19 May 2021

Public increasingly expect leaders to be honest and empathetic, survey indicates

11:35 am on 19 May 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed perceptions about what makes a good leader, a survey has shown.

Ashley Bloomfield

Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield at a media conference in January. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

A survey of media coverage, the public and journalists by media research company Insentia indicated local reporters were 2.5 times more likely to focus on negative leadership traits than positive ones, the reverse of Australian media, which preferred to focus on the positive.

"What we can see is there is probably less overt praise for New Zealand leadership and government but a lot of comparisons to international leadership and particularly where international responses may not have been as strong," Isentia director Ngaire Crawford said, whereas Australia focused more on their own leaders rather than those overseas.

"A lot of the leadership coverage is driven by sport as well, which plays a big, big role in how they view leadership."

The report looked at how last year's events were covered by the media, including their participation in news conferences, which catapulted Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield to something akin to superstar status.

It said 44 percent of New Zealanders believed leadership had changed as a result of Covid-19, with resilience considered to be the most important trait (90 percent), ahead of follow-through (75 percent) and empathy (70 percent).

The most reported positive leadership traits on both sides of the Tasman were inspirational, strategic and confident.

Incompetence was the leading negative trait in Australia, while invisibility took the lead in New Zealand.

"2020 was unique in the opportunity it provided to see how different leaders respond to challenges across the world, all at the same time," she said.

The study also indicated the public expected competent leaders, with a direct call for them to be good communicators.

For political leaders there was also a desire for honesty and for them to act ethically.

Leadership in a pandemic

A qualitative analysis of Bloomfield's media coverage and aspects of his leadership style were also included in the report.

"The analysis shows that where media did directly mention (Bloomfield's) leadership, it was positioned as effective to non-effective at a ratio of 16:1," Crawford said.

"Conversely, when surveyed, 78 percent of New Zealand respondents agreed he was a good leader and directly mentioned that he was honest, calm, humble and clear."

Crawford said the way the public responded to Dr Bloomfield indicated there was a desire for a more empathetic approach to leadership.

"I think the public response that we looked at was really focused on honesty and ethical responses, especially in our political leaders so I think that's an extension of that idea that people are looking to make that connection with a leader that they believe is based on a common and shared belief system.

"That probably hasn't been quite as evident than anything else we looked at before, where it's been more about being really decisive and leading from the front," Crawford said.