True, these are worrying times. But the thing about worrying times is that they introduce us to intelligent, levelheaded, creative, or selfless individuals who make a resounding difference that somehow keeps hope palpable and inspires the rest of the world to do something more productive than worrying.
These kinds of individuals make an even more palpable difference when they are in positions of leadership. And if they are women? No surprise there. Women have always had it in them to lead—and lead oh so well.
(In fact, we regret even having to highlight that these are “women leaders” instead of simply “leaders” But the world still has a long way to go when it comes to equal representation of both genders in leadership, and equal pay for equal expertise, experience, and talent.)
Here are five women leaders who have tackled COVID-19 head-on with leadership excellence that we have been inspired by.
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister, New Zealand
“We have done what very few countries have been able to do. We have stopped a wave of devastation.”
And indeed, PM Ardern’s leadership has made New Zealand a model of recovery as the country lifts part of its four-level-alert lockdown. This means food delivery and drive-through restaurants are reopening, though New Zealanders are still advised to remain close to and work from home.
While New Zealand’s lockdown has been one of the toughest COVID-19 lockdown measures implemented throughout the world, the guidelines have been easy to understand and follow. (As of May 6, the country confirmed cases are at 1,488, with 21 deaths.)
And it certainly didn’t hurt that the strictness of the lockdown rules has been consistently balanced by Ardern’s brand of casual and empathetic leadership, as she urged people to “be strong and be kind”—an approach that has earned her more than 80% public approval (as well as a thumbs-up from former NZ prime minister Helen Clark) and global praise.
New Zealand and the world has gotten to know Arden’s style of leadership over the course of the pandemic, with her regular presence, in a sweatshirt, no less, on Facebook Live chats, to commiserate with everyone enduring isolation in their “bubble ” (the term she uses for their place of shelter) and to reassure children that COVID-19 has not put the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny out of commission—and even to engage in a spot of lighthearted interaction with New Zealand Herald reporter Jason, who forgot his question for her during a COVID-19 briefing : “We’ll come back to you, no problem. I do worry about your sleep at the moment though, Jason.”
Van Jackson, American political scientist, describes Ardern’s leadership style as one that reassures people . . . helps maintain a sense of mutuality in society . . . and that creates trust with the leader.”
Erna Solberg, Prime Minister, Kingdom of Norway
“What this crisis, the pandemic shows us is that we are so interconnected in this world that we need to work together . . . no way that we can handle this crisis without a stronger international, multinational cooperation.”
Like New Zealand, Norway locked down early. Prime Minister Solberg announced the government’s “strongest and most radical measures we have had in Norway in peacetime” on March 12. Then Norway reinforced the move through the following measures:
- Shutting down its ports and airports on March 16
- Vigorous testing for coronavirus
(By April 3, the Norwegian capital Oslo had tested more than 100,000 people.)
- Setting out a new coronavirus regulation to stop people staying in countryside cabins that are in a different municipality from where they live to avoid overwhelming rural hospitals
- Timely implementation of a 2-week quarantine for people travelling domestic
- Cancellation of scheduled events (e.g., NATO military exercises)
Fast forward April 25: “Norway has managed to gain control of the virus. The job now is to keep that control,” the 59-year-old prime minister announced.
One heartwarming feature of Solberg’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic is her serious consideration of the fears and confusion of children. She told children it was OK to feel scared during the “special days” of the coronavirus outbreak. Together with the ministers for education and for family and children, the prime minister answered questions posted via children’s TV program NRK Super and children’s paper Aftenposten Junior:
“Can I have a birthday party?”
“Can I visit my grandparents after I went to a shopping center?”
“How long does it take to make a vaccine?”
“What can I do to help?”
Solberg further advised Norwegian children that “by being home you are helping other people not be contaminated and get sick. It is important for those who already have a disease or who are very old.”
Prime Minister Solberg is also big on multilateral action and cooperation: even as she is busy helping her country—one with a very big wealth fund—navigate the uncharted waters of the pandemic, she has managed to start an initiative to establish a multi-donor fund with the UN to help developing countries tackle the long-term consequences of the coronavirus, donating NOK 150 million to get things started. The fund is intended not just for emergency but also to develop health systems and take care of those countries that will be the most severely affected, those with the poorest health systems, those that will see a huge impact on their economies and on their public sector. Solberg is looking at long-term goals of making these countries better equipped to respond to similar crises in the future.
As for the long-term effects of the pandemic on her own country, Solberg says, “Our wealth fund is so large that it will continue to be a big buffer for Norwegian economy in the years to come.” And while she acknowledges that the figures in the fund might dip as the rest of the world suffer from an economic downturn, “we also know through the different crises we’ve been through, we are long-term investors, not short-term investors. This will bounce back.”
London Breed, Mayor, City and County of San Francisco
“Although we had no cases confirmed at time, we got out there and we were clear with the public, ‘It’s not whether or not we’re going to have a case. We are gonna have a case.’”
In an interview with Katie Couric for TIME 100 Talks: Finding Hope, Mayor Breed talked about how San Francisco’s approximately 30% Asian population has been instrumental in bringing the coronavirus to the attention of the city’s public health experts, with many residents having ties to family in China, the site of the first outbreak, back when the USA’s confirmed cases were still very low.
At a time when her decision to respond swiftly to the threat elicited some resistance, Breed attributes her strength to stand by her decision to having been toughened up by a childhood in the projects and being raised by a grandmother who has instilled in her a sense of positivity and optimism that things are going to be OK no matter what.
