Is Ardern going to change the world?

With more ethical leaders like New Zealand's Prime Minister emerging globally, we may start to see some of the change we need, writes Lola Toppin-Casserly.

Jacinda Ardern seems to be nailing it.

She is receiving international attention for “a triumph of science and leadership” through the COVID-19 crisis. She has made difficult decisions to prioritise saving lives over prioritising the economy (rightly so, says The Economist magazine).

Her approach has resulted in New Zealand being one of few countries with a low death rate from COVID-19, and a chance at elimination. Compared with the results of other leaders’ efforts globally, her approach is clearly successful.

This is not the first time either. She made headlines with her empathetic response to the Christchurch mosque attacks. She is an inspiration and a hope to many of us.

But why is this?

For a long time, we have had a global leadership crisis and a prevailing view that our leaders are inadequate and failing. We have unethical scandals in our organisations made public frequently and we have a plethora of narcissistic and incompetent leaders, often men, to refer to, according to organisational psychologist Professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

Coupled with Ardern’s extraordinary empathy, emotional intelligence and ability to integrate and embody these talents through honed communication skills, she has demonstrated a values-centred approach.

There are different ways we might categorise her leadership through the COVID-19 crisis. She has been hailed for providing a masterclass in crisis leadership. Alternatively, resonant and primal leadership would align with her emotional intelligence and self-awareness, directives to be kind and compassionate, and motivating and collaborative approaches. Authentic leadership has received much airtime in recent years and holds that self-awareness, openness, transparency and consistency are at its core.

In the case of COVID-19, Ardern has demonstrated much of this, but more importantly her communication has explicitly prioritised saving lives over the economy. Other countries have taken a different approach, including Italy, where a recent analysis of the country’s high infection and death rates concluded they were due to an approach based on early advice to keep people and economic activity moving instead of lockdown.

We might interpret Ardern’s focus on saving lives as putting ethics at the core of New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19.

There is a significant body of academic work on ethical leadership, but there is still debate on what exactly it is and the best approach to thinking about it.

Simplistic pointers include ‘we can, but should we?’ and ‘do no harm’. More explicit examples include leadership characterised by integrity, honesty and trustworthiness. Others take a virtue approach.

A general consensus is that leaders who are honest, caring, principled and make fair and balanced decisions communicate with their followers about ethics and ‘walk the talk’ on ethical conduct.

Awareness, care and concern for others, prioritising others’ needs over self-interest, and considering the ethical consequences of decisions also make up ethical leadership. We might say this is just good leadership in general.

But the absence of it in society in current times is why it is worth focusing more specifically on the ethics required of leadership. Perhaps we have had a lack of clarity on what exactly ethical leadership should look like? Some academics have developed ethical leadership scales to more clearly guide us to be ethical leaders.

Despite debate on the merits of different models of ethical leadership, if we could see more of these items in our leaders’ practices the world would be a far better place.

It is not difficult to see examples around us of where more ethical leadership would create the changes the world needs. Ardern therefore prompts a critical question for us: why are we not seeing more leaders like her?

Social learning theory would hold that ethical leaders are developed through reference to other ethical leader role models. Hence, if we do not see ethical leaders to learn from we will not know or learn what ethical leadership looks like.

The interesting thing about Ardern is she seems to provide us with a role model for a new type of leader, arguably an ethical leader. This is why she gives us hope.

According to theory, we may now start to see ethical followers. And if we have more ethical leaders and followers emerging in our world, we may start to see some of the change we need.

So is Ardern going to change the world? I do hope so.

Lola Toppin-Casserly is a PhD candidate in Wellington School of Business and Government at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

Read the original article on Newsroom.