Leadership is not a swagger

In the space of less than six months, Australia has gone from catastrophic bushfires to being part of a global pandemic. On anyone’s watch, that’s a fair load to carry. In times past, it’s perhaps something that occurred in a once-in-a-generation roster of political leadership. But if 2020 has proven anything, it’s that we’re no longer living in business as usual (BAU) times and what future BAU looks – unlike our history, is yet to be written.

So if we’re not in BAU – and arguably haven’t been for the better part of six months, why are some political leaders still communicating like we are?

Leadership isn’t a swagger.

This isn’t a turn-up and get a gold-star for participation gig. If you’re a leader you need to lead people – and that means helping them navigate their situation and provide clarity.

What you did yesterday doesn’t count.

As Chesly B. Sullenberger – Captain of US Airways Flight 1549 which landed in the Hudson River in 2009 – wisely sums this up:

“We need to try and do the right thing every time, to perform at our best, because we never know which moment in our lives we’ll be judged on.”

Only today matters.

What are you doing to make today easier, better and safer for Australians?

Press conferences during crisis are for you to impart critical information and updates – not elevator pitch your audience on already announced solutions or justify your decision making.

Press conferences aren’t an opportunity for you to sell and tell your latest hits anthology.

You are performing a critical function – with clear purpose – and that is to share public information about the crisis.


What do Australians need to know today?

What do they need to do?

Why does it matter?

Get your key messages across, take questions, then get on with the job of taking those words and turning them into timely real-world actions that Australians can depend on.

Don’t insult your audience: they’re all your boss right now.

If you were the CEO of an Airline and one of your planes had just crashed killing all onboard, would you start your key messages with a trip down history lane on your impeccable safety record? No? Seem a little tone deaf?

Then don’t pull the same caper on your audience during a pandemic.

You have our attention, use it wisely or you will lose it.

Being clear and concise is essential.

What you say matters, but we shouldn’t have to wade through minutes of guff to get to the part about what is happening, what we need to do and how you are going to help us.

Be clear – leave no room for ambiguity. Details matter. Get those numbers locked down AFTER some sense-making logic has been applied.

Be concise – people don’t have the mental bandwidth to wade through avalanches of non-essential information to get to the bit they need to know. Brevity is critical. Find a format that works and stick to it:

– What has changed since I spoke to you last?

– What do you I need to you know right now? What action do you need to take now or in the imminent future?  

– What work has been completed since I spoke to you last?

– What work is going to be done?

– When you can expect that work to be completed

– What issues or circumstances do I need to make you aware of (read: SOLUTIONS FOCUSED NOT EXCUSES); and

– When you will hear from me next.

 – Take questions.

Really, what’s in it for us?

No – not big business or airlines – us. The people.

Economic stimulus packages for big and small businesses are part of the deal- we get that. But giving millions to airlines first, ahead of the Australians queuing at Centrelink for help says you value big business first.

People must come first.

How does what you’re doing provide financial security for individuals, couples and families? How will those whose lost their jobs meet their rent? Pay their mortgage? Feed their family?

In a country where over 46 per cent – or some 5.9 million Australians–  live pay check to pay check, business tax deferrals and investment incentives are so far from their daily reality that it simply makes no sense to them. It’s not tangible, it doesn’t solve their real-world problem right now.  

To set an agenda you need to have one. Don’t use the media as a quasi-market research firm on your bright ideas.

What is your agenda? Build a strategy. Make it clear.

Societal resilience – through any calamity – is built upon the essentials needed for life: oxygen, water, food, shelter and love.

Oxygen, fortunately, is in abundance.

Water – what is your plan to keep essential services (including power and the internet) running?

Food – how are you going to provide for your nation? Demanding people stop ‘panic-buying’ after you’ve encouraged them to buy ‘a little extra each week’ is hypocritical.

Shelter – how are people going to stay in their homes? Pay their rent? Their mortgage?

Love – how will we get through this together? What support services are in play? Are they accessible (financially as well as virtually).

Don’t wait for online backlashes to convince you that big idea is a stupid idea. Sense-making, war gaming and logic need to happen before announcements, not after.

Don’t waste opportunities to be seen and heard.

To use a well known analogy, the longer the boy cried wolf, the less people paid attention to his cries.

You have a powerful platform, don’t squander it for a change to get in front of the cameras. Make each appearance and word count.

Build a dependable tempo for a nation without a routine.

Pick a time that’s good for the entire nation and show up each and every day.

If you don’t have anything to announce say so in advance, take questions instead.

Don’t miss a day.

Don’t send someone else in your place.

Don’t sell or preach from the lectern.  

Be dynamic but realise routine builds resilience and trust.

If you can be the person you say you are, when you say you will- you will cultivate a reliance and dependency. People will follow you, even if they don’t necessarily fall in your political bailiwick. This isn’t a popularity contest – you don’t need people to like you, only listen and take action.

Less talk, more action.

Stop talking about what you’re going to do and start doing it.

Then talk about what you’ve delivered. Not to big business, but to people in Centrelink queues.

If you aren’t in control of yourself, how do you expect anyone to believe you’re in control of a national response to this pandemic?

A short temper, arrogance and ego get you nowhere.

Leadership is not a swagger.

You must have the patience of a Saint.

Don’t lean on or into your lectern. This isn’t an election rally.

Don’t give your face to the cameras and your body to the door.

Slow your speech down. Remember to breathe.

If you don’t have the patience for Q&A – cut it short.

If you are a dick – apologise – on camera.

Appreciate the media – they are your messengers.

Make sure you give female journalists as many opportunities to ask questions as you do male.

Lose the tie on weekends.

Conflicting messaging is far more insidious than your standard political spin during times of crisis. It says you’re dreaming up solutions but haven’t taken a sense-making approach to the details at a time when attention to details is everything.

30 minute haircuts are exclusively for the realm of men.

Hibernating a business isn’t like a bear bunkering down for the winter – it’s like going into your cave and trying find a comfortable snooze position for 6 months while experiencing anxiety attacks that prevent you from falling asleep.

Mortgage payments, rent relief and other band-aid solutions give people room to breathe now, but they will pay for down the track in accrued interest or other forms of debt. This isn’t a solution, it’s a form of in debenture.  

Stop selling the idea that the nation will all wake up in some months time and suddenly everything will be back to the way it was. That’s not optimism, it’s stupidity.

Not everyone will be ok.

Not everyone will survive.

We know this.

Stop pretending like our reality – now and into the future – will be anything like what we are used to.

Trust us with the truth.

We can handle it.  


What does authentic leadership during times of crisis look like?

Evening everyone. Thought I’d jump online and answer a few questions as we all prepare to stay home for the next wee while. Join me if you’d like!

Posted by Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Leave a Reply