Leading Through a Crisis: What We Can Learn From Jacinda Ardern, Bill Gates, and Others

April 14, 2020

Photo of Jacinda Ardern

Effective leadership can come from anyone, but it is expected from people who have it in their job descriptions — prime ministers and presidents, CEOs and heads of NGOs. And it is truly needed right now.

Fortunately, in this time of uncertainty, people have stepped up and modeled the kind of leadership that provides direction, calm, and resolve in the face of hardship.

Whether you direct a team of five or 5,000, here are five leaders worth emulating during a crisis:

1. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine — Good leadership is doing the right thing, rather than the easy thing

“Perhaps no single governor has done more,” writes Politico, “to put the [United States] on a war footing in the fight against coronavirus than [Ohio Governor Mike] DeWine.” Early in March, before his state even had a single confirmed case of coronavirus, DeWine banned spectators from the Arnold Sports Festival in Columbus. On March 12, he became the first U.S. governor to close schools, shuttering all public and private K-12 schools. He defied a court order and postponed Ohio’s primary election rather than potentially expose voters and poll workers to the virus.

“The governor’s ahead-of-the-curve response,” says The Washington Post, “has won raves from public health experts and from politicians of both parties.” His afternoon press conferences have even sparked a social media phenomenon — complete with T-shirts and engraved glasses — called Wine with DeWine. Daily, people across the state toast the governor for his tough love.

That tough love — imposing short-term inconveniences and even hardships to save lives — is a reminder of the importance of doing the right thing, rather than the easy thing.

2. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern — Good leadership is about acting decisively

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made world-wide headlines last week by declaring the Easter bunny and the tooth fairy as essential workers during her nation’s lockdown. And while her lighter note was appreciated, it shouldn’t obscure the real work she has done toward eliminating coronavirus rather than merely containing it.

On March 19, Ardern closed New Zealand’s borders to foreigners, despite the fact that a sizeable chunk of the country’s economy is tied to the 4 million annual visitors it receives. Less than a week later, she imposed a nationwide lockdown, requiring everyone to stay home unless they were 1) traveling to and from an essential job, 2) going to get groceries, or 3) exercising near home.

She closed the beaches for swimming and surfing and the backcountry for hunting. When her health minister confessed to taking his family to the beach in violation of the lockdown, she publicly chastised him and demoted him to the lowest cabinet rank. But she didn’t fire him, saying it was more important to avoid a disruption in a critical position in the midst of fighting the pandemic.

The results? The nation has only had five deaths related to COVID-19, and recoveries have been outpacing new cases. Michael Baker, one of the nation’s top epidemiologists, called it “a triumph of science and leadership.” In the face of a fast-moving pandemic, Ardern moved decisively and helped her country be in a position to not just flatten the curve but eliminate it altogether.

3. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson  — Good leadership is about being vulnerable

Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson wanted to get a video message out to the hotel chain’s employees about the impact of COVID-19. Arne is recovering from stage 2 pancreatic cancer and has lost his hair, so some of his team was reluctant to have him make a taped appearance. But Arne, who was named 2019 CEO of the Year by Chief Executive Magazine, knows what he’s doing. His video from March 19 is a leadership tour de force — straightforward, informative, visibly heartfelt, and less than six minutes long.

Arne starts by expressing his concern for the Marriott employees who are either sick with COVID-19 or in self-quarantine and then literally gets down to business: “COVID-19 is having a more severe and sudden financial impact on our business than 9/11 and the 2009 financial crisis combined. . . . In most markets, we are already 75% below normal levels.”

He outlines a few of the steps the company will be taking to reduce expenses, including furloughs for tens of thousands of employees. He also notes that he will be taking no pay for the rest of the year and the executive team will be taking a 50% cut in pay. Part of compassion is stepping up to share the pain.

He says this is the toughest moment he’s ever faced as a leader. As he clearly fights back tears, he continues: “There is simply nothing worse than telling highly valued associates, people who are the very heart of this company, that their roles are being impacted by events completely outside of their control.”

Arne does not sugarcoat anything in his message, but by visibly sharing his feelings, he ensures that no one can watch the video without grasping that this is a battle that everyone at Marriott will fight together.

4. Hayley Wickenheiser, member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission — Good leadership is not losing sight of what’s truly important

On March 17, six-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser sent out what Canada’s National Post called the “Olympic-tweet heard round the world.” Hayley, a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes’ Commission, had grown increasingly concerned about the IOC’s stubborn insistence that the Summer Olympics would be held in Tokyo this July, regardless of the pandemic raging around the world. 

A four-time Olympic gold medalist and seven time world champion ice hockey player, Hayley is widely considered the best women’s ice hockey player ever. But her point of view was more shaped by what she had been seeing as a third-year medical student doing a rotation in emergency room medicine.

“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity,” she tweeted. Later, she added: “[T]his crisis is bigger than even the Olympics.”

Five days later, Canada became the first country to announce that it would not send any athletes to Tokyo this summer. Two day after that, the IOC and Japan finally relented and postponed the Games until the summer of 2021.

“The fact that the IOC and Japan decided to postpone,” said Johannes Herber, the CEO of Athleten Deutschland, “has a lot to do with the fact that athletes spoke out and clearly told their stories.” As Hayley powerfully demonstrated, leadership isn’t always about making the final decision but sometimes about acting to shape those decisions.

5. Philanthropist Bill Gates — Good leadership can also be anticipating a crisis, preparing for it, and attacking it head-on

Bill Gates has never held elective office, but the Microsoft cofounder has been a longtime advocate of preparing for the kind of pandemic the world now faces. His short but prescient 2015 TED Talk, “The Next Outbreak? We’re Not Ready,” has been viewed more than 28 million times. His advice — build a medical reserve corps, do lots of simulations (“run germ games, not war games”), invest heavily in R&D to develop vaccinations and diagnostics, among other things — was not universally embraced.

But Gates hasn’t sat back and said, “I told you so.” Nor has he become paralyzed by the enormity of the crisis, succumbing to the danger of doing nothing.

Instead, he and his wife, Melinda Gates, are providing billions of dollars through their Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to accelerate the development of an effective countermeasure to COVID-19. In an interview with Trevor Noah, Gates announced that the foundation would support the build-out of seven factories, each of which will produce a promising though untested vaccine. Gates has identified a critical factor — time — and then has gone all in to get to a solution as fast as possible.

Gates knows that only one or two of the vaccines is likely to be successful. But the foundation is not going to wait until the best vaccine has been selected to help ramp up production. They’re going to help boost the production of all seven — even though maybe only one will be used in the end.

Final thoughts: Good leadership is timeless

Whether or not leadership is part of your daily responsibilities, consider how the leaders above have acted — courageously, decisively, informed by facts — in a global crisis. They have talked the talk, clearly and compassionately, and walked the walk. The need for strong leadership, unlike the pandemic itself, will not go away, its curve will not be flattened.

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* Photo from Getty Images