Ardern’s leadership

Post from Gezza:

A fan-girl piece by Suze Wilson, Senior Lecturer in Executive Development at Massey University:

As someone who researches and teaches leadership – and has also worked in senior public sector roles under both National and Labour-led governments – I’d argue New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is giving most Western politicians a masterclass in crisis leadership.

Imagine, if you can, what it’s like to make decisions on which the lives of tens of thousands of other people depend. If you get things wrong, or delay deciding, they die. Your decisions affect the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, resulting in huge economic disruption, mass layoffs and business closures.

Imagine you must act quickly, without having complete certainty your decisions will achieve what you hope. Now imagine that turning your decisions into effective action depends on winning the support of millions of people … success or failure hinges on getting most people to choose to follow your leadership – even though it demands sudden, unsettling, unprecedented changes to their daily lives.

Three communication skills every leader needs
Epidemiologist Professor Michael Baker … said New Zealand had the “most decisive and strongest lockdown in the world at the moment” – and that New Zealand is “a huge standout as the only Western country that’s got an elimination goal” for Covid-19.

American professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield’s research into effective leadershp … highlights “direction-giving”, “meaning-making” and “empathy” as the three key things leaders must address to motivate followers to give their best.

Being a public motivator is essential – but it’s often done poorly. The Mayfields’ research shows direction-giving is typically over-used, while the other two elements are under-used.

Ardern’s response to Covid-19 uses all three approaches. In directing New Zealanders to “stay home to save lives”, she simultaneously offers meaning and purpose to what we are being asked to do. In freely acknowledging the challenges we face in staying home – from disrupted family and work lives, to people unable to attend loved ones’ funerals– she shows empathy about what is being asked of us.

The March 23 press conference announcement of New Zealand’s lockdown is a clear example of Ardern’s skilful approach, comprising a carefully crafted speech, followed by extensive time for media questions.

(In contrast, Boris Johnson pre-recorded his March 24 lockdown announcement, offering no chance for questions from the media, while framing the situation as an “instruction” from government, coupled with a strong emphasis on enforcement measures. Where Ardern blended direction, care and meaning-making, Johnson largely sought “compliance”.)

[And Trump … yesss … well … all over the place – in typical Trumpian chaorder. – Gez] )

Ardern has used daily televised briefings and regular Facebook live sessions to clearly frame the key questions and issues requiring attention. Also she has regulated distress by developing a transparent framework for decision-making – the government’s alert level framework – allowing people to make sense of what is happening and why.

Importantly, that four-level alert framework was released and explained early, two days before a full lockdown was announced, in contrast with the prevarication and sometimes confusing messages from leaders in countries such as Australia and the UK.

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This article has made me reflect on Jacinda’s leadership.

Even though I have expressed some criticisms on YNZ of what I perceive to be some oversights, unforeseen adverse consequences, & other minor failings in Jacinda’s “Go hard & go early” Covid-19 “lockdown response – overall I agree that Ardern has done a remarkably good job as the country’s leader at this time of global health emergency.

I also agree that she stands out from many other democratic country leaders in the strength & determination she has demonstrated, AND in the relative clarity & consistency of her Pandemic Response Team’s communications to businesses & the public of what the different alert levels & restrictions are (an excellent Our Plan – the four alert levels a detailed & well-laid out A3 poster-style leaflet delivered to all households, & a variety of other targeted information material, including notices for Rest Homes, for example).

Yes, there was some early confusion over policing of the lockdown (more a reflection on senior police leadership & the difficulties for them, caught on the hop, of clarifying & codifying actual vs police management’s preferred responses to situations “on the ground”, & then internally communicating up-to-date & comprehensive guidelines for front line staff, than on Jacinda).

And there were/are occasions where Jacinda’s press briefing assurances on what airport checks, self-isolation follow ups, & Covid-19 testing were being done that were just not matching what was actually happening out there in Kiwiland.

But even some of Jacinda & the coalition government’s most constant critics on this blog have noted their satisfaction at times with at least some aspects of the Pandemic Response, & of Ardern’s willingness to front for the strategy – to take the (mostly) bouquets, AND any brickbats for the government’s actions & the rather draconian restrictions now imposed on all New Zealanders & visitors, unparalleled in a century for a non-wartime situation.

One thing’s for sure; it’s a lot easier to criticise the PM than to be in the job & be the one who will be held responsible for how it all works out longer term for New Zealand, when the crisis & the emergency are over.

