COVID Leadership Communications Lesson 2) Action and Empathy

We are seeing a great deal of effective leadership communications during this COVID crisis, providing a master class to learn from as we watch what these leaders are saying and how they are saying it.

This is the second in a series of posts outlining what I am learning about effective leadership communications in times of crisis. These lessons have been developed from my own observations, as well as those of friends and colleagues. You will recognize many of the leaders referenced in this series, but some you will not. Regardless, they are all doing something extraordinary and deeply effective with their leadership communications. May their content, delivery and style serve as a model for us all.

Effective Leadership Communications Demonstrate Decisive Action and Genuine Empathy

When General Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as president of the United States in 1953, the global landscape was changing rapidly. New global threats were emerging, while familiar ones grew stronger. Many politicians at the time felt the U.S. should not use its current strength to address those threats. But Eisenhower viewed the situation differently. “Our real problem is not our strength today,” he said, “rather, it is the vital necessity of action today to ensure our strength tomorrow.”

In times of crisis or encroaching threats, effective leaders take action. They gather information, they seek insight, they explore possible scenarios, they consider different options; but then, they act. Their actions are deliberate and decisive, and so too should be their communications about those actions.

More specifically, their communications must be focused and unwavering. They should clearly outline the actions being taken, but avoid endless elaboration. They should explain the rationale behind those actions, without over-explaining. This communications precision projects a strong sense of the leader’s confidence in the actions being taken and, in turn, elicits the same in their audience.

In contrast, when a leader hems and haws while announcing action, meanders and digresses, it creates a sense of unease and doubt in the people listening in. They wonder, “Has this person really thought this through? Is he making it up as he goes along? Does she really believe in what she’s saying, much less the action being taken?”

Deliberate and decisive actions on the part of a leader require deliberate and decisive communications from that leader. But in times of crisis and the tough actions they require, a leader’s communications must also display genuine empathy. More specifically, the leader’s communications must step outside of the situation and look it from the perspective of the audience, not only understanding how they are feeling about the situation, but also acknowledging and sharing those feelings.

Because in times of crisis, we build up defences around ourselves, fabricated from the fear and anxiety we naturally experience in challenging and uncertain times. A leader’s genuine display of empathy has a way of piercing our defences, making us more receptive to the actions being taken, and also more willing to do our part to support them.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Perhaps no leader is doing a better job of blending decisive action with genuine empathy than New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

When the number of confirmed COVID cases in New Zealand had only just topped 100, her government took the extraordinary and early action to lock the country down. “We have always said that we would act early, decisively, and go hard…and we will,” said Ardern in her televised announcement of the lockdown on March 23. “Our plan is simple,” she said; and it was. But importantly, so too were her communications around that plan.

Her address showed textbook leadership communications in times of crisis. She was focused and judicious. She clearly and repeatedly explained what the lockdown will mean and not mean for New Zealanders. She confidently provided the reasoning behind this decision without sounding arrogant, alarmist or defensive. She transparently shared what was known, but also acknowledged what was not known. And while she beseeched her fellow citizens to adhere to this lockdown for the greater good, she was also firm in communicating that there would be no tolerance for people not doing so and putting others at risk.

Listening to her address, we cannot help but feel that Ardern and her government believe wholly and completely in the tough action being taken. This, in turn, makes us believe in the action, trust the decision-making behind it, and trust the people making those decisions. An incredible 88% of Kiwis have faith in their government to do the right thing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Amidst this address to the nation and the press conference that followed it, we see glimpses of Ardern’s signature warmth and compassion. (We see even more of this during her refreshingly casual Facebook video “check-ins” from home.) She readily acknowledges that this lockdown is going to be inconvenient and hard for New Zealanders, and that people are going to be anxious and afraid. And in the end, she makes one final request of her fellow Kiwis that perfectly encapsulates the blend of action and empathy she herself has so brilliantly demonstrated: be strong, and be kind.

New Zealander’s have listened and leaned in. And it’s all working. One recent news story reported, “New Zealand isn’t just flattening the curve; it’s squashing it.”

As my Kiwi friend, Hall Cannon (co-owner of the incomparable Otahuna Lodge in Christchurch) observed, “Jacinda has been confident, transparent, empathetic and, perhaps most of all, consistent in the midst of a sea of chaos and confusion.” He continues, “She has shown us what collected, fearless, compassionate leadership can look like, and I’ve never been prouder to call New Zealand home.”

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine

Another leader consistently communicating with action and empathy is Governor Mike DeWine from my home state of Ohio. On March 15, well before Washington D.C. or other states had started talking seriously about lockdowns, Governor DeWine took decisive action and ordered all bars and restaurants in Ohio closed. A week later, he issued state-wide “stay at home” orders.

These decisions were not made lightly, but they were made confidently and convincingly. In watching Governor DeWine’s communications around these actions, you notice that he has a similar style to Jacinda Ardern’s. He is refreshingly clear and concise in his delivery, sticking closely to facts and data, while presenting them transparently and truthfully. But he has a compassionate, accessible, somewhat folksy way about him, which creates a deeply human connection between him and his audience, and elicits their faith in him as a leader.

Like Ardern, he balances his decisive action with empathy to ensure his communications are not only focused, but also break through and resonate. He repeatedly acknowledges how hard these restrictions are on Ohioans, understands how they’re feeling, and even shares those feelings with them. For example, when he banned visits to nursing homes, he acknowledged how difficult it would’ve been for him to stop visiting his own father. In demonstrating this genuine empathy, DeWine doesn’t stand apart from his audience; he stands with them.

Ohioans of all political affinities are following Governor DeWine and doing what he asks of them. I asked my childhood friend and fellow “Buckeye” Jennifer Peterson what she and her family think about DeWine’s recent actions and communications. Without hesitation, she said, “We have all been very impressed with him.” She went on to acknowledge, “We do not share his politics. But he has been a true bright light, making us feel safe and protected during these scary times…and no one is more pleasantly surprised than me.”

Conviction, Confidence and Care

Strong, decisive action on the part of a leader is important at any time, but especially in times of crisis when nervous teams are looking to leaders for direction. But strong action, tough decisions, or deep knowledge on their own won’t always resonate with an audience unless they are paired with genuine empathy for that audience. As another U.S. president, Teddy Roosevelt, once said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”


Bill Baker is the founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. For over 12 years, BB&Co has been providing Leadership Through Storytelling training to companies and organizations such as Coca-Cola, Cisco, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, Prudential, Dell and others, helping their people understand how to use storytelling to improve the impact of their communications and with that, their ability to persuade, engage, and inspire others.

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