Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19

Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19


Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19


The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic poses dramatic and unprecedented disruptions to established ways of managing lives, organisations and societies. Aotearoa/New Zealand’s approach has shown that leadership plays a critical role in tackling the pandemic

At a glance 

A paper in Leadership analyses the leadership approach of the New Zealand government and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It outlines how a shared sense of purpose to minimise harm to lives and livelihoods was established and how the government sought and secured New Zealanders’ commitment. Key leadership practices included the government’s willingness to be led by expertise and its efforts to educate and mobilise the population.

Yes, leadership matters

The potentially life-altering consequences of good or poor leadership have never been so starkly apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Evidence grows on a daily basis that the acts or omissions of some leaders have contributed to the virus’s spread. 

In New Zealand, respect for science, facts and evidence have been prominent aspects of the government’s response. So too have been efforts to mobilise collective adherence to safety measures and enable coping with the effects of the pandemic.

New Zealand’s response

The New Zealand government’s response to managing the public health aspects of COVID-19 has moved through a series of phases. Aspects of its early approach were consistent with a pre-existing influenza pandemic plan.

However the influenza plan was found unsuitable given COVID-19’s longer incubation period which increases the potential for transmission by those who are infected but asymptomatic. It was replaced with a new four level Alert System with the following measures:

Prepare: COVID-19 is contained domestically but is uncontrolled elsewhere.

Reduce: while contained in New Zealand, there is a risk of community transmission.

Restrict: there is a high risk the disease is not contained domestically.

Lockdown: it is likely the disease is not contained domestically.

Each step up in alert level is associated with increasingly tight restrictions in international and domestic movement, social contact and economic activity.

Community endorsement for the New Zealand government’s approach is high. After New Zealand moved into its full nationwide lockdown, a poll undertaken in early April showed 88 per cent of respondents believed they could ‘trust the government to make the right decisions on COVID-19’. This compared to an average of 59 per cent of people in G7 countries surveyed in the same poll.

Read more

Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19, ANZSOG, 1 July 2020

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