Earning Crisis Leadership with Clarity, Resolve and Empathy

To lead, leaders in a crisis must speak with clarity, resolve and empathy to engage and inspire. Easier said than done. One leader drawing plaudits for those qualities in communicating about the coronavirus is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who conducts her briefings on Facebook live from her home.

“The calm, compassionate, charismatic Jacinda has stood out as not only the one you want to take home to your family, but also run your household, business and country,” writes New Zealand columnist Verity Johnson, a self-described writer, thinker and excessive coffee drinker.

The coronavirus pandemic has strained global health and economic systems, creating a crisis calling for leaders capable of speaking with clarity, demonstrating resolve and showing empathy. Some leaders have fallen short. New Zealand’s prime minister has displayed the qualities needed for a crisis leader.

One of Ardern’s commendable traits, Johnson says, is recognizing she doesn’t have all the answers. “She’s been sitting down, shutting up and listening to what the scientists say. Ardern is sensible enough to realize that pandemic control is not her specialty, and to react swiftly to her medical advisers instead. And the next vitally important step, after realizing that you don’t know all the answers, is to clearly communicate the advice of those who do.”

Johnson contrasts the crisis communications skills of Ardern with those of President Trump (confusing and confrontational), Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (mushy and indecisive) and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (ineffectively glib).

“Ardern has managed to tell the message clearly and calmly via press conference, text message and even road signs – Be kind. Stay home. That’s it,” Johnson explains. “It’s a mark of highly skilled communication to be able to find clarity in overwhelming and complicated situations. Ultimately, it’s the ability to do that which maintains public calm, because everyone’s freaking out and can’t process anything except the clearest of messages.”

Johnson adds, “But perhaps what’s made Ardern most invaluable is how she conveys equal parts clarity and compassion. She openly acknowledges that people are afraid and that this is normal….And by embracing the difficulty we’re all feeling, she connects with the public and gets our support. And we’re listening. We’re not partying on Bondi beach, we’re (mostly) hunkering down at home.”

‘Equal parts clarity and compassion’ is a good summation of the role for a crisis leader. In chaos, the crisis leader provides direction and reassurance, resolve and empathy. It’s a tall task. Many would-be crisis leaders shrink at the challenge. Others who try to lead in a crisis muff the assignment by coming across as unclear and uncaring.

Once more, Johnson offers a valuable insight. “[Ardern] proved that communication with kindness – historically dismissed as too feminine a leadership style – creates the powerful, reassuring leadership people trust. And our survival right now depends on trust in the Government. We need them to maintain the good practice they’ve started – even more so if this gets worse. While it still looks very uncertain, Ardern’s leadership has given us cause for hope that we can get through.”

Generals can bark orders. Managers can scope out plans. But only leaders can give orders, lay out strategies and inspire people to follow their lead. Empathy, compassion and simple kindness can be powerful instruments of leadership. These qualities are what can illuminate orders and animate strategies. These are the qualities that inspire followership. As the maxim goes, you’re not a leader unless people are following you.

Be clear, be firm, be sympathetic in a crisis and chances are good people will follow your lead. You will earn your role as a crisis leader.