What can Jacinda Ardern and other female leaders teach us about leadership in times of crisis?

Female-led countries have suffered fewer COVID-related deaths than male-led ones. Is this coincidence? No. Luck? Hardly. If you look closer, there’s a lot to learn from female leaders when disaster strikes.

The coronavirus pandemic has raised many debates. Will we ever return to the office-based 9 to 5 (and do we need to)? How many of us have been washing our hands wrong for years? And why have certain countries all but stopped the virus in its tracks, while others face nationwide lockdowns after 12 months of restrictions?

That first question is hotly contested. The second is, ashamedly, more or less guaranteed. And the third is well worth some exploration.

Of course, a country’s response to the pandemic is shaped by its government. Taiwan — backed by a Vice President who’s also an epidemiologist — acted quickly and decisively, closing borders and using contact tracing months before other governments caught up.

New Zealand has equally been heralded for its speedy management of COVID-19. Also closing its borders early and shutting non-essential businesses within weeks of their first case, life is almost back to normal for those lucky enough to live there.

Was geography on Taiwan and New Zealand’s side? Without a doubt. International transmission poses a significant risk for island countries — a risk that’s easily mitigated through travel bans and forced quarantines.

But Taiwan and New Zealand have another commonality: both have female leaders at the helm.

More convincing still, this correlation is data-backed, not just anecdotal. ‘Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender ‘Really’ Matter?’, a research paper published in January 2021, found that when comparing female-led and male-led countries of similar population, geography, gender equality, overall health, and number of tourists… female-led nations came out on top. 

Female leadership during the COVID crisis

The list of female-led countries who have succeeded in “beating” the pandemic this past year expands across the globe: Taiwan, New Zealand, Finland, Iceland. 

Until recently, Denmark, Germany, and Belgium would also have been mentioned alongside these four nations. Unfortunately, recent outbreaks now leave them in the “need to take action” camp, along with the US, the UK and most of Europe.

What’s interesting, though, is how female-led countries continue to respond to the coronavirus threat. After all, great leaders aren’t made from one management success. Rather they help steer their teams (or their citizens, in this case) through turbulent events, time and time again.

New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern is a fantastic example of this. Her empathetic and confidence-inspiring leadership style proved effective following the “Christchurch massacre”, the White Island eruption, and now the COVID-19 emergency.

So what can other leaders, across the gender spectrum, learn from Ardern and her COVID-conquering peers?

We wrote in an earlier blog about ‘What Female Leaders Bring To The Table’, and many of those attributes are essential during crisis and uncertainty. But what’s crucial to understand, is that these characteristics are not necessarily gender-specific. Male leaders can exhibit empathy and Emotional Intelligence. Similarly, female leaders can screw up and take bad risks. Differences between individuals will always be far greater than observable differences between groups. And no one’s perfect!

Likewise, it’s certainly not a case of one binary gender is “better” at leadership than the other. That’s far too simplistic. What we’re saying is that, in pulling apart the qualities that make for exceptional management during times of crisis, we can all take a leaf from Jacinda Ardern’s book, and in the process, learn what it is about great leaders that makes them great leaders.

The leadership traits that deliver during times of crisis

“Everything you will all give up for the next few weeks, all of the lost contact with others, all of the isolation, and difficult time entertaining children – it will literally save lives. Thousands of lives.”Jacinda Ardern, 23rd March 2020

Looking back now, it’s quite extraordinary that New Zealand locked down as early as it did. For many citizens, this may have felt entirely unnecessary; to limit interactions and close businesses, risking isolation and economic ruin off the back of 102 confirmed COVID cases.

Yet thanks to Ardern’s government’s foresight and determination, New Zealanders are in a far better position than most other populations as of 2021.

So how did Jacinda do it?

Decisive, risk-adverse action

When a disaster first hits, or threatens to hit, teams need reassurance. They look to their leaders for swift, assertive, and risk-adverse action. 

Many female-led countries reacted to the growing risk of coronavirus far speedier than their neighbors. Moving from New Zealand to the Nordics, people living in male-led Sweden could still enjoy bars, restaurants, and other sociable leisure activities months after Denmark and Finland had first called time. Sweden now has a COVID death rate of 87.83 per 100,000 people, versus Denmark’s 23.66, Finland’s 10.24, and Iceland’s 8.12.

The prominent deciding factor in early COVID management came down to economy versus wellbeing — not an easy decision for any leader to make. Do you risk the health of your economy or the health of your people? The two are interlinked in the long-term, for sure. But what is the more pressing need?

By putting a hard stop on non-essential business early in the first peak of the pandemic, Ardern and other female leaders prioritize the health and wellbeing of their citizens. And it paid off.

Ardern was also quoted saying: “Do you want to be a leader that looks back in time and say that you were on the wrong side of the argument when the world was crying out for a solution?”. That was at a World Economic Forum event in January 2019, a whole year before coronavirus became a global issue — evidence that Ardern’s preference for problem-solving action helps shape her crisis management approach before, during, and (hopefully) after the pandemic.

Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

Reassurance and empathy come hand-in-hand. When you show your teams that you get the struggles they’re facing, your actions and decisions will be more convincing and encouraging.

Ardern’s announcement of increased restrictions on the 23rd March 2020 had empathy and Emotional Intelligence in spades:

  • “I understand that self isolation is a daunting prospect”
  • “If you do not have immediate needs, do not go to the supermarket. It will be there for you today, tomorrow, and the day after that”
  • “In short: we are all now preparing to go into self isolation as a nation”
  • “Over the next 48 hours, people will need to get home, be it locally or throughout the country. We have asked all air transport providers to ensure social distancing for that period”
  • “I understand that people are afraid and anxious [...] What we need from you is to support one another”

By turning what could have been a draconian shift in public freedom of movement into a decision that clearly benefited the community, Ardern brought New Zealanders together. 

“I would rather make this decision now, and save those lives, and be in lockdown for a shorter period, than delay, and see New Zealanders lose loved ones and their contact with each other for an even longer period. I hope you are all with me on that.”

Being available

Closing their office door is the very worst thing leaders can do during times of crisis. Whether that’s a physical door or a proverbial one. Communication is key — not only to keep teams, or citizens, updated with progress and developments, but to be available for questions and answers, too.

Ardern’s Facebook Live sessions, broadcast from her home, showed “honesty and compassion” when New Zealanders needed empathetic leadership most. 

And Norwegian PM, Erna Solberg, made headlines by holding a Q&A session aimed specifically at those who may be most confused and unsettled: the country’s children. "Can I see my friends", "Why am I not allowed to celebrate my birthday?", and "If you get sick, who will be the substitute for you?" were some of the questions put to Solberg. In answering the last one, she replied: 

"I am not too scared to be sick because I think I have pretty good health. But we must all be aware that we can become sick. I will try to communicate via Skype and phone. If I get so sick that I can't [...] we have a long line of substitutes. If something happens, there is always someone who can control the country."

Consistency in control and leadership is key for reassurance. Speaking on their level is key to showing empathy. All three of these leadership behaviors must work together to navigate times of crisis. Because when done right, they’ll ensure that your team, or country, comes out the other side not only safe and well, but stronger and more cohesive.

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