Adonis Diaries

Archive for April 7th, 2020

Crisis leadership? In the time of Covid-19?

Three reasons why Jacinda Ardern’s coronavirus response (New Zealand PM) has been a masterclass in crisis leadership

Direction, care and meaning-making.

Senior Lecturer, Executive Development, Massey University

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.

Jacinda Ardern/Facebook

Yes, you do have enforcement capacity at your disposal. But 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.

This is the harsh reality political leaders around the world have faced in responding to COVID-19.

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.

Three communication skills every leader needs

When it comes to assessing New Zealand’s public health response, we should all be listening to epidemiologists like Professor Michael Baker.

On Friday, 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.

But how can we assess Ardern’s leadership in making such difficult decisions?

A good place to start is with American professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield’s research into effective leadership communication.

The Mayfields’ research-based model highlights “direction-giving”, “meaning-making” and “empathy” as the three keys leaders must address to motivate followers to give their best.

Being a public motivator is essential for leaders – 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 skillful approach, comprising a carefully crafted speech, followed by extensive time for media questions.

In contrast, British Prime Minister 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”.


Enabling people to cope with change

Ardern’s approach also strongly reflects what well-known Harvard leadership scholar Professor Ronald Heifetz has long argued is vital – but also rare and difficult to accomplish – when leading people through change.

Ardern has used daily televised briefings and regular Facebook live sessions to clearly frame the key questions and issues requiring attention.

Extracts from Jacinda Ardern’s evening Facebook Live from home on March 25, hours before New Zealand went into level 4 lockdown.

Also consistent with Heifetz’s teachings, 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.

Jacinda Ardern’s March 21 explanation of New Zealand’s four-level alert system.

Persuading many to act for the collective good

The work of another leadership scholar, the UK’s Professor Keith Grint, also sheds light on Ardern’s leadership approach during this crisis.

For Grint, leadership involves persuading the collective to take responsibility for collective problems. Much of the prime minister’s public commentary has been dedicated to exactly that – and it’s been overwhelmingly effective, at least so far, with a recent poll showing 80% support for the government’s response to COVID-19.

Grint also argues that when dealing with “wicked problems” – which are complex, contentious and cannot be easily resolved – leaders must ask difficult questions that disrupt established ways of thinking and acting.

It’s clear this has happened in New Zealand, as shown in the suite of initiatives the government has taken to respond to the pandemic, including its decision to move to a national lockdown relatively fast compared to many – though not all – countries.


Of course, not everything has been perfect in New Zealand’s or Ardern’s COVID-19 response. Ongoing, independent scrutiny of the government’s response is essential.

But as my own research has argued, expecting perfection of leaders, especially in such difficult circumstances, is a fool’s errand. It’s never possible.

Nor should we allow the “perfect” to become the enemy of the “good” when speed and enormous complexity are such significant features of the decision-making context.

Whether you’re comparing Ardern’s performance against other Western leaders, or assessing her efforts using researchers’ measures of leadership excellence, as a New Zealander I think there is much to be grateful for in how she is leading us through this crisis.

Stay in touch with The Conversation’s coverage from New Zealand experts by signing up to our weekly newsletter – delivered to you each Wednesday.

Read more: Where are we at with developing a vaccine for coronavirus?

Read more: As NZ goes into lockdown, authorities have new powers to make sure people obey the rules

 

Trip to Paris and Oklahoma?

Note: Re-edit of “Numb at the Magnitude of the Unknown (Part 1, June, 2004)”

It was May of 1975.  I had just graduated in Physics from the Lebanese university.

I secured a student visa to the United States of America. I was to study English for the summer at a university in Oklahoma.

I did not know then that there was more than one university in Oklahoma. It turned out there were several and the university I applied for graduate study was Not the one I landed for English summer schooling.

The trip was not that urgent, but the civil war in Lebanon started to look serious and I dreaded Not be doing anything for the duration..

My inborn stubbornness clenched the deal and off I left.

Logically, my destination should have been France for graduate studies, but I was tired of theoretical education.

I figured that the US educational system was more hands on, practical… with upgraded labs and “stage” at factories…

I was wrong. It was mostly of the theoretical stuff.