Some have predicted we are headed for an economic disaster. Certainly according to the economic pundits national & global economies will be facing major disruptions & a recession – perhaps even a depression – & New Zealand will no doubt find itself having to do a rejig. People have lost their jobs, although significant interim measures have been taken to encourage as many good employers as possible to keep locked down workshop workers & office staff on payrolls.

A few have even predicted the start of a new world order, as it were. The demise of Capitalism and /or the last gasp of finacialism, corporatism & the 1 %, in favour of a more inclusive, sharing society – perhaps one based around a UBI.

I dunno. Personally I doubt it. Although around the world maybe there might be an increased focus on whether it is worth implementing policies that encourage increased local manufacturing – by thinking smarter, minimising costs to remain competitive enuf with trade partners to allow small scale local production to be economically sustainable – so that future trade & economic shocks don’t leave governments too captive to overseas suppliers, without any capacity to manufacture needed goods & equipment in the event there are global shortages or supply chain disruptions?

My feeling at the moment, though, is that things will remain largely the same as they have been, with perhaps a few tweaks & improvements here & there, once the country & the workforce gets back up & running again & jobs become available. Maybe new jobs for folk who discovered new interests & marketable talents during their enforced break from their old ones?

I don’t know why, exactly, but I’m feeling quite positive about the future. Maybe it’s because this government is showing itself to be very agile? It certainly seems to be listening, adjusting, & prepared to be pragmatic. And to be now looking forward & starting to plan for the end of the crisis & the resumption of normal life & work.

And maybe also because of Ardern’s agreeing to the establishment of the Epidemic Response Committee, stacked with opposition members and chaired by the leader of the Opposition, Simon Bridges, as a mechanism for holding the government AND the bureaucracy to account. From my perspective anyway the Committee has been doing a sterling job. We may end up with better politicians & senior public servants overall as a result of the functioning of this Committee.

I think I agree with something Parti said the other day. Not about a brave new world along the lines of Frank E. Warner’s dream. But that Jacinda Ardern is possibly going to be recorded very favourably in future history books. Maybe even one of our greatest PMs? Who knows – it’s very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future 😉.

Jacinda-mania and media-mania

There is no doubt that the mania over Jacinda Ardern took over the leadership of Labour three weeks ago is a phenomenon.

It is difficult to know how much is a genuine public reaction to a refreshing change of personnel and style, and how much was generated by a media that has become obsessed with celebrity style politics and click baiting. Probably both, but one feeds and accentuates the other. Each other.

Ardern has stepped up and handled the glare of the political spotlight with aplomb. One positive change is her positivity and her rejection of attack politics and barking at passing of cars, a trait that has dogged Labour and previous leaders for years.

Because Ardern launched her leadership into an election campaign there will not be much time to analysis her real strengths and weaknesses, and particularly the unchanged strengths and weaknesses of the Labour caucus and party.

Every now and again voters gamble on unproven abilities.  They have done that recently in other countries, on Trudeau in Canada, on Macron in France, and particularly on Trump in the USA.

If New Zealand ends up with an new Prime Minister and a new government the politicians and the bureaucracy will step up and will probably manage to  keep managing the country ok at least. We tend to have incremental rather than revolutionary change here, and that’s unlikely to change markedly after this year’s election.

There will be hiccups and difficulties, there always are, but utopia is unattainable, our democracy is imperfect, and our politicians are imperfect – as are our country and us.

Dr Suze Wilson, senior lecturer from the School of Management at Massey University, writes: We expect perfection from leaders when they are imperfect humans

The ‘Jacinda-mania’ (or Jacinda effect) New Zealand has experienced since the Labour Party decided to replace its leader just seven weeks out from the election says much about the way we view our leaders.

Much of the response to Ardern’s selection seems akin to finding a shiny new toy that can be poked and prodded to see what it can do. The more Ardern responds to this frenzy with composure, clarity of expression and good humour, the more she has commentators convinced that she’s the “real thing” when it comes to leadership.

It will, of course, take much longer to form a considered assessment of her leadership, but our desire for a heroic, “ideal leader” is itself problematic, especially when attention focuses largely on stagecraft and “looking the part”.

I’m not sure whether people do want and expect a ‘heroic’ leader. They tend to move quickly from one hero to another in the world of movies and thanks to the modern approach of media news politics has become to an extent just another show.

