Leading through a crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has plunged the world into a prolonged crisis, with people turning to their leaders to guide them through it—but what does effective leadership look like? A panel of experts, including Dr Ashley Bloomfield, explored this question in a unique webinar.

The webinar, hosted by the Wellington School of Business and Government and the Institute of Public Administration New Zealand (IPANZ), featured a panel of experts sharing their experiences of leading through crisis and what they believe effective leadership looks like.

Dr Ashley Bloomfield, Director-General and Chief Executive of the Ministry of Health, spoke candidly about his experience as one of the leading figures in New Zealand’s COVID-19 response.

“I’ve always taken the approach of trying to accumulate knowledge, to listen to others, and to develop skills,” said Dr Bloomfield. “One of the skills I already had a start in was communication, I was used to and comfortable with public speaking and media. But I dear say I’ve had an opportunity to practice and refine that skill a lot over the last few months.”

“That daily stand up became quite a critical interface with the public and I soon realised that it was a way for us to get our information out unedited to everybody. And of course, at that time we were facing that absolutely fundamental leadership challenge, which I know others here would have as well, of having to make huge calls and give advice on very big decisions with very limited and incomplete information.

“We made a deliberate decision to tell the public this is what we know, and this is what we don’t know, so by the time we got to that point where we said to everybody in the third week of March ‘Now we want you to stay home for four weeks’ people understood the why, and all we were telling them was the what and how. I think that was critical of breaking that chain of transmission in that first wave,” said Dr Bloomfield.

Dame Therese Walsh, Chairman at Air New Zealand and Pro-Chancellor of Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington, shared her experience leading Air New Zealand through the pandemic—in what is one of the biggest crises to ever hit the aviation industry.

“I’m still in the throws, as probably most New Zealanders are, of learning as you lead through crises,” said Dame Walsh. “It’d been the most significant crisis in the aviation industry’s history…we went from one day to the next losing 95% of our revenue which is as big as any crisis you can imagine in corporate history.”

One of the key learnings for Dame Therese so far was “getting the operational piece right.”

“For Air New Zealand, the good part was we’re really used, and we have really good muscle, when it comes to crisis management. When you’re putting aircraft into the sky everyday you need to make sure you’re very on top of things.

“The bit that needed to be overlaid was some unique decision making and with that unique decision making, a little bit like Dr Bloomfield was talking about, you have to take risks, you do have incomplete information, you have to do what you believe to be the right thing at that time and it needs to be brave and quick decision making to the best of your ability.”

Sarah Stuart-Black, Director of Civil Defence Emergency Management and Deputy Chief Executive of the National Emergency Management Agency, spoke about the importance of strong and effective relationships in successfully responding to a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s important that the work we do is underpinned by strong and effective relationships because we’re asking people to do things above and beyond what they might also have to do for other types of emergencies.,” said Mrs Stuart-Black. “So, in some situations during this COVID response I asked civil defence emergency management groups to do things I’ve never asked of them before. It was uncomfortable at times and challenging but equally those civil defence emergency management groups did those things because they knew that we were asking them because it was critically important.”

Dr. Daniel Laufer, Associate Professor of Marketing at Wellington School of Business and Government and an expert in crisis contagion, shared some insights from his research about leading effectively through crisis—including the importance of knowing when, and when not, to face the public.

“I think it’s important for leaders to understand when they’re not ready to face the public because of how they feel,” said Associate Professor Laufer. “The CEO of BP, when there was the oil spill [in the Gulf of Mexico], there was an infamous saying that came out of him when he was speaking to the media…’he wants his life back’. So suddenly it was about how he was feeling, even though the crisis was about the victims and what happened because of the oil spill.”

“When I teach crisis management I use this as an example of how you can learn as a leader from the situation. What he said, a lot of people feel. You’re under a lot of pressure and stress and your life has gotten a lot harder as a result of the crisis. But of course, you don’t want to express that… a good takeaway from that situation is that perhaps he should have been shield from the media at that moment by his people. There’s a lot that can be learned from just how you feel internally about whether or not you should be speaking publicly,” said Associate Professor Laufer.

The ‘Leadership through crisis’ webinar was part of the Wellington School of Business and Government Dean’s Series where experts from across the country gather together to discuss important and relevant topics, such as digital government, supporting Maori business, and creating inclusive workplace cultures.

A recording of this webinar is now available to view on YouTube.