A post-pandemic paradigm for public leaders?

What is the future for Public Leadership?

What is the future for public leadership?

This discussion seeks to explain what public leadership means and explores its challenges for the future. In particular, we will consider this within the context of a potential post-pandemic paradigm, responding to an unprecedented challenge that is taxing public leaders’ minds and practices across the globe.

The discussion will suggest that we need to reimagine leadership and reconstruct our approaches to public leadership, putting the public interest at the heart of what we do. We need to look beyond the pandemic and reframe the public leadership approach for our future generations. A series of blogs will continue to encourage this debate.

Public leadership in a post-pandemic paradigm

In responding to the emergence of the global pandemic, we’ve seen some awful examples of global leadership in some countries, including the so-called leader of one of the world’s most influential nations who initially severely ‘played down’ the threat posed by Covid-19 and another leader who ‘denied its existence’.

Pandemic with man wearing mask against a city background with declining data
The pandemic has been consistently described as unprecedented. This is clearly the case in relation to the spread of the infection and the impact on health services specifically and the economy generally. But it is also denied in some quarters!

Both examples resulted in substantial consequences in increased infection rates and the global economy’s impact. We have seen some elements of the population denying the existence of Covid-19 and still others either criticising or directly protesting against public safety restrictions imposed and actions of the police in safeguarding the population.

But we’ve also seen some exceptional leadership such as in Germany, Norway and New Zealand. The female aspect of leadership is coming to the fore quite strongly through Angela Merkel in Germany, and Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg.  In both cases, COVID-19 rapidly spread throughout Europe in March, and both countries were hard hit. Both leaders responded quickly, Merkel steering Germany away from its worst effects with many asking, “How did she do it?[1]” One answer is that Merkel “confronted the brutal facts” (of the reality) (Collins, 2001) in bluntly telling the public about some of the scary facts including that 60% to 70% of the population could become infected. She was the first international leader to do this. One further reason, is that she responded to the “why?” question in justifying the immediate restriction of movement but explaining why she found this difficult to do given her East German background (Kottasová, 2020).  Her popularity as a leader soared.  In Solberg’s case, she also acted swiftly. Her leadership resulted in Norway quickly adopting strict lockdown measures and significant testing across the population.   Norway has one of the lowest fatality rates in Europe.  What are the lessons?  A key lesson is that Solberg and her government knew where the risk points were (Godin, 2020). We can say the same of Merkel and, in her case, her scientific background gave her further credibility in identifying and responding to those risks.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arde is another shining example. Under her leadership, New Zealand adopted a set of non-pharmaceutical interventions to bring COVID-19 incidence to zero (Robert, 2020). For example, New Zealand took action to hold the virus’s community spread low by keeping its borders closed — a choice that decimated its vital tourism industry. The spread of the virus was quickly brought under control and, in January 2021, the country celebrated the new year as Covid-free (Goodfellow, 2021), thus achieving this challenging objective. As with Merkel, Arde’s popularity increased significantly. Jacinda Arde’s leadership is described as empathic leadership (Friedman, 2020); she builds trust, and the wider community were supportive of her actions in dealing with the pandemic. The fact that the virus’s impact is now non-existent is a fantastic feat. Friedman recounts a comment from a former PM:

“(She) doesn’t preach at them; she’s standing with them.”

What lessons can we learn from the pandemic?

Arde’s empathic leadership contributed to her success as did the determination and evidence-based approaches of Merkel and Solberg.  What can we learn from these examples, and how can we build public leadership skills and innovations?  I return to the concept of public leadership.

In 2010 we defined what we meant by public leadership.  In unpicking what was a necessarily long definition, we can consider its key components. It’s about collaboration based upon a shared vision, supported by shared aims and values.  The approach seeks to encourage a style of leadership that is both shared and distributed with a key aim of improving socially desirable outcomes which all takes place within a very complex and changing environment.

