3 Strategies for Effective Leadership Communication that Jacinda Ardern Teaches us
It’s one of the most difficult times in modern history to be a leader. Put simply, be it in politics or business, the potential consequences and stakes have rarely been higher, and so too the consequent pressure on leaders to make the right decisions has rarely been greater. During such times, it’s essential that leaders are able to communicate effectively in order to engage those they are trying to reach.
Political leaders face difficult decisions on which the lives of tens of thousands of other people depend. If they get it wrong, or delay in deciding, it could actively lead to people dying (Enserink & Kupferschmidt, 2020). On the flipside, more stringent lockdown measures can come at the expense of shutting down the economy which can lead to widescale business disruption, mass layoffs and affecting the livelihoods of millions of citizens as we’ve begun to see already (Inman, 2020).
Success or failure in navigating these extremes rests on the shoulders of leaders, and hinges on their ability to effectively lead entire countries in getting them to choose to follow their leadership, despite it potentially demanding sudden, unprecedented and difficult changes to their daily lives.
In business, leaders continue to face tough organisational, financial and people decisions from all angles. This looks likely to continue when leading the return to work as employees may have been affected in any multitude of ways; some may have been personally affected, be it their personal health or that of friends and family, their mental health and wellbeing, going through lengthy furloughs or continuing working remotely. We disagree with the notion we see popping up lately that “everyone is in the same boat”. Instead, we suggest that leaders face a huge challenge in re-engaging their workforces who may well have had very different experiences of the same storm.
In both politics and business, we suggest a silver-lining of a very dark and awful cloud, exists in what leaders can learn from Jacinda Ardern, the Prime-Minister of New Zealand, who has shown a masterclass in effective crisis leadership over the last 3 months. While we could focus on a range of aspects of her leadership, this article will specifically focus on effective leadership communication as we see this as a particular leadership muscle that will need strengthening in the near future as we see our clients and networks (and their leaders) already facing this challenge.
We disagree with the notion we see popping up lately that “everyone is in the same boat”. Instead, we suggest that leaders face a huge challenge in re-engaging their workforces who may well have had very different experiences of the same storm.
No Small Challenge
The entire New Zealand population size, granted, roughly equates to about half of London. New Zealand is a country of approx 5 million, which is admittedly significantly smaller than the UK or Australia, let alone much larger giants like the US or China. But, the strategies, principles and communication to enable them are the same as a country of 50 or 500 million.
As Alistair Campbell aptly writes, no matter the country size, leaders “have to lead. You have to devise, execute and narrate a strategy. You have to set out difficult choices, make difficult decisions, take the country into your confidence about why you are making them. You have to show genuine empathy for the difficulties your people are facing, and take them with you.” (Campbell, 2020).
Jacinda Ardern and her government have been swift and decisive in both their decision-making and reinforced this with effective communication. They have now, (bar what appears to be a recent blip) achieved their elimination goal of Zero cases to become the only developed country to achieve such a feat. They’ve also achieved this with record highs in polls and public approval ratings, suggesting that 88% of New Zealanders trusted the government to make the right decisions in addressing Covid 19, and 84% approved of their response to the pandemic. We ask, “are there key strategies that leaders can adopt by analysing how Ardern and her government engaged their citizens?”
Effective Leadership Communication
We suggest that Ardern’s success is driven by 3 key communication strategies that enabled New Zealand to achieve their elimination goal, and did so with overwhelming nationwide support.
Jaqueline and Milton Mayfield’s research into effective leadership communication suggests the best way to motivate followers is to engage all three types of language in leader-to-follower scenarios:
Purpose driven communication involves creating a clear link to an organisational goal, making clear the benefit of achieving of it, and the reasoning behind it. Throughout media briefings, Ardern continuously reiterates how any steps they’re taking is with intent to eliminate the virus from New Zealand, firmly establishing a purpose.
