Over the past few months, each and every world leader has faced the same unprecedented challenge almost in unison, with uninterrupted media coverage ensuring that their every move is recorded. The scrutiny is relentless – much like the virus itself – and whether a president, prime minister, chancellor or supreme leader, competence and skill pertaining to crisis management and leadership during this time will be judged under a microscope and positions will be under threat.
Naturally, the global leadership response to the pandemic has been stylistically diverse, and there are some milestones yet to be reached before we can convincingly declare a final order of dominance. There is, however, an irrefutable correlation between female leadership and pandemic damage control. The countries that are thus far known to have wrestled and coped best with the crisis have a running theme of women at the helm, and the stand-out traits that they seem to have in common are composure, concision and compassion, among myriad others.
German chancellor, Angela Merkel, with her scientific background, to-the-point articulation and reluctance to entertain rhetorical questions is an archetype of stereotypical German precision in leadership. Her characteristic stoicism might previously have been an irritation for those who would prefer a more spirited line of communication between the government and the public, but it has since become a known asset to the German people. Merkel’s levelheaded, assured explanation of the science behind her government’s exit strategy oozed with all the poised confidence and quiet optimism you could hope for from a former research scientist with a doctorate in quantum chemistry. She has been hailed for stepping up to the emotional needs of the country with uncharacteristically heartfelt dialogue and empathetic intervention, and also for her quick and practical responses, the effects of which have afforded Germany a much lower death count than that of many of its EU neighbours.
Similarly, in nearby Denmark, prime minister Mette Frederiksen (who also happens to be the country’s youngest-ever leader) has been vehemently praised for her decisiveness, clear instructions and defiance towards European groupthink mentality, the culmination of which is presumably what has spared Denmark the level of destruction that other nations have suffered. Then there’s Taiwan, Estonia and Iceland – all female-led and ranking amongst the top-ten countries to have responded most effectively to the crisis, which is extraordinarily disproportionate considering 93% of world leadership positions are occupied by men. But the face of this remarkable feat for women in leadership is Kiwi prime minister, Jacinda Ardern – and rightly so.
Ardern’s approach was to ‘go hard and go early’. The virus had barely made its way onto Kiwi shores before the country was in lockdown and its borders closed. Perhaps that the virus came as the third of a triumvirate of disasters for New Zealand in the short space of a year – first the mass shooting, closely followed by a deadly volcanic eruption – set the scene for Ardern’s no-nonsense plan-of-attack as the country’s most avid guardian. New Zealand was the only country on the planet to announce that their goal was to eliminate, rather than merely contain the virus, and that goal has been valiantly achieved as a global first.
Not every leader set out to tackle the pandemic from the same starting point, though. Geographically, New Zealand is at an advantage in its relatively isolated position at the bottom of the South Pacific, giving Ardern’s government the opportunity to work on an elimination strategy before the virus really had a chance to sink its teeth. But that isn’t enough to vitiate the smart and decisive action that bought officials time to develop measures that put the country on track for success, such as rigorously quarantining at the country’s borders and expanding COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.
But Ardern’s triumph is as much to do with her personal leadership style as it is her response to data. Her priority throughout this time has been to prepare the nation psychologically as much as pragmatically for an upheaval in everyday life. Her implementation of a four-tier alert system to convey restrictions and changes in the situation was a means of cushioning some hard-hitting facts, delivering the full picture concisely and honestly but in a way that allowed people to mentally prepare. For this, she has won the incremental trust of New Zealanders alongside the support of her precursor, Helen Clark, one of few people who knows first-hand how hard it can be as a female world leader. She “doesn’t preach at them; she’s standing with them,” says Clark. “They may even think, Well, I don’t quite understand why [the government] did that, but I know she’s got our back.”
One of Ardern’s superpowers as a leader is her relatability. She has become renowned for her regular updates via Facebook Live, in which she addresses the nation informally from the comfort of her home where she, her husband and her toddler continue to “hunker down” like everybody else. She answers questions that the public sends her directly and she does so in a way that somehow manages to be at once informative, sobering and comforting amid a crisis that tempts people to become erratic and primal.
As a female leader, Ardern responds to crises in a way that many of her male counterparts may not; confidently but with an absence of ego; authoritatively but with an absence of entitlement; and with a profound focus on empathy, collaboration and open communication. It is a delicate dance that requires a particular ability to be two things at once, but Ardern is adamant (and proving) that she can do just that; “One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years”, she says, “is that I’m not aggressive or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.” This marriage of compassion and strength alongside capability and collaboration is what Ardern has exemplified as the formula for great leadership in this time of crisis. Her success is an education to leaders everywhere, particularly women, as she has proven that empathy and weakness are very different things, and that being a powerful leader doesn’t mean acting ‘like a man’, but rather leaning in to the valuable female traits derived from a career of balancing self-belief with self-awareness.
“Women are used to being scrutinised and having to justify themselves,” says the Women’s Equality Party leader, Mandu Reid. “They’ve had to work twice as hard to get half as far. And that will incubate perhaps a greater reverence for the job and responsibility… If you’ve been entitled your whole life, and you’ve expected and assumed and had it proved over and over that your voice will get heard, it’s possible that you will take power and influence for granted, and that is dangerous in a crisis of the severity we are facing here and now.”
For a woman to climb to a position of power and influence, it is fair to assume that she has faced gender-related barriers along the way. Perhaps it is this uniquely female experience that sets female leadership apart in the face of a global crisis. Reid puts it down to the idea that “for women leaders to be elected at all, they have to be exceptional… And that’s why we are seeing strong leadership from these women. They are more than qualified enough to do this very, very well.”