My practice and research led to developing a New Public Leadership (NPL) framework based on realistic evaluation which is the interaction between contexts mechanisms and outcomes (Pawson and Tilley, 1997)[2].  Public value sits very much at the heart, representing the overall outcome of excellent public leadership.  It puts the public’s interests at the heart of public leadership and consigns individual ego’s to the bin; is this an impossible ideal?

Before I conclude with my response to this compelling question, I want to point to three considerable differences between public leadership and public management (and its predecessor, public administration); the motivation for, and the means for achievement of, goals and how work-based relationships are developed or nurtured and applied in practice.

Public leaders’ motivation is focused on the public interest, whereas public management is more about either the corporate or the individual’s ego.  As opposed to those of new public management, the achievement of public leadership goals is through value-based qualitative delivery focused on the greater good and not target-based quantitative measurement to achieve personal acclaim and career advantage; measurement is essential, but you’ve got to measure what matters. To quote Albert Einstein:

“Count what counts and not what can be counted.”

Finally, leadership concerns the importance of relationships instead of being told what to do. Both are important at different points in time. But the real challenge is not telling people what to do but getting them to do it because they want to do it. In tackling societies wicked problems – such as the pandemic – we need to change. We need to reimagine and to reframe our responses to the reality of the challenges that we face. Only then will we succeed. We need to secure trust and legitimacy in all that we do as leaders in tackling the socially desirable outcomes that our public need and, increasingly demand, and not follow the road to political discourses that favour the few over the many. Most important is the leadership of our people. Empathy, empowerment and enablement will be essential in taking forward a relational approach to leadership promoting the public interest such as that admirably displayed by Jacinda Arde.

The pandemic has brought tragic consequences, but it also holds promise. Selfless leadership is not an impossible ideal. Let us learn the lessons from those leading the way in tackling our generations’ most significant challenge.

The next blog in the series will consider the New Public Leadership framework in more detail and how a 360 degree approach to Compass Leadership illustrates how collective values and behaviours can be developed and assess their success in practice. This will then be followed by a further blog that explores the potential for a ‘new normal’ and how the pandemic is likely to change the way in which public leadership is both defined and practiced. We can then move forward and consider how selfless leadership – as a form of collective leadership – can become a reality in drawing together a range of value-based leadership theories and models.

[1] Welle, Deutsche 2020 (https://www.dw.com/en/whats-angela-merkels-secret-to-crisis-leadership-in-germany/av-53522542)

[2] The next blog in the series will consider this framework in more detail. If you wish to explore this framework further, click here to open an e-learning activity.  A series of webinars will follow.


Collins, J. C. (2001) Good to great : why some companies make the leap– and others don’t. London: Random House Business.


 Friedman, U. (2020) New Zealand’s Prime Minister May Be the Most Effective Leader on the Planet. The Atlantic [Online],  (April 19, 2020). Available: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/04/jacinda-ardern-new-zealand-leadership-coronavirus/610237/ [Accessed 18 December 2020].


 Godin, M. (2020) Erna Solberg on How Norway Is Reopening With Cautious Optimism: ‘We Know Where the Risk Points Are’ [Online]. California: Time USA. Available: https://time.com/5868670/erna-solberg-on-how-norway-is-reopening-with-cautious-optimism-we-know-where-the-risk-points-are/ [Accessed 21 January 2021].


 Goodfellow, M. (2021) New Zealand rings in 2021 with Covid-free celebrations [Online]. London: LBC. Available: https://www.lbc.co.uk/news/countries-start-see-new-year-celebrations-across-globe/ [Accessed 21 January 2021].


 No author (2020) How Angela Merkel went from lame duck to global leader on coronavirus. CNN World, 7 May 2020.


 Pawson, R. & Tilley, N. (1997) Realistic evaluation. Los Angeles ; London: Sage.


 Robert, A. (2020) Lessons from New Zealand’s COVID-19 outbreak response. The Lancet Public Health, 5(11), e569-e570.

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