Leadership proves most vital and necessary when based on decisions which must be made quickly, implemented efficiently, and adjusted accordingly under the unfathomable pressure of the public. Friedman (2020) explains that crisis management and strategic management may overlap but are not the same. Plans for decision-making must consider the priorities, perspectives, and responsibilities of everyone involved. National leaders juggle the interests, recommendations, and requests of medical and legal professionals, special interest groups, donors and supporters, critics, employers, employees, schools, and more, especially in an emergency as widespread and globally-affecting as COVID-19. Decisions also need to consider that “emergencies are not just about human rights but about human duties”, good and ethical leadership, someone will always pay a higher price, and all people must remain “courageous, patient, and humane… and focused on the common good.” (Slim, 2020)
Arndern remains among the very small number of women who have led a country and joins an even smaller number to have given birth while in office (Gilchrist, 2019). Arndern herself explains her thinking with regards to climate change: “Do you want to be a leader that looks back in time and say that you were on the wrong side of the argument when the world was crying out for a solution?” Notably, President Trump declined to attend the panel and disputed the environmental evidence (Gilchrist, 2020). Both leaders exhibited similar organizational strategies during the COVID crises, and Arndern’s strong, servant-centered leadership spurred her to take decisive action while other leaders wavered and stalled.
Despite moving toward a globalised awareness of the world, most recent crises have remained a national management challenge with the support of humanitarian assistance or international organizations, such as the WHO, the UN, etc. This posed significant challenges for national leadership. In 2008, when Italy experienced a sharp economic downturn, the underlying sociopolitical pattern veered between mostly opportunistic support and weak leadership and brief periods of technocratic leadership and liberalization (Schmidt & Gualmini, 2013, pp. 367-378). Crises often allow such a juncture of change to reflect the people who often only know the outcomes that they want and not the bigger picture of what needs to happen.
Notably, during the current COVID crisis Italy followed Chinese modeling and restricted the first afflicted region (Lombardy) but did not address the spread outside of the region which they had seen in Wuhan. Thus, lack of strong leadership translated from recent years into an escalated negative impact today (Remuzzi & Remuzzi, 2020). Italy presents only one example of a country showing signs of weak and ineffective leadership before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Guest, del Rio, and Sanchez prioritize coordinated blanket stay-at-home orders, the rapid expansion of the material and processing of testing, and improved health care responses as best practices for slowing and stopping the pandemic (2020). Halawi, Wang, and Hunt elaborate with more specific details of superior health care responses and highlight that because the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) of medical personnel has been found lacking in many countries, health care professionals get sick at much higher rates and cannot be replaced like the goods which spur economic health (2020).
Arndern has shown decisive leadership skills for the people of New Zealand and for the world in the area of climate change in the past, and she applied the same decisive, clear, and considerate leadership to the pandemic. “New Zealand’s Prime Minister May Be the Most Effective Leader on the Planet” writes Uri Friedman. The article’s title leaves no doubt that Friedman’s take on Ardern’s leadership considers her actions during COVID-19 as a glowing example of empathetic leadership (2020). As noted earlier, Arndern refers to the people instead of the politics of the situation as the basis of her decision-making process. The numbers indicate that Arndern’s planning for early medical intervention, early border closing, extensive testing, contact tracing, and stricter containment measures have presented a “best case” study for other leaders (2020). Arndern implemented the best practices of crisis management and servant-centered empathetic leadership and set a model of appropriate pandemic response. This approach differs from the usual, strategic responses of most political leadership and focuses on different objectives.
Many nations also struggled to balance the need to receive information and to communicate with various health clients. To ease hospital strain and more quickly assess and treat students, many countries relaxed their requirements for confidentiality during medical and work communications, using apps such as Skype, FaceTime, and WhatsApp (Halawi, Wang, & Hunt, 2020). Effective crisis messaging includes an acknowledgement of the problem, an explanation, and empathy (Woodward, 2020).
In addition to early intervention, border closing, and extensive testing, contact tracing, and containment, Arndern communicated status updates and planned standards and actions by using a four-level alert system. On April 28, New Zealand officially downgraded the national status from Level Four to Level Three, which essentially relaxes the travel and employment restrictions while leaving many of the other precautions in place (Friedman).
The New York Times praised Arndern for ‘selling’ the lockdown in New Zealand with ‘straight talk and mom jokes’ (Cave, 2020). While many other leaders postured and tried to minimize the potential threat and the severity of the restrictions or dithered over what platforms, visuals, and facts to include and exclude in sharing information with the public, Arndern put her child to bed at home and Facebook Live-streamed in an old green sweatshirt. She presented her plan from a communal posture as a family-centered leader of and among the people because that was true of her.
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