Before the Covid-19 outbreak, few New Zealanders could have named the country’s top health official.
But after teleporting to living rooms across the country to deliver the daily Covid-19 update for weeks, Dr Ashley Bloomfield has become a household name.
Updates were essential for a population hungry for information and reassurance, and Bloomfield was calm personified.
But although seemingly calm, the chief health officer said there were times when entering the 1 p.m. press conference was like entering the Coliseum.
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On some days the experience reduced him to a “ball of sweat.”
“I used to joke that these daily stand-ups were like having a heavy performance review every day, live on TV. I remember a big headline around the so called ‘Thelma and Louise episode’ where two women left managed solitary confinement and drove from Auckland to Wellington without having had a [Covid-19] test.
“The media was asking, ‘Who is responsible? Who’s gonna get fired? As Director General of Health, I took responsibility for fixing the problem, so the title for the next day was ‘From heroes to zero’.
Bloomfield makes the candid admission in good humana “field guide” to ethical leadershipreleased last month.
Co-authored by sustainable business leader James Bushell and Professor Karin Lasthuizen of the University of Victoria, the book also features articles on ethical leadership from companies such as Air New Zealand and global cosmetics giant L ‘Oreal.
In Bloomfield’s case, he recounts his experience leading the Department of Health during the Covid-19 pandemic and shares his thoughts on ethical leadership.
Ethical leadership skills must be learned and practiced – good leaders are not born that way.
As chief executive, the responsibility for deciding what advice to offer the Cabinet during the pandemic falls to Bloomfield.
“In making these decisions, the central element of my own leadership style is listening to my colleagues and advisers, who add their ideas without feeling the need to tell me what I might want to hear,” he said. .
“We always seek convergence and consensus – which comes down to leading with humility and being willing to listen and change our minds.”
Chief Health Officer Dr Ashley Bloomfield has apologized for the long waits for covid-19 test results.
While it’s rare that a consensus isn’t reached, Bloomfield has sometimes made the final decision.
“I could say, ‘OK, well, thanks for the advice, but we’re going to do it this way.’ Much of leadership is intuitive, but you have to train those muscles. Leadership is a skill set that you must learn and practice, because there are no born leaders.
Bloomfield said the most successful leaders are those who get the basics right, asking themselves: Why am I here? How can I direct myself? How to lead others? How to control the context? And then it boils down to: What are the guiding values under which I function as a leader?
Focus on the 15% of context you can control – the 85% you can’t control isn’t worth losing sleep over.
By their very nature, ethical questions rarely have one right answer, and New Zealand’s Covid-19 policymakers faced many ethical dilemmas, Bloomfield said.
The trade-off between public health and the economy, insofar as protecting one would be to the detriment of the other, has been the subject of much debate.
But Bloomfield saw the two as inextricably linked.
“Our main focus in all of our decision-making was: what does this mean for people, especially those who are disadvantaged or vulnerable in our communities? We know that if you take care of people first and foremost, the economy follows.
“We also focused on controlling what we could. We can typically only control 15% of the context in which we work at any given time. So the idea is to maximize that and think strategically about who else can control or have influence in other areas.
That 15% is likely to be your own behavior – so focus on acting ethically for the right reasons.
“In a crisis situation, when many factors are beyond your control, it’s best to think, ‘What are the things I can still control? I can always control my behavior, and I can control the basis on which I give advice in the absence of information or very incomplete information,” Bloomfield said.
“That’s when I come back to my values of ethical leadership. We’re all human, and we all get frustrated and can act like jerks, but the best advice is that when you’re a jerk, it’s alone in a room with the door closed.
“That focus on my values and controlling my behavior became especially relevant during those 1 p.m. media standups.”
Good leaders lead with humility – the ability to listen, take advice, and admit when you are wrong.
Some days, entering the 1 p.m. stand-up was like entering the Colosseum, Bloomfield said.
“I would get nervous – I always get nervous. I wouldn’t be able to eat before and I would be a ball of sweat afterwards. But again, the only thing I could control in this situation was my own reactions and behaviors, so that’s what I focused on.
“Despite how I felt, people – especially children – told me they liked me to be calm, which kept them calm. That’s another lesson for me: people may not remember- not be about what you did as a leader, but they will remember how you made them feel. And to lead ethically, to make people feel safe, you have to lead according to your values.
“One leadership value I talk about is humility. To lead with humility is to be willing to listen to others, to take advice, to say when you don’t know something, to say when you’ve been wrong and tell you what to do to solve the problem.
“The opposite, one might say, is pride. It is easy to see the ramifications of the stark contrast between the leadership styles of different nations in this situation.
Resilient people recognize when they are at the limit of their endurance and take action to help themselves – this is called a vacation.
Knowing the limits of your resilience and when you’ve reached them is part of leadership, Bloomfield said.
“I held quite important positions, but for the first time in my career, I reached [my limits]. Fortunately, I recognized this and took action – it’s called a vacation.
“Resilient people know where their physical, mental, and emotional limits lie, and they take action if they bump into them. They realize they won’t be of any use to anyone if they don’t take the time to refocus.
While leaders may get used to and be spurred on by the pace and adrenaline of operating at full speed, they could also fall into the selfish trap of thinking that if they weren’t there the wheels would fall off.
“You have to remember that as a good leader you picked a great team and they have it. No matter what you do, you are actually a small cog in a big wheel.
“Understanding this is a good way to retain perspective, to bring your sense of self-importance back to where it should be.”