Ramallah-Nisaa FM-Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style, focused on empathy, isn’t just resonating with her people; it’s putting the country on track for success against the coronavirus.
The coronavirus pandemic may be the largest test of political leadership the world has ever witnessed. Every leader on the planet is facing the same potential threat. Every leader is reacting differently, in his or her own style. And every leader will be judged by the results.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel embraces science. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro rejects it. U.S. President Donald Trump’s daily briefings are a circuslike spectacle, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi holds no regular briefings at all, even as he locks down 1.3 billion people.
Jacinda Ardern, the 39-year-old prime minister of New Zealand, is forging a path of her own. Her leadership style is one of empathy in a crisis that tempts people to fend for themselves. Her messages are clear, consistent, and somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing. And her approach isn’t just resonating with her people on an emotional level. It is also working remarkably well.
People feel that Ardern “doesn’t preach at them; she’s standing with them,” Helen Clark, New Zealand’s prime minister from 1999 to 2008, told me. (Ardern, a fellow member of the Labour Party, got her start in politics working for Clark during her premiership.) “They may even think, Well, I don’t quite understand why [the government] did that, but I know she’s got our back. There’s a high level of trust and confidence in her because of that empathy.”
She is “a communicator,” Clark added, noting that Ardern earned a degree in communications. “This is the kind of crisis which will make or break leaders. And this will make Jacinda.”
One of Ardern’s innovations has been frequent Facebook Live chats that manage to be both informal and informative. During a session conducted in late March, just as New Zealand prepared to go on lockdown, she appeared in a well-worn sweatshirt at her home (she had just put her toddler daughter to bed, she explained) to offer guidance “as we all prepare to hunker down.”
She sympathized with how alarming it must have been to hear the “loud honk” that had preceded the emergency alert message all New Zealanders had just received essentially informing them that life as they knew it was temporarily over. She introduced helpful concepts, such as thinking of “the people [who] will be in your life consistently over this period of time” as your “bubble” and “acting as though you already have COVID-19” toward those outside of your bubble. She justified severe policies with practical examples: People needed to stay local, because what if they drove off to some remote destination and their car broke down? She said she knows as a parent that it’s really hard to avoid playgrounds, but the virus can live on surfaces for 72 hours.
She expected the lockdown to last for several weeks, Ardern said, and for cases to rise steeply even as New Zealanders began holing up in their homes. Because of how the coronavirus behaves, “we won’t see the positive benefits of all of the effort you are about to put in for self-isolation … for at least 10 days. So don’t be disheartened,” she said.
In a more recent Facebook Live, one of Ardern’s staffers walked into her office just as she was launching into a detailed explanation of what life would look like once the government began easing its lockdown. “Oh look, it’s Leroy!” she exclaimed, assuring viewers that he was in her “work bubble.” A children’s toy was visible just behind her desk. The scene seemed apt for an era in which work and life are constantly colliding.
While Ardern conducts more formal and conventional daily briefings with other top officials and journalists, she puts her personal touch on these as well. “Trump does his briefings, but that’s a different kind of show,” Clark said. “On no occasion has Jacinda ever spun out and attacked a journalist who’s asked a question,” she noted, in reference to the American president’s repeated tirades against journalists. (When a reporter forgot his question upon being called on during a recent briefing, Ardern jokingly told him that she was concerned he wasn’t getting enough sleep.)
“She doesn’t peddle in misinformation; she doesn’t blame-shift; she tries to manage everyone’s expectations at the same time [as] she offers reassuring notes,” Van Jackson, an international-relations scholar at Victoria University of Wellington and a former Defense Department official during the Obama administration, wrote to me in an email. “She uses the bully pulpit to cue society toward our better angels—'Be kind to each other’ and that kind of thing. I think that’s more important than people realize and does trickle down into local attitudes.”