps in preparing for what movement up or down the alert levels means in practical terms," says the study.

"All these actions enable planning - and also serve to build trust through providing transparency about Government decision-making."

Jacinda Ardern and her Government's successful response against the virus has been formulated into a pandemic leadership model by Massey University's Dr Suze Wilson (R).
Jacinda Ardern and her Government's successful response against the virus has been formulated into a pandemic leadership model by Massey University's Dr Suze Wilson (R). Photo credit: Left - Getty; Right - Massey University

The three practices will not only help leaders take suitable steps to address the pandemic, but will build the people's trust in their commitment and competence to act in their best interests, the study suggests. 

The findings were recently published in the UK-based academic journal, Leadership.