Recognizing that the country and her city still have quite a long way to go to crush COVID-19, Breed has signed a joint jurisdiction with other Bay Area counties to extend the shelter-in-place order until May 31. Then she took to Twitter to talk to her city: “I know this is not easy and you may be feeling restless. I feel the same way. But what we don’t want is to relax restrictions too early, see new cases spike, and have to revert to tougher restrictions.”
The mayor is also concerned about her city’s small businesses, who are taking a big hit during the pandemic, and has teamed up with members of San Francisco’s small business community and very recently held a webinar to discuss the City’s response to COVID-19, and get updates and information on small business support, the latest regarding the Stay Home Public Health Order, and the City’s Economic Recovery Task Force.
Breed, who is the forty-fifth mayor of San Francisco, and the second woman to hold the position, is pleased to see mayors and governors working together and helping each other. “We all need to be doing well. We all need coordination.” As far as she’s concerned, it doesn’t help the country if only one city is doing well.
“This is a time when you do what’s necessary in order to support the country.”
Angela Merkel, Chancellor, the Federal Republic of Germany
“The situation is serious; take it seriously.”
This was the candid entreaty delivered by German chancellor Angela Merkel as the government implemented rigid restrictions on people’s movement and social contact to contain the spread of coronavirus. This address was given as the number of cases spiked in hard-hit Italy.
Since then, Germany has set an example in Europe with large-scale testing and tracing for COVID-19, one of the reasons why the country has a much lower fatality rate than most: official figures indicate that just 3.7 percent of the 150,000-plus confirmed coronavirus cases have led to death. Germany has tested more people per capita (15,730 per 1 million people) than any other large country in the world, and the government is currently adjusting its approach in favor of decentralized digital tracing in consideration of personal privacy.
DW.com has likened Merkel to “an old VW Beetle: reliable, unadorned, a little awkward”—a description that is echoed by complementary praises coming from different parts of the world.
Amichai Stein, diplomatic correspondent for Israeli public TV station Kan, attributes the attention that Merkel is getting to her being “a leader who can make people understand the situation and explain it clearly to people.” For instance, she explained the mathematics that influences the spread of the virus with accessible nerdiness in this video.
In Argentina’s most widely read daily, Clarin, commentator Ricardo Roa praises Merkel for behaving “like a normal person” and actually leading. “She communicates with scientific rigor. She communicates with calm. She disarms hysteria.” That scientific rigor is actually something that could be expected of Merkel—she is a scientist (doctorate in quantum chemistry), a fact that The Atlantic has pointed out as instrumental to Germany’s calm and deliberate response to COVID-19.
As a scientist and as someone who grew up on the East German side of the Berlin Wall, “for whom freedom of travel and movement were a hard-won right,” Merkel is a leader whose approach is a unique combination of scientific thinking and empathy, explaining to his countrymen that such curbs to personal freedom as the COVID-19 lockdown “should not be enacted lightly—and only ever temporarily. But at the moment they are essential in order to save lives.”
Corie Barry, CEO, Best Buy
“The situation remains very fluid and there is still a great deal of uncertainty, particularly as it relates to depth and duration of store closures and consumer confidence over time. We are taking the steps necessary to resume providing our customers in-home services in the near future, keeping in mind our overriding priority on the safety of our employees and customers.”
Best Buy’s 44-year-old CEO and one of the youngest CEOs of an S&P 500 company as well as one of the few women who lead Fortune 500 companies, has led her company to adopt a temporary enhanced curbside-service-only model starting March 22, during which time all in-home deliveries, installations, and repairs were suspended—a decision made for the health and safety of both Best Buy customers and employees. The model was successfully implemented within just 48 hours across Best Buy’s entire store base.
Since adopting its enhanced curbside service model despite all its domestic stores being closed to customer traffic, with approximately 40 (particularly in the Northeast) having been completely closed to all business for at least 10 days at its discretion, Best Buy has retained about 70% of its sales—something that Barry calls “a testament to the strength of our multi-channel capabilities.” Best Buy’s Domestic online sales are up over 250%, with approximately 50% from customers choosing to pick up their products at the stores since the shift to the curbside service model.
Since early days of the pandemic, Barry has led the company in making the following decisions related to its employees: Best Buy employees do not have to work if they do not feel comfortable and should stay home if they are feeling sick—without losing their pay. All retail and field employees whose hours were cut by the shift to the curbside service model are being paid for their regularly scheduled hours through April 18.
Barry is also steadily guiding her company through its response to COVID-19 with the following measures:
- Beginning April 19, the company has been putting approximately 51,000 Domestic hourly store employees, including nearly all part-time employees on temporary furlough, while retaining approximately 82% of its full-time store and field employees on its payroll, including the vast majority of In-Home Advisors and Geek Squad Agents. Furloughed employees will retain their health benefits at no cost to them for a minimum of three months.
- Beginning April 19, some corporate employees have been participating in voluntary reduced work weeks and resulting pay, as well as voluntary furloughs.
- Barry herself is forgoing 50% of her base salary and the members of the Board of Directors forgo 50% of their cash retainer fees through at least September 1, 2020.
- Company executives reporting directly to the CEO take a 20% reduction in base salary through at least September 1, 2020.
Women leaders are getting their countries and organizations through a global-scale crisis with calm, clarity, empathy, determination. And a closer look at five of them reveals leadership that
- Listens and collaborates
- Communicates clearly and regularly
- States the worrying facts with empathy backed up by well-considered, decisive action
- Doesn’t dismiss the concerns of children
- Instills in people a sense of normalcy amid chaos
All are qualities that we at Purple Cow celebrate.