Jacinda Ardern's leadership proficiency informed by a challenging year

11:55 am on 1 April 2020

By David Cohen*

Opinion - Living for the moment can be hard, as millions of suddenly housebound Kiwis are discovering, but leading by the moment is harder still.

Just ask Jacinda Ardern.

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Photo: Dom Thomas

In a matter of weeks, the prime minister has displayed a proficiency in leadership that has been informed not only by the gravity of the current emergency but an unusually invidious apprenticeship over the last year.

It has been for Ardern the sort of practice that makes, if not perfect, then near enough - at least for now.

Barely 12 months ago she assumed the role of the nation's mourner-in-chief in the wake of the mosque massacres in Christchurch.

That explosion of violence showered sparks on much dry tinder. It fell to her to make national sense of an assault that not only left 51 dead and scores of others injured but the country's own easygoing sense of itself in shreds.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Kilbirnie Mosque.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Kilbirnie Mosque following the 15 March mosque attacks last year. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

The poetry of her response was not the point, because she isn't a particularly poetic person. The prime minister's style is not intellectually musical in the tradition of the late David Lange. But it is, as she demonstrated here last year, more than capable of soaring to the occasion in other more conversationally nuanced ways.

Overseas, leaders sometimes respond to terrorist atrocities by highlighting the "diversity" of the victims. An attack is cast as therefore an assault against multiculturalism. This sort of emotional logic has its own limitations, however, not least because it invariably stresses the "otherness" of the victims.

Ardern chose a different tack, and she sounded like a leader for doing so: "They are us".

Then Whaakari/White Island blew its volcanic top. Again the prime minister was praised for her "calm" and "measured" response which some contrasted favourably with perceptions of initial dithering by the Australian federal government over that country's deadly bush fires.

Now there is the new Covid-19 coronavirus.

The array of challenges currently facing the government of New Zealand is painfully well-known on most fronts - here a potential medical disaster, there a possible economic meltdown. At least three other immensely challenging aspects for a leader can be seen.

The first is an existential wrinkle to what Ardern is now confronted with, which must be particularly challenging for somebody on her side of the ideological divide.

The prospect of mass illness is deeply, even metaphysically, distasteful to anyone. It's distasteful because it reminds us that death is coming and might even be with us at the next tick of the clock.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

Yet this must be an especially difficult message to lead on for somebody who is a social democrat.

Cheerful progressives like Ardern rely on medicine's best outcomes. It's their job to celebrate these things; it's also what they usually campaign for office on.

But nature has its job to do, too. So now it falls to Ardern to elucidate the meaning and odds of death, in particular, rather than the kind of "improvements" to the health system that would usually be her stock in trade.

The second great leadership test for her will be the challenge of charting a national course out of lockdown.

No economy can survive indefinite paralysis - and human beings themselves can't really survive indefinite house detention.

Ardern at some point will need to lead again with an exit strategy. Presumably this will involve allowing at least some of the low-risk groups (including those who have had the virus and are now recovered) back into the productive sector.

To say one is shutting almost everything down on the advice of health officials is one kind of leadership. To start things up on the advice of economists will be another.

What makes this particularly difficult - and this is really the third aspect of the immense problem - is that there simply isn't a Plan B. There's only one chance to get it right.

Talk about leadership. According to Grant Robertson, Ardern will yet be up to the task. Writing on social media, the finance minister praised his colleague's "calm, decisive, incisive" qualities, and her "deep, principled and practical policy approach" to the emergency at hand.

"Up close I see the burden of life and death decisions are not easily carried," Robertson said. "They hang heavy."

So far she seems to be carrying them pretty darn well.

* David Cohen is a Wellington writer.

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