Be Strong. Be Kind.


By Katie Doran, Partner at Lanyon Group

As we draw a close to yet another week in lockdown, I wanted to write about kindness and leadership – two words that have not always been closely associated.

I have been really impressed and educated by New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She has recently said that her country has "done what few countries have been able to do" and contained the spread of Covid-19. Indeed, with only 16 deaths so far, they are able to start easing their lockdown measures as of next Tuesday.

New Zealand had some of the earliest and toughest self-isolation measures in the world, but what has been most striking to everyone has been the leadership displayed by Jacinda Ardern. She stands out for her ability to lead with empathy and deliver the right outcome. She reaches beyond data and economic measurements, right into the hearts and souls of her people. And this is not the first time she has demonstrated that strong quality of empathy. We saw it before when she spoke so eloquently and sympathetically after the brutal murder of Grace Millane. I remember her words vividly, taking responsibility for the safety of everyone who chooses to visit her beloved New Zealand.

A recent Forbes article called ‘Leading Through a Crisis’ believes the key is to engage your people in the right way, at the right time, with the right information.

A practical way to think about this is as a series of three fundamental questions and answers.

1. During a crisis, what do people hear?

Mental noise in high-stress situations reduces the ability to process information by 80%, on average. Under stress, people have difficulty hearing, understanding and recalling information. Therefore, keep messages concise and clear. Think about using graphics, visual aids, analogies and personal stories, all of which can improve processing by more than 50%. From the outset New Zealand carefully, clearly and calmly communicated the trajectory they were on. When Ardern told the public, "We're going hard and we're going early," people heard it clearly and understood why.

2. How do you best reach them?

Under stress, people react more favourably to trusted individuals they know and respect. An employee’s direct leader is often in the best position to communicate messages and motivate the right behaviours. Who delivers the message matters, but so does the way it’s delivered. People need to know that you truly care about them before they start to care about what you know. It is critical during times of crisis to begin every communication with empathy.

While telling the public in detail the rules of the lockdown and the trajectory of the new cases, Jacinda Ardern ended almost all her public appearances with the same message: "Be Strong. Be Kind". After she announced the lockdown, the prime minister went on to Facebook Live, saying she wanted to "check in with everyone" as they prepared to hunker down. She's regularly been on Facebook, casually dressed, always smiling and sharing slivers of her personal life, but never underplaying the seriousness of the situation while answering people's questions.

3. How will they respond?

The HBR article 'That Discomfort You are Feeling is Grief' likens the impact of Covid-19 to that of grief. Think of the Kübler-Ross stages of grief as a guide to how people process difficult change. After the initial shock, the steps are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (and not necessarily in that neat, linear order!). It’s easy to see resistance as negative when, in fact, it is the first sign that people are taking change seriously. The right leadership reaction to resistance is to listen with empathy. Only then can you remind people why things need to change and begin to discuss how to make the change happen.

Across New Zealand there has been a high level of compliance. Unlike the countries that declared "war on Covid-19", their message was that of a country coming together. It urged people to "Unite Against Covid-19". Ardern has repeatedly called the country "our team of five million". The overwhelming response in New Zealand has been public praise for Ardern’s manner and steadfastness and every decision that’s made comes with the disclaimer that she knows how difficult it's going to be for people. It's delivered with kindness but is also very decisive and clear what people can and can't do.

Leaders need to ask the following three questions and be just a little bit more Jacinda Ardern:

• How are you keeping your communications clear and concise?

• How are you listening with empathy through this time?...are you really listening?…and is your empathy genuine?

• What lessons can we all take away from Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style?

Jacinda Ardern stands out for her ability to lead with empathy. © Getty

Engage your people in the right way, at the right time, with the right information.

Katie Doran, Lanyon