Leadership lessons from Christchurch

It is in times of crisis – especially crises that carry with them basic issues of survival and morality – that we most feel in need of leadership to help bring us together and chart a way forward, writes Suze Wilson.

Like the vast majority of people, I was profoundly affected by the terrorist acts in Christchurch on March 15. Now, a month on, I want to explore a few things I think we can learn about leadership from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s very first responses to those events.
My hope, also, is to prompt further reflection on what leadership role we can each play in our own sphere of influences, better to help ensure our future is one free from such hateful acts and beliefs.
It’s hardly an exaggeration to say these events constitute a crisis for New Zealand, both in terms of the government response and, more enduringly, the values and beliefs that underpin our society.
It is in times of crisis – especially crises that carry with them basic issues of survival and morality – that we most feel in need of leadership to help bring us together and chart a way forward.
In her first press conference, Prime Minister Ardern explicitly warned us that this would be “one of New Zealand’s darkest days”. This mentally prepared us for bad news but, at the same time, Ms Ardern demonstrated, both through her comments and her demeanour, that panicking would not be helpful, thereby helping us to manage our anxiety in a crisis situation.
Her comments also addressed a number of basic, practical issues.
The value of this ‘matter of fact’ leadership response is that it, too, helped contain our anxiety by focusing our attention on what was known and the next steps to be taken.
Notably this first press conference occurred at a time when it remained uncertain how many terrorists were involved, if they had been captured and how many people had been harmed.
At the same time, it was readily apparent that Ms Ardern was experiencing strong emotions. While always emotionally controlled, her intensity of concern, her worry for people’s safety and her outrage that some people had been killed or injured was palpably clear.
Prime Minister Ardern implicitly and explicitly role modelled to us how we should, or might, legitimately feel – and how to express those feelings. Don’t explode in rage, but anger is justified; don’t collapse in an emotional heap, instead try to care for others whose need is greater than your own.
Thirdly, and also simultaneously, in her condemnation of violence and her unequivocal ‘they are us’ statement, she offered unambiguous moral guidance about how we should regard the offender’s actions and how we should relate to
the victims.
This phrase has really resonated, showing up repeatedly in online comments, in messages left at mosques around the country and in placards held at the various vigils, which speaks to its power as a unifying and mobilising message highlighting values that many people share.
What we see from this press conference, then, is that in just a few minutes leaders can make a positive difference in crisis situations in three important ways.
Firstly, through paying attention to basic practicalities, explaining what is known, what immediate actions we should take and what are the next steps, they can help us manage our anxieties and focus on what needs to be done.
Secondly, they can role model, both verbally and non-verbally, how we can usefully and legitimately feel about what’s happening and how those feelings might usefully be expressed.
Thirdly, they can crystallise for us the fundamental moral dimensions of the situation.
Done well, these three layers guide us practically, emotionally and morally in a direction that enables constructive coping.
I’m not alone in feeling the Prime Minister did many things extremely well during the crisis. There’s been extensive domestic and international praise for
her leadership.
Leaders, however, are no more perfect beings than the rest of us and, no doubt as the longer term implications of this start to be addressed, partisan politics will resume and missteps will occur.
Nonetheless, a platform was set via the Prime Minister’s initial (and subsequent) responses to this event that makes it clear that she stands unequivocally for diversity, inclusion and kindness to people of all cultures, ethnicities and religions, and against political violence, extremism, Islamophobia, intolerance and racism.
The clarity of her stance seems to me to address what philosopher Karl Popper called the ‘paradox of intolerance’.
He argued, “if we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and the tolerance with them”. The Prime Minister has likewise made it clear what we should not tolerate.
This moral framing of the situation has flowed through to legislative and policy changes by government, as well as offering a context within which wider conversations can be had in our homes, our workplaces and our community more generally, as we try to absorb the lessons to be taken from this event.
If we listen to the voices of those often marginalised in our society, it should be clear to us that racism, bigotry and intolerance is not uncommon in our country. Challenging this, wherever and whenever we see it, may be uncomfortable. If we are Pākehā, recognising we benefit from white privilege is part of what we need to understand to help bring about change.
To remain silent, to do nothing, however, is to enable a context where hate can grow to a point that guns and bombs come to seem legitimate. All of us will need moral courage if that is not to be our future.  

Dr Suze Wilson is a leadership researcher and senior lecturer
with Massey University’s School
of Management.

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