Lessons for leaders from New Zealand’s COVID-19 response

By Dr. Suze Wilson

Since the beginning of the current global pandemic, New Zealand has twice completely halted all community transmission of COVID-19. This result places its residents in the privileged position of having largely normal daily lives and the ability to safely focus on economic recovery. At the same time, people in many other countries face ongoing restrictions, rising COVID-19 case numbers, and ever-worsening economic conditions. While a range of public health measures to manage the virus’ spread – such as a tightly controlled border, government-managed quarantine facilities, testing, contact tracing systems, and constraints on public freedoms, including lockdowns – have been essential features of New Zealand’s response to COVID-19, so too have the leadership practices adopted by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government.

As a New Zealand based leadership scholar, I have sought to crystallize the approach taken by the Ardern-led government into a pandemic leadership model which offers potentially transferable lessons for leaders in other locales, be that at organizational, city, state, or national levels. This article provides some brief contextual background and then summarizes the key features of that model, which was first published in the journal Leadership in June 2020.


New Zealand has now successfully brought community-based transmission of COVID-19 to a complete halt twice, first in May, and then again in October 2020 (Cheng, 2020). In doing so, it has suffered comparatively modest case numbers and deaths on a per capita basis. In between these two waves, the country had over 100 days of zero community cases. At the time of writing this, the only cases are in managed isolation/quarantine facilities and comprise people who have recently entered New Zealand from overseas. Beyond these border-related controls, there are currently no limitations on domestic activities, leaving New Zealanders and local businesses able to operate on a COVID-19 free basis.

New Zealand’s government has adopted broadly similar public health measures to those used in many other countries. The country has certain advantages compared to others, such as its island nation status, its smaller, low-density population base, and a slightly later start to COVID-19 transmission than Europe, meaning leaders could watch and learn from others. Granted these factors, the leadership response, while not faultless, has been effective, with a COVID-19 mortality rate of 5.12 per million (de Best, 2020). Moreover, in both the March and August waves, widespread public compliance and support for the government’s response were secured.

From detailed observation and analysis of Prime Minister Ardern’s policy initiatives and key messaging in relation to COVID-19, I developed a model of the key leadership practices being used. While no magic bullet, nor yet a proven ‘best practice’ model because multi-national analysis is still needed, these ‘good practices’ nonetheless offer ideas for leaders in organizations, cities, states, and a national level to learn from and adapt as necessary to local conditions.

Pandemic leadership: A good practice model

Informed by Ardern’s approach, I argue effective pandemic leadership appears to be grounded in a clear sense of purpose or mission, namely that of minimizing harm to lives and livelihoods. This purpose is grounded in both practical and ethical considerations. It has real potential to garner follower support with its focus on the primary concerns most people have in relation to the pandemic – their health and economic security. Moreover, this purpose offers leaders a broad but clear direction to help them navigate the pandemic and evaluate the merits and effectiveness of possible actions. Through holding both health and economic considerations as central concerns, this purpose also encourages leaders to pursue strategies that recognize the interdependencies between such matters, not to see them as either/or choices. Consistent with this, Ardern has frequently argued the best health response also constitutes the best economic response.

This purpose is then enabled by three key bundles of leadership practices – being led by expertise, mobilizing collective effort, and enabling coping. Cumulatively these practices help in generating leadership that deserves to be and is, trusted by people – such that followers will lend their efforts to the goals set by leaders.

Being led by expertise requires leaders to accept the important role subject matter experts can play in relation to pandemic leadership. Putting ego aside and soliciting and carefully listening to that expert advice helps leaders to make decisions based on facts and evidence, not political considerations or gut feel. This is a foundational requirement for effective pandemic leadership –  and is clearly missing in places facing very high numbers of cases and deaths, such as the US and Brazil.

Mobilizing collective effort requires a range of efforts that aim to inform, educate, and unify people to take the actions required to achieve the purpose of minimizing harm to lives and livelihoods. As part of this communicative effort, clarity of direction, and a willingness to be quite blunt about issues of concern is key. However, these tougher messages must be presented with empathy and their rationale made clear, as just issuing orders is not sufficient to win active support. Leaders must also pay attention to practical considerations that are of concern to people, seek feedback, and avoid being defensive when questions or problems arise. All these practices help build collective effort by demonstrating that leaders genuinely care about the needs and views of those they claim to lead.

Enabling coping involves efforts to help people in planning, developing knowledge and skills relevant to surviving the pandemic, and making sense of events. Fostering kindness helps in coping and should be emphasized by leaders. Soliciting and role modeling creative ways to cope with life and business activity under pandemic conditions should also be promoted by leaders.

The diagram below offers a visual summation of the pandemic leadership model (Wilson, 2020):

Figure 1: Pandemic leadership: A good practice framework

Combined, these practices can help leaders in grappling with the pandemic. Indeed enacted skillfully the evidence from New Zealand suggests these practices can help in mitigating the damage inflicted by the novel coronavirus while also building trust that leaders are, as they should, acting in the best interests of those they lead. The full study provides examples of each of these practices as used by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government.


Cheng, D. (2020). Auckland to move to Level 1 on Wednesday night – Jacinda Ardern. New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/politics/covid-19-coronavirus-auckland-to-move-to-level-1-on-wednesday-night-jacinda-ardern/EROIRHUBZPXECU3GWYYUNU5DFU/

de Best, R. (2020). Coronavirus (COVID-19) deaths worldwide per one million population as of October 16, 2020, by country. Statistic.com. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/1104709/coronavirus-deaths-worldwide-per-million-inhabitants/

Wilson, S. (2020). Pandemic leadership: Lessons from New Zealand’s approach to COVID-19. Leadership (16)3:279-293. DOI:10.1177/1742715020929151. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1742715020929151


Dr. Suze Wilson is a senior lecturer and leadership scholar at Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. She is involved in teaching leadership and other people-related topics to Executive MBA and MBA students. Her research has been published in book form by Edward Elgar and Routledge and in journals such as Leadership, Organization, J. Bus Ethics and Culture and Organization, and draws on critically oriented, post-heroic perspectives of leadership.