As long as the effects are sufficiently impressive many people may be removed enough from reality that they would pay for tickets to watch the end of the world.

Jacinda-mania highlights the huge symbolic weight attached to the role of a leader. Politicians and media commentators alike reinforce the view that there can be no interregnum (the period when normal government is suspended between successive reigns or regimes) without implying chaos.

This approach loses sight of the reality of the wider leadership capability within a political party, or any organisation.

This obsessive focus on the person at the very top of a hierarchy undermines our capacity to give due credit to the much more distributed nature of effective leadership, which involves the contributions of many people to make a political party, a sports team or an organisation successful. It is a distorting, romantic way of thinking that allows us to see only part of the leadership picture.

This focus on the leader has many other problematic consequences. It means we vest far too much hope in individual leaders, setting ourselves up for a greater level of disappointment when, inevitably, it becomes clear they are imperfect beings just like the rest of us.

Often this disappointment becomes vicious, bringing down good leaders simply because they weren’t perfect leaders.

Viciousness is an unfortunate reality of modern media and politics. This has been on display in the ‘bringing down’ of Todd Barclay, Andrew little and Metiria Turei.

Peter Dunne wasn’t brought down, he chose to step down, but viciousness was still on display around social media.

Another problem is the kind of fawning submissiveness and passive compliance, which can result from a romantic view of leadership.

Fawning submissiveness and compliance are common in politics – alongside a viciousness  directed at those who don’t fawn in submission and comply with a certain ideology.

Power is a brain-altering disorder and leaders are especially vulnerable to developing an exaggerated sense of confidence. Rather than indulging their egos, it would be better if we encouraged them to keep their efforts focused on serving the needs of constituents.

Try telling the media that. Celebrity style click baiting is becoming increasingly prevalent.

What is it about Ardern that is triggering such positive commentary, given her leadership is still largely untested in the role she now holds?

The phrases used by political commentators include that she looks and acts like a leader, has presence, looks in control, and has a serious vibe. Commentary of this nature highlights how much our impression of someone as a leader relies on matters of performance, in the sense of stagecraft, rather than actual results.

The risk with Ardern is that we won’t see how she will perform as Prime Minister unless we put her in that position. That’s a risk we take with every change of government and change of leader and lead party.

Being calm under pressure reassures others. Effective leaders do indeed play an important role in helping a group or society manage its anxieties. Not seeming fazed by difficult questions gives us a sense of someone’s self-belief, which is taken to infer something important about their ability to deal with the challenges we expect leaders to address.

So far Ardern has been generally reassuring.

Someone’s inclination to engage with, be defensive toward, or to shut down dissenting views gives us a sense of their approachability. In New Zealand, approachability is seen as an important quality of leaders.

That was a part of John Key’s success, and in her own way Ardern has so far succeeded very well with that too.

As an aside, some blogs who aspire to lead political debate in New Zealand could learn something about approachability and engaging rather than shutting down dissenting views.

And then there’s the “serious vibe” Ardern is said to have. It seems to rest on her spirited commitment to personifying Labour values in how she conducts herself. This appeals to those disengaged by more calculating approaches. This wider context matters a great deal for her potential for success: “Cometh the hour, cometh the woman”, after all.

In Ardern’s case, it seems her time has indeed come.

That’s how it looks. Whether she manages to attract enough votes to Labour and then negotiate a ruling coalition, or whether she just turns Labour into a credible competitive force in politics again this election to set up a three rebuild to the 2020 election, it looks like Ardern’s time in politics has come.

How much she is helped by a fawning media is largely immaterial – we have to accept that the will accentuate positives and negatives in politics, it’s just how things work.

There is no leadership in media, it is more of a pack mentality with very brief tenures as revolving top dog. Some seem to crave celebrity status but are left making or breaking politicians. They are collectively part of the glory and the gory.

Some voters see through the obsessive focus of media, some don’t.

Some voters will see through ‘Jacinda-mania’, some won’t.

The glamorising of politicians is part of modern politics, whether we like it or not. Those MPs who capitalise on media obsessions will do well. Until they fall, then the switch to vicious is rapid, as Turei found out.

Our politics has become thrash and trash, driven by a media obsessed with their own aspirations for importance as much as anything.

For now Ardern has mastered the attraction of attention that is an essential for a successful leader.

Jacindamania is a product of the right person in the right place at the right time being able to capitalise on mediamania.