Jacinda & Tony – Lessons in Crisis leadership

by | Aug 20, 2020 | Food for Thought, Leadership | 10 comments

The speed and scope of the coronavirus crisis has certainly delivered some extraordinary challenges for all of us around the world but let’s spare a thought for those in leadership positions.

Whether you are a World, NGO, Company, or Team Leader, the ‘leading need’ remain similar while on a differing scale.

Leaders have been under particular scrutiny as they step up to the challenge of crisis leadership.

I’m sure you have your own personal leaders list who have led with fortitude, resilience and humanity. And, also, probably the ‘b’ list who you remember more for their failures or inaction.

There are lessons and key principles that we would do well to nourish, develop and nurture in new leaders and should act as reminders for the rest of us. Here are just Two of the ‘stand out’ principles for superb crisis leadership that I believe are noteworthy. Accompany by examples of those who I believe show remarkable leadership.

Decisive action

When the situation is uncertain, human instinct causes leaders to delay action and downplay the threat until a clearer situation. But behaving in this manner could mean failure. Indeed, by the time the scope of the threat is clear, you’re badly behind in trying to control the crisis.

Passing that test requires leaders to act in an urgent, honest, and iterative fashion. Still, it’s essential to recognize that mistakes are inevitable. And adopting the correct course — not assigning blame — is the way to deal with them when they occur.

Example  Taken from HBR April 2020

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response to the pandemic back on March 21 (when on 52 cases) was bold and engendered public support. That day, Ardern delivered an eight-minute televised statement to the nation in which she announced a four-level Covid-19 alert system. Modeled on fire risk systems from New Zealand, the approach set clear guidelines for how the government would step up its response — and what would be asked of citizens as infection rates grew.

Clear, Unambiguous, human centered Messaging

We all know the principles of clear communication and are all humans who appreciate clarity and simplicity. However, yet, so many leaders fall into the trap of wrapping messages into complex narratives. Misunderstanding and voids, filled with misinformation and myth, arise when the listener deciphers the context and extracts the meaning. We have seen from leaders around the world who fudge numbers and wrap bad news amidst the not-so-good.

Great leaders deliver messages that are clear, honest, and compassionate. They don’t shy away from reality but manage to instil a sense of security in their ability to lead.


Irelands Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Holohan was thrust from a largely backroom role in the Department of Health into the living rooms of the nation with his daily televised press briefings. ‘Tony’s briefing’ became the focus of our day here in lockdown. We tuned in up and down the country to hear the calm, unflappable measured voice of science. What made his messages resonate more? Largely HOW they were delivered. His sober style and honest responses to tricky questions endeared him to the nation as a respected source of leadership.

He had the unenviable task of communicating some of the strictest measures that curtailed our life as we knew it and yet if ‘Tony said so’ we did it! Running throughout his communication was the WHY. ‘Flatten the curve’ and ‘R’ number was on all of our lips and Dr. Holohan provided us with a hopeful vision of the future toward which we could collectively direct our efforts and energy. Tony has rightly become our ‘national treasure’

And finally:

It is easy to sit in our armchairs watching from the side-lines and see with hindsight the missed opportunities for decisive action and honest communication and we need to cut them some slack now and then.

Learning to push against the natural human tendency to downplay and delay does not come easy but maybe we can steal some traits from the Tony’s and Jacinda’s of the world.


  1. Alasdar Browne

    Lovely article Jill, you make very good points. The high level of humanity inbuilt into the approach is key when connecting with people & coming across as being credible. Fear of ridicule & mistake making in an unforgiving world takes a special type of self belief to be able to back your instincts & make smart, decisive & bold actions when the science is evolving & there are information gaps.

    Both these leaders exemplified this & in Tony’s case he made significant personal sacrifices along the way. The NZ PM led the world in when
    it came to Leadership,public engagement, endorsement & continued commitment to action.

    • Jill Ellul

      Thank you Alasdar, I appreciate you taking the time to write a comment and so pleased you enjoyed the article. Emotional intelligence is so very important in leadership and both Tony & Jacinda demonstrate this is very different but powerful ways. It makes me wish we could bottle some of these unique traits and innoculate more leaders with this ‘leadership serum’.

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