Baker, a chief Kiwi epidemiologist, suggests the goal has been a clear statement of intent and a differentiator in comparison to other countries as “a huge standout as the only Western country that’s got an elimination goal for COVID-19”. Being clear on this goal from the start and consistent in her messaging has helped people understand that that’s what their actions are aiming to do.
When clamping down, and increasing lockdown measures, this pre-established purpose was crucial in helping people digest any further changes, particularly when it meant restrictions that would likely involve shutting the economy down, affecting their livelihoods and incomes, and restricting daily freedom of movement.
In the clip below, Ardern goes into detail around the reasoning underpinning her government’s actions to enable the goal and keeps bringing it back to the shared benefit for all Kiwis. Watching from 8:39 onwards, you can clearly see her establishing her aim and backing it up with reasoning. This example shows her reiterating directive language in different forms when using phrases such as; “to stamp out the virus everywhere”, “to eliminate the virus”, “save lives” and “return areas to normality as soon as we can” “to be able to raise restrictions in certain areas”. Ardern continually ties what she’s saying back to her purpose and the reasoning behind what they’re doing. O’Quinn suggests that in using directive language, such as Ardern’s here, managers can allow little ambiguity which is capable of breeding anxiety. Instead, her followers in this leader-follower relationship are clear on the purpose and reasoning of their elimination goal.
Meaning-making involves making it clear to every individual in an audience what your message means for them. They link how that person’s direct actions have an influence on the purpose. As Ardern has set about a clear elimination goal, she then begins linking people to it to elicit meaning through highlighting precisely what that means for them.
By using the phrase “stay home to save lives” she simultaneously derives the meaning in the practical things she is asking of New Zealander’s, and the purpose of why they’re doing it. In detail she explains at 9:43, “again, I want to reiterate to you, you will be able to make regular visits to essential services in during that time, your supermarkets will not close, your pharmacy and pharmaceutical products will be available, you will be able to access medical services”
This frames, in very relatable and everyday terms, the consequences of breaking the restriction measures and makes it clear that those actions will actively mean it takes the government longer to restore normality to their lives, along with the implication that they will be actively going against achieving the shared purpose.
Empathetic – this means taking the time in your messaging to truly understand and relate to how your audience are feeling and relating to their position. In doing so, your message becomes more authentic and approachable. This is where Ardern excels.
Using a series of Facebook live videos (one example below), Ardern “jumps online”, “not in her work clothes” having just put the toddlers to bed. Taking this casual appearance and tone, and by directly speaking to her audience in a more intimate setting, she shows a very human side of herself and a more personal style of delivery that makes it easier for her audience to relate to her.
The language Ardern uses here such as the phrases “check-in” “hunkering down”, “disheartening”, “hoping to see a change” all add to the approachable, informal and emotive tone she uses to connect to the audience. She then ties this to the messaging she wants people to take away of the lag between distancing and the positive benefits seen from them.
In one fell swoop in her final lines of this video, she hits all 3 points in the criteria for effective leadership communication – “if you can help them [elderly neighbours], go out and grab their essentials, just remembering… the way we can keep them safe” (empathetic) “is by keeping our distance… Remember, stay at home break the chain” (meaning) “and you’ll save lives and it’s as simple as that.” (purpose).
While effortlessly mastering the 3 qualities for effective leadership communication, Ardern also creates herself space for more light-hearted announcements such as naming the Easter Bunny as an essential worker. It could be argued even here that she engages her audience through her use of Kiwi humour and empathising with the families in her audience.
Ardern rightfully deserves her celebratory dance for achieving New Zealand’s elimination strategy purpose. We suggest that Ardern’s effective leadership communication illustrates how leaders are most likely to engage and motivate their employees to a shared goal by engaging purpose-driven, meaning-making and empathetic messaging. The return to work will no doubt continue to pose significant challenges to leaders and their employees. However, the learnings we can take from Ardern’s masterclass suggests a framework for us to lead our own boats through this crisis.