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This article was first published in the July/August 2020 International edition of
Accounting and Business magazine.

When the Covid-19 pandemic first began to make itself felt outside China back in March, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made a now-famous appearance on Facebook to talk about the need for a strict national lockdown. She was warm, comforting and very clear: stay at home, break the chain and save lives.

In the months since, Ardern has been praised as an example of effective crisis leadership. Commentators have pointed to the fact that nations led by women are disproportionately represented in the list of countries that have managed the pandemic well. There are many other factors at play, of course, but few would make the case that US President Donald Trump, or UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, or Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, have done a better job of steering through this crisis than Ardern, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany or President Tsai Ing-Wen of Taiwan.

Some have become misty-eyed about the inherent nobility of women or drawn a vague connection between motherhood and the task of leading a nation. Such arguments are reductive and unhelpful. But there is something in these leaders being women, nevertheless. The very fact that they have risen to leadership would indicate that their political system is able to accommodate some degree of diversity, because it allows for people other than the privileged gender to be represented. In such a system, the ability to persuade others and forge unity is a prerequisite to success.

A leader of a diverse team is more likely to be able to put their own perspective and ego to one side in order to reach a solution. They are more able to listen to experts and cede the floor to them when needed, and to have the humility to show that they do not know everything and cannot control everything. Being able to gather a plurality of perspectives into a unified front spreads the risk of failure and allows for a change of tack when needed, without losing credibility. Ego-driven leaders, on the other hand, feel the need to assert that they know best, even when they are acting on the advice of others. In fluid, high-risk situations, this is dangerous.

Humanity is facing challenges that will only be solved by multiple, collective solutions. Squaring up to a virus, or climate change, or inequality, doesn’t work. What does work is drawing on our collective expertise and agreeing to mutual sacrifice for the greater good. That requires a leader who can exemplify that themselves.

To create such leaders in any organisation, we need systems that allow people to be unselfish and succeed. Plurality and diversity of opinion and perspective must be encouraged and valued. Individuals must be supported to develop emotional intelligence, and recognised for applying it. And where you have an opportunity to lead in your own life, just remember that it’s not about you. Our collective future might just depend on it.

Vanessa Richards is a corporate communications and governance consultant in Australia.