Leading with humility: Has COVID-19 opened the door for honest and transparent leadership?

an illustration of a yellow paperboat leading other grey paperboats
  • Published Date: 31 July 2020

At first ‘leading with humility’ looks like a contradiction in terms. But the term is increasingly being used to describe an empowering style of leadership, more suited to governments in the current volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) environment.

Lead with humility was the title of the fifth webinar of the Reimagining Government series – presented by ANZSOG and the Centre for Public Impact held in late July. Panelists explored what humble leadership looks like in practice, and what it takes to be a good leader while encouraging good leadership in others.  

Series facilitator James Button was joined by Sandra Parker, Fair Work Ombudsman; Peter Hughes, State Services Commissioner New Zealand and ANZSOG Chair; and Mary Wooldridge, former Victorian Minister for Mental Health, Women’s Affairs and Community Services. 

Watch the webinar - Reimagining government: Lead with humility

The impact of the pandemic on leadership

All the panelists agreed that COVID-19 has changed how public leaders are perceived by the public and represented in the media, which has laid the foundation for change in government leadership style.

Ms Wooldridge said that political leaders who make mistakes can normally expect enormous backlash, which can lead to a high aversion to risk, and a close holding of power and decision-making but during the pandemic, leaders have had the sympathy of the public even after mistakes have been made.

Ms Wooldridge said leaders with humility required shared power and shared decision-making, two traits which have been evident throughout the pandemic.

If the community continues to ask for innovative, engaged leadership, she said, we could start to see a shift in political leaders being more open, honest and transparent in decision-making. 

Mr Hughes said that crises can often induce leaders to lead with more humility, and often highlighted public servants’ crucial “Spirit in Service” – a key factor for those opting to work in the public not the private sector.

He said the public does not want perfection, but they do want accountability, his mantra was: “own it, fix it, learn from it”. 

Ms Parker said for the first time in a long time, leaders are listening to science, taking health advice and not feeling pressured to manage everything themselves. She stressed that leaders should always ask “what’s the public interest?”, and to listen rather than make big speeches. 

Self-awareness in leadership

The panel were prompted into a discussion about organisational hierarchies after an audience question, which noted that “the secretary model doesn’t necessarily promote humble leadership”.

“A cult mentality can develop, secretaries can surround themselves with yes-people and often lose the ability to be self-aware and be authentic,” the audience member said. 

Ms Parker said when she was appointed Fair Work Ombudsman she was warned that “people will stop telling you what they think and start telling you what they think you want to hear”.

Ms Parker highlighted stakeholder consultation as a key way to increase accountability - this includes talking to clients, but also to staff – there is a need to constantly confer with those in your agency, but it was equally as important to consult externally. 

Ms Wooldridge agreed and encouraged public servants to give perspective and reality to their ministers, who can sometimes be tempted to draw themselves back into the office. 

This led to a final discussion about tackling cultures of fear and politeness. While Ms Parker had warned against the trap of yes-people, she also believes that the reverse is often true of the public service, and that many staff are passionate and eager to debate. She said that that passion was what made a public service career worth fighting for, and something to encourage. 

Becoming an authentic leader

Mr Hughes proposed that the most effective communicators were those who led using their own personalities rather than trying to hide them.

Leaders are often trained to do the reverse, becoming public service “managers”, but if they can learn to reconnect with their personalities, they might discover integrity can be found at the core. 

Ms Wooldridge said Jacinda Ardern’s popularity at home and abroad can be attributed to her active display of empathy and learning by listening through the Christchurch Shootings, the White Island volcano disaster and now the COVID-19 crisis. 

The panel also discussed:

  • opportunities for decentralisation of decision-making as a result of COVID-19.
  • Representation in relation to race and gender, with Mr Hughes calling on the public sector to reflect the communities they serve – a sentiment with which both  Ms Parker and Ms  Wooldridge agreed. 

Find out more about the Reimagining Government series here and watch previous webinars on the ANZSOG Youtube channel.