It was my first trip away from family and home. I learned later that my mother played the fundamental role of convincing my father that it is time that I learn to be on my own and fly with my own wings.

My mother told me that the night I flew away my father cried his eyes out in his bed.

My father offered me $5,000. Two Lebanese pounds at the time was worth one dollar (Now, a single dollar is worth 1,500 LP)

I stayed in Paris for a couple of weeks, supposedly to visiting a student cousin of mine. My cousin Nassif happened to be vacationing in England with a girlfriend.

At the airport, no one searched me or welcomed me.

Before I exited the airport, an agent asked to search my luggage. Why me? No, it was Not a random search. I had to rearrange everything in my beaten suitcase.

Even then, France pinpointed specific passengers to be searched.

I met my friends Ghassan and Moussa who helped me rent a room where they stayed at a university complex for foreign students.

I toured Paris alone in metro and mostly on foot. Paris was gorgeous.

Strong with maps of trains and buses routes, I crisscrossed Paris from Mont St. Michel to the Louvre, and almost everything in between. Alone, all alone.

I walked Champ Elysee, Quartier Latin, Pigale…When I get tired walking I would join the closest train station and hop to another destination.

Breakfasts were delicious at the university low-ceiling breakfast restaurant .

Breakfast was the time to see all the various international students. The smell of fresh coffee, milk, bacon, eggs and fresh bread was appetizing.

The buffet was scattered with many varieties of fruits and drinks.

( I still dream of waking up to such a breakfast environment)

There was another restaurant for lunch and dinner, but the menu was dismal and Not tasty.

I landed first at New York at Laguardia airport. We were flying over the Oklahoma Territory, 22 hours after leaving Paris. We still had one hour to land.

It was pitched dark outside and I might have been feeling cold in the plane. One stewardess might have realized my haggard quietness.

An angel, no more than twenty years old, blonde, blue eyed, beautiful with a refreshing smile, and compassion transparent in her welcoming face.

She brought me a blanket without any request on my part and suggested to bring me some orange juice.

I felt then that it is okay to live in America and to know Americans. I wished I told her that I was scared, terrified, and numb at the magnitude of the unknown waiting for me.

I wished I told her that I needed to throw myself at her mercy and be helped.

I was lacking conversational skills and lacking practice in English.

I was not basically a social guy, though I enjoyed being among crowds.

Friends suffered me on account of my quietness: I painfully resigned myself for their impression of my “aura of bookish knowledge“.

Pity: The driving force to our survival

We are surrounded with terms such as Act of Kindness, Act of Compassion, Act of Love…

These terms could fit with people we know and also like and respect.

And what about strangers?

Hundreds upon hundreds of people we don’t know had pity on us, before we got cocky to consider Pity as a bad connotation.

We avoid like the plague Act of Pity.

The Samaritan had pity on the wounded and robbed person. Actually, these kind of people have pity on living creatures and Not just human kind.

The driving force to our survival is this sense of Pity. We extend a helping hand for someone, so he can make it through the day, emotionally and financially.

So many time, as we were growing up, people aided us, and Not because we were cute, funny, or talented or saw potentials in us.

We are in need of tenderness, care, disoriented, frustrated, can’t see the end of the horizon, what we should be doing, where to go, how to behave, how to communicate…

So many times we were isolated, almost famished, no place to spend the night, where to go when sick, penniless, at the end of the roll…

And somehow, we managed to survive the day. And we refuse to recall who helped us, how we were rescued.

Hundreds upon hundreds of strangers came to our rescue, and we never had the courage to remember a few of these Samaritans.

We try to substitute pity for responsibility, though responsibility is an acquired quality.

Pity should be elevated to the highest great level of connotation.

All other “good terms” be degraded one level.

If you still consider Pity as a bad connotation, then you are a pitiful person. And this time around it is the worst of bad connotations, a “Pitiful person“.

Note: You watch animal documentaries and you notice that carnivorous big feline attack the fallen behind in a herd or looking Not fit to follow the herd. No, it is Not to salvage their energy, it is “Out of Pity“, like this term or Not.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

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