Crisis lessons in inclusive leadership

17 May 2020       By Alison Maitland

‘WE WILL get through this together, but only if we stick together, so please be strong and be kind.’ This was one of the messages that have elevated Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, to the widely conferred status of one of the world’s best leaders during the Covid-19 crisis.

The pandemic has highlighted the gulf between good and bad leadership, and the difference it makes, in this case to people’s very survival. The worst examples have attracted a lot of comment already. I was curious to explore what exactly has been so effective about Ardern, and another leader who has won praise for his handling of the crisis in very different circumstances, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Alongside decisiveness, competence and clarity, both have demonstrated many aspects of inclusive leadership. Inclusion is not a nice-to-have, but is essential to business results. In our book INdivisible, Rebekah Steele and I show how increased inclusion is linked to
better outcomes for team performance, collaboration, innovation, decision-making, productivity, growth, and relationships with customers and stakeholders.

Identifying what enables inclusion

MOST corporate leaders acknowledge that inclusivity is ‘a good thing’, but they are often less clear about what it is and how to make it happen consistently every day. In our research for the book, we identified 10 enablers that need to be in place for inclusion to flourish at work. We’ve grouped them under three headings: creating connection, creating opportunity, and creating common cause.

So what can we learn for inclusive leadership in organisations from Ardern’s and Cuomo’s success in rallying their fellow citizens through this dire global emergency?

First, Ardern. She has been unafraid of getting right into the lives of her fellow citizens to convey information and reassurance at a time of huge anxiety and fear. She has connected with people through informal Facebook Live sessions from her home, as well as formal briefings. She has stressed the need for thoughtfulness by asking New Zealanders directly to check that their neighbours are ok.

Our second cluster of enablers, creating opportunity, covers fairness, transparency and choice in organisations. While New Zealanders, like the rest of us, have not had any choice about the stay-at-home rules, Ardern has demonstrated both transparency and fairness. A vivid example was her decision to match words with action by taking a pay cut along with her ministers in solidarity with those who have seen their livelihoods diminish or disappear.

As for our third cluster, creating common cause, Ardern has done this by sharing power with people rather than exercising power over them. She has supported her country’s people in making the huge sacrifice required in terms of jobs and freedom of movement for a clearly stated common cause – saving lives. And she has reinforced, through her words and actions, that everyone has a responsibility for achieving this.

Combining compassion and strength

I’M SURE Ardern would be the first to agree that she is not perfect, since no one is. But she is real and does not need the old-fashioned trappings of leadership – big office, permanent entourage, expensive suit – to command respect. Inclusive leaders have authority without being authoritarian. They have compassion as well as strength.

Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York, is very different from Ardern. He is known for being blunt and outspoken. But he has also shown what it is to be an inclusive leader as the pandemic took a terrible toll on his state.

He has been transparent about the dreadful victim numbers and the grim trends. He connected with people in a relatable way when he talked about his sick brother and rejected some politicians’ calls to shift the focus quickly back from saving lives to saving the economy. ‘We’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable,’ he said. ‘And we’re not going to put a dollar figure on human life.’ The New York Times described his daily briefings as ‘articulate, consistent and often tinged with empathy’.

Cuomo appealed to people’s hearts as well as their heads. He rallied New Yorkers around a common cause – a shared affection for the city and the diversity of its people. In one of his daily press briefings, he said: ‘New York loves all of you. Black and white and brown and Asian and short and tall and gay and straight. New York loves everyone. That’s why I love New York … And at the end of the day, my friends, even if it is a long day, and this is a long day, love wins. Always. And it will win again through this virus.’

 Practise with colleagues 

THESE ARE important skills for life and leadership. Now is a good time to practise and enhance them, whether you are out on the front line, under enforced virtual working at home, contemplating a career transition, or trying to prepare for whatever the ‘new normal’ will be.

In our book, we set out actions for people to take at every level of an organisation: senior leaders, middle managers and individual contributors. Here are a few suggestions to get started.

Find out more about the whole person behind each individual in your team – what excites them, what worries them, what their circumstances are, what their working preferences are, and how you can best support them.

If you’re a manager, ask each of your team members how you can make it easy for them to speak freely and share their aspirations and ideas, including dissenting opinions, remembering that each of them is different and unique.

If you’re a senior leader, make sure that everyone has access to the same working technology so that no one is left out or disadvantaged in virtual meetings. As you make important decisions about the future of the business, ask if all views are being heard, if all perspectives have been considered, and if you have inadvertently excluded anyone, or any group, among your employees, customers and stakeholders.

Finally, to make these actions habitual, it’s helpful to stop doing things that may create barriers to inclusion. What unproductive old habits will you abandon to make way for the new?

This article was first published by IWE (the International Women of Excellence network) on 10 May 2020

*INdivisible: radically rethinking inclusion for sustainable business results by Alison Maitland and Rebekah Steele is available from Amazon and leading booksellers:

© Alison Maitland 2020, all rights reserved

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