Restorative leadership and Jacinda Ardern

Published: Thursday, May 7th, 2020

A blog by our Restorative Justice Administrator Carmel Kavanagh

It’s a tough time to be a leader, whether that is leading a country or running a small organisation through the COVID-19 pandemic. The stakes are high, and leaders are making decisions that affect peoples’ health, quality of life and future expectations. Even the best outcomes are tough, lowering infection and mortality, protecting the vulnerable from becoming more vulnerable and minimising the devastation on the economy. To achieve these outcomes, we need high levels of trust and confidence in our leaders. And some are doing better than others.

A recent poll showed that 88% of New Zealanders “trust their Government to make the right decisions on COVID-19”, compared to a G7 average of 59%. Their comparatively low death rates suggest that the right steps were taken to tackle the pandemic, which is likely to have boosted public trust in the Government. But I think that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s style of communication has also led to increased public trust.

Her approach has been inclusive from the outset. She seemed to show sincerity and empathy through her narrative, and with ongoing less formal Facebook live chats. The messages from the start were swift, clear and consistent and delivered in a sobering and soothing manner.

Ardern’s approach shows the benefits of leaders taking a restorative path. Restorative leadership means understanding the interconnectedness of people and involving them in decision making if possible. It means showing compassion for those impacted by their decisions, however necessary they are. Where those decisions cause harm they need to acknowledge that they have a plan on how that harm can be repaired, even if it is a long way off in the future. Her statements have been honest, clear and emotive. Here are some examples:

“We will do everything to protect you; I’m asking you to do all you can to protect all of us”.

“Today get your neighbour’s phone number, set up a community group chat, get your gear to work from home, cancel social gatherings of any size or shape, prepare to walk around the block while keeping a two-metre distance between you. If in doubt, don’t go out.”

“Be strong, be kind, and unite against COVID-19.”

These statements are clear, honest and acknowledge the importance of looking out for one another. They are examples of strong, restorative leadership, and demonstrate the success of Ardern’s approach.

Ira Helsloot of Radbound University in the Netherlands summarises good leadership in a crisis well:

“People want the leader to project compassion and an understanding of how the situation is for those concerned, and to project the hope that together we can manage the crisis, even though we don’t know everything about the present situation.”

Ardern is one leader who is applying those principles. We hope that more people in leadership roles across the world choose to follow this path.

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