Global leadership: shared values and the cult of the team

Jason Cobbold looks at the leadership lessons from Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister

It is often said that moments of crisis reveal the true skills of a leader. Today’s generation of leaders has faced no challenge as great as the current crisis, and the contrasting responses of the global elite have given us some real insight into that elusive thing called ‘leadership’.

One person in particular has stood out for her leadership qualities, and that is Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister.  Not only has Ardern been, to date, one of the few leaders to deal effectively with the national threat of coronavirus, but she has revealed herself a thoroughly modern and engaging role model. At every turn, she seems to challenge outdated notions of leadership, combining humility and selflessness, with clarity and direction. For all those students of leadership – whether in a political, corporate or personal context – there is much to observe and learn.

Collective endeavour wins

Ardern continually shines a light on the tremendous power of the collective. Her cult is the cult of the team. She conveys a sense of national purpose, of Kiwi spirit and fortitude, without falling into the familiar and often misdirected language of nationalism. The nation is imagined as a team ‘of five million’, invoking the strong Kiwi sporting heritage. This same team also ‘owns’ and ‘protects’ something special – the amazing place and culture that is New Zealand.

She talks passionately about how she wants people to  This is a nation brought together by a unique set of values which everyone must work to keep in place. Collective sacrifice is a big part of this, with Ardern taking a 20% pay cut in recognition of the nation’s anticipated hardship.

Leading with the real you

Ardern shows no artifice in the way she leads. We never feel like we’re seeing a performance (because if ever there were a crisis to strip away the trappings of power, this is it). She mixes her formal duties effortlessly with a uniquely personal and informal style. When was the last time a leader held a live Q&A wearing a sweatshirt after just putting her child to bed? She holds the door ajar to her life, and we’re quite literally drawn in. Compare this with the staging and posturing that is so common in leaders – whether it’s Trump managing the theatre of his own performance, or Boris Johnson emerging from quarantine to address the UK from a podium outside 10 Downing Street.

Just tell me what’s going on

Ardern’s approach shows the value of being open, of being honest when there is no quick fix. ‘Flare-ups are a concern, second waves are a concern’, she told the nation when easing social distancing measures in New Zealand. Other leaders have been quick to proclaim control over the virus – ‘we have passed the peak’ has become a familiar refrain. But such attempts to project control of the story belie the facts. Better to acknowledge when a situation is fluid.

Talk up to your audience

A founding principle of our agency, BMB, is to ‘talk up’ to an audience. Brands all too often fall into the trap of dumbing down a message or an approach to suit the masses. It’s as though people are somehow this curious ‘other’ to be observed and managed. The same is true of leaders in high office, who fail to level with their own audiences. Keeping things simple is sometimes confused with a tendency for simplification, and they are not one and the same. In this context, Ardern has done an expert job of unpacking the reality of the situation, providing clear rationale for her decisions. And she does this without losing a fundamental connection to and empathy with her audience.

This is what we’re doing

For all of Ardern’s human qualities, her purpose is never blunted. This is someone who makes decisions, and asks for clear actions from those around her. If Boris Johnson loves colourful metaphor and embellishment, Ardern is simple, economical and directive in her language. Everything boils down to a clear set of actions, with little or no space for misinterpretation. When explaining the need for immediate lockdown in March, her words were very simple: ‘I say to all New Zealanders: the government will do all it can to protect you. Now I’m asking you to do everything you can to protect all of us. Kiwis – go home.’

The subtleties of language matter

Ardern uses common sense, practical language. She steers towards the personal away from the militaristic clichés that abound in other leaders’ speeches. Avoiding the now familiar language of lockdown, Ardern talks instead about being in your ‘bubble’ and keeping within it, revealing who’s in her own bubble and how she relaxes within it. She paints simple and effective pictures with the words she uses.

But it’s not just what the New Zealand premier says, it’s how she presents herself on screen. While others search for the grand and imposing, she presents from home on a webcam. While others crave authority with pressed shirts and pin stripe suits, she is comfortable in an old sweatshirt, and it is no less powerful as a result.

Jason Cobbold is CEO of marketing agency BMB

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