Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19

Leader connecting a group of people 3D rendering
  • Published Date: 01 July 2020

The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic poses dramatic and unprecedented disruptions to established ways of managing lives, organisations and societiesAotearoa/New Zealand’s approach has shown that leadership plays a critical role in tackling the pandemic.

At a glance 

A paper in Leadership analyses the leadership approach of the New Zealand government and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It outlines how a shared sense of purpose to minimise harm to lives and livelihoods was established and how the government sought and secured New Zealanders’ commitment. Key leadership practices included the government’s willingness to be led by expertise and its efforts to educate and mobilise the population.

Yes, leadership matters

The potentially life-altering consequences of good or poor leadership have never been so starkly apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence grows on a daily basis that the acts or omissions of some leaders have contributed to the virus’s spread. 

In New Zealand, respect for science, facts and evidence have been prominent aspects of the government’s response. So too have been efforts to mobilise collective adherence to safety measures and enable coping with the effects of the pandemic.

New Zealand’s response

The New Zealand government’s response to managing the public health aspects of COVID-19 has moved through a series of phases. Aspects of its early approach were consistent with a pre-existing influenza pandemic plan.

However the influenza plan was found unsuitable given COVID-19’s longer incubation period which increases the potential for transmission by those who are infected but asymptomatic. It was replaced with a new four level Alert System with the following measures:

  1. Prepare: COVID-19 is contained domestically but is uncontrolled elsewhere.
  2. Reduce: while contained in New Zealand, there is a risk of community transmission.
  3. Restrict: there is a high risk the disease is not contained domestically.
  4. Lockdown: it is likely the disease is not contained domestically.

Each step up in alert level is associated with increasingly tight restrictions in international and domestic movement, social contact and economic activity.

Community endorsement for the New Zealand government’s approach is highAfter New Zealand moved into its full nationwide lockdown, a poll undertaken in early April showed 88 per cent of respondents believed they could ‘trust the government to make the right decisions on COVID-19’. This compared to an average of 59 per cent of people in G7 countries surveyed in the same poll.

Pandemic leadership: A framework

A set of leadership practices have been instrumental in securing results achieved to date. This includes public health outcomes and New Zealanders’ trust in and support for the government’s leadership. These practices are outlined below.

1. Foster a shared purpose 

The nature of the virus poses disruptions to established ways of managing lives, organisations and societiesThe suite of problems posed by COVID-19 are fundamentally wicked in nature. Grappling with them depends on a leadership response in which efforts are focused on engaging a community in facing up to complex collective problems. A sense of shared purpose or mission must be nurtured to achieve this.

Having listened to advice from a range of experts, the New Zealand government adopted as its purpose:

  • Minimising harm to lives: securing control over the spread of the virus.
  • Minimising harm to livelihoodspositioning New Zealand for a faster economic recovery.

The government has been deliberate and persistent in persuading all New Zealanders to share in the pursuit of this purpose under the branding of ‘Unite against COVID-19’.

2. Be led by expertise 

The New Zealand government’s approach has been marked by a willingness to listen to those with relevant expertise and to make decisions guided by evidence and scientific advice. To lead well in a pandemic, leaders must first themselves be willing to be led by those with relevant expertise. This creates a platform for building trust.

3. Mobilise collective effort 

A range of practices have been deployed by Jacinda Ardern and her government to mobilise the community. These include:

  • inform and educate about COVID-19
  • pull no punches when it comes to ensuring people understand the risks and effects of the pandemic
  • convey direction, meaning and empathy
  • reinforce the importance of collective mobilisation through language such as ‘we’, ‘us’, ‘all New Zealanders’, ‘a team of five million’.

4. Enable coping

Elements of the New Zealand Government’s response have enabled coping with the challenges posed by the pandemic.

The Alert Level system has provided a key tool to enable planning by government. When Alert Levels have changed, decisions and time frames for review have been given. In turn, this has served to build trust through transparency in government decision making.

People need to quickly build relevant knowledge and skills if they are to cope with the disruption of the coronavirus. To assist directly and personally with this, Jacinda Ardern has conducted a series of ‘Conversations through COVID-19’ in which she has interviewed experts or practitioners from varying fields. She has played the role of educator-in-chief, using her platform to help knowledge and skills that aid in coping with the pandemic.

Recognising a pandemic creates multiple stressors for people, and a further feature of the government’s response has been a focus on enabling kindness. Jacinda Ardern specifically asked that all New Zealanders ‘be kind’ and offer support to one another when announcing the move to Level Four. The government’s key COVID-19 website also has resources reflecting an interest in kindness.

What this means

Leading in a pandemic is no easy feat and the pandemic globally has exposed many individual and systemic weaknesses in leadership capability at the cost of lives. However there are leadership practices that can make a positive difference to lives and livelihoods. New Zealand’s response to the pandemic offers a leadership framework and transferable lessons in the continuing struggle to limit the harm from COVID-19.

Want to read more? 

Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19Suze Wilson, Leadership, May 2020

The New Zealand government’s Unite against COVID-19 website

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