As a citizen of any country, the dream is to have a leader who does everything in their power to make sure their country’s people feel heard, informed, and safe. And if they can avoid all the typical political buzzwords and jargon, then that’s an added bonus. During the coronavirus, political leaders have taken very different approaches in quelling the virus and communicating with citizens, but no leader seems to be doing a more admirable job than Jacinda Ardern, the 39-year-old prime minister of New Zealand.
Her leadership style is one of empathy in a crisis that tempts people to fend for themselves. Her messages are clear, consistent, and somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing. And her approach isn’t just resonating with her people on an emotional level. It is also working remarkably well. As New Zealand’s former prime minister puts it, Ardern “doesn’t preach at them; she’s standing with them.”
One of Ardern’s innovations has been frequent Facebook Live chats that manage to be both informal and informative. During a session conducted in late March, just as New Zealand prepared to go on lockdown, she appeared in a well-worn sweatshirt at her home (she had just put her toddler daughter to bed, she explained) to offer guidance “as we all prepare to hunker down.”
She sympathized with how alarming it must have been to hear the “loud honk” that had preceded the emergency alert message all New Zealanders had just received essentially informing them that life as they knew it was temporarily over. She introduced helpful concepts, such as thinking of “the people [who] will be in your life consistently over this period of time” as your “bubble” and “acting as though you already have COVID-19” toward those outsides of your bubble. She justified severe policies with practical examples: People needed to stay local because what if they drove off to some remote destination and their car broke down? She said she knows as a parent that it’s really hard to avoid playgrounds, but the virus can live on surfaces for 72 hours.
Ardern’s style would be interesting—a world leader in comfy clothes just casually chatting with millions of people!—and nothing more, if it wasn’t for the fact that her approach has been paired with policies that have produced real, world-leading results.
Since March, New Zealand has been unique in staking out a national goal of not just flattening the curve of coronavirus cases, as most other countries have aimed to do, but eliminating the virus altogether. And it is on track to do it. COVID-19 testing is widespread. The health system has not been overloaded. New cases peaked in early April. Twelve people have died as of April 19, out of a population of nearly 5 million.
The low infection rate is, in part, thanks to Ardern’s decisive action to close the borders to nonresidents in mid-March, despite there being only a handful of cases in the country. New Zealand’s powerful collective effort to stop the virus is also a testament to Ardern’s transparent, empathic approach to leadership, which has worked to unite citizens rather than divide them.