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The New Wave of Women Leaders & the Covid-19 Pandemic

Updated on October 15, 2020



Women-led countries have been successfully managing and navigating the Covid-19 pandemic. (Chamorro-Premuzic & Wittenberg-Cox, 2020) states that nations with women in leadership exhibited noteworthy performance that led to fewer Covid-19 deaths than those of their male counterparts. Gender may not be an attribute of an exceptional leader however, empathy exerted by female world leaders amongst other key factors have contributed to their skilful approach to managing the crisis. (Ciulla, 2010) agrees that leaders regardless of gender should have a sense of duty to care in challenging times. This duty is not easily developed even if mentored and nevertheless has been the predominant characteristic of women leaders when manoeuvring through the Covid-19 crisis.



Contradictorily, we have seen lack of empathy being shown by male world leaders during the pandemic. In particular, the ‘charismatic’ leader Donald Trump has showcased anything but empathy since being appointed as the 45th President of the United States. His poor handling of the coronavirus outbreak within the U.S. has received global criticism with experts warning against the President’s comments on ultraviolet light and bleach to ‘kill’ the virus.

(Ciulla, 2004) states that reckless leaders can be considered ‘lucky’ when exhibiting moral and technical incompetence since any consequence has already been recognized as having both. Where there is an absence of ethical behaviour, narcissistic leaders tend to use their power and charisma to misguide their followers. (Burke, 2006) discusses the core characteristics of the narcissistic leader which includes incompetence, rigidness, intemperate or unrestrained behaviour, callousness, corrupt, self-indulgent and can even be considered evil. These types of leaders do not exert empathy or a duty to care which as previously discussed, are needed in order to successfully lead nations during a crisis.

The traits of the U.S. President appear to be in sync with those of a narcissistic leader. These traits combined with his lack of empathy and inability to effectively manage the coronavirus has not only caused harm to others but ultimately has the potential to end his presidential term.


During the pandemic, we also noticed countries opting for a more transactional approach to leadership. Transactional leadership follow the principles of rewards and punishment and has been defined as a ‘give and take’ or mutually beneficial relationship between leaders and followers by (Burns, 1978). The (Office of the Prime Minister , 2020) for the male governed twin-island Republic of Trinidad and Tobago (TT) implemented a detailed six (6) phases plan for the re-opening of the country.

The opening of each phase was determined by the nation’s Covid-19 statistics which was linked to the population’s ability to adhere to government restrictions. This linkage is indicative of transactional leadership by the TT Prime Minister. The reward of re-opening was offered in return for observance of covid-19 rules that could easily revert to further lockdown measures or punitive measures if the give and take scenario failed.

(Lai, 2011) discussed another aspect of Transactional leadership where there is short-term management of issues either actively by dealing with challenges as they arise or passively managed until the issue/s become severe. The re-opening of the TT economy led to a significant spike in positive coronavirus cases and deaths however, the decision to revert to a limited lockdown was only done post campaign activities for local general elections which is reflective of short-term focus. The transactional approach lacks the empathy needed to successfully navigate the Covid-19 crisis and only provides temporary solutions rather than inspire and motivate followers during the pandemic.



Jacinda Ardern has easily become the most effective world leader through empathy in leadership. The 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand and the world’s youngest female Head of Government exemplifies both strength and kindness as key traits of her leadership style. These qualities backed by science has led to quick and effective management of the Covid-19 crisis. The results of her efforts were seen as early as April 2020 when the rest of world was still getting adjusted to the new normal (Tan, 2020) reported that New Zealanders were able to enjoy a much-needed coffee break or ‘easing’ of Covid-19 restrictions. It is no surprise that New Zealand became the example for other countries during the pandemic.

The servant leadership approach as defined by (Greenleaf, 1977 ) states that the leader should remain a servant through their genuine desire and willingness to serve others thereby ensuring increased levels of morality and motivation for both the leader and the follower. In April of this year, (The Guardian , 2020) reported that Jacinda Ardern and New Zealand’s Cabinet Ministers would be taking a pay cut of 20% for a period of six (6) months. Through this one act, Ardern demonstrated what leadership ought to be, which is a duty to genuinely care and serve others amidst a crisis.

Throughout the pandemic, Ardern utilized both science communication as well as other pertinent communication methods to successfully translate Covid-19 messages. Continuous and clear communication was also done away from the lectern providing reassurance and comfort in relatable and highly effective ways, even via Facebook live. (LeBard, 2020) advised that researchers defined the three-part framework for effective Covid-19 communication as follows: direction-giving, meaning-making and empathy to motivate followers. The NZ Prime Minister’s repetitive ‘pep talks’ provided encouragement and support for citizens to take personal responsibility to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

Recently in August 2020, there was a resurgence of coronavirus cases that originated from an outbreak in the community of Auckland, New Zealand. However, by September 2020 (The Guardian , 2020) reported that New Zealand was free to ease Covid-19 restrictions due to successful management and control of the spread of the coronavirus. It is this quick adaptability, empathy, calmness and exceptional leadership exuded by Ardern in managing these unpredictable situations that has kept the Covid-19 confirmed cases and deaths to a minimum in New Zealand.


Angela Merkel became the Chancellor of Germany in 2005 and during her tenure she has been placed at the top of numerous global lists such as ‘The World’s Most Powerful People’ and ‘The World’s Most Powerful Woman.’ These acknowledgements were as a result of her complex decision making under adversity and unorthodox approach to leadership. (Mochari, 2015) states that Merkel’s purpose-based leadership does not focus on the leader’s authority but rather conviction combined with a cooperative and innovative effort towards a common purpose.

Conviction and transformational leadership are closely linked and (Boyum, 2006) states that Transformational leaders tend to focus on the higher level needs which motivate and improve the lives of both leaders and their followers. Merkel, a former scientist geared her Covid-19 response to tap into those higher needs by providing extremely scientific and data-driven updates. These updates were either delivered by her or forwarded to others for further expertise. (Farr, 2020) advised that this approach was well-received by Germans who prefer evidence-based communication and mirrored the cautiousness exhibited by the German Chancellor during the pandemic.

Other than her cautiousness, (Middelhoff, et al., 2016) stated that Merkel’s personality has been systematic, patient for informed decision making and serious yet reasonable throughout her tenure. Merkel is not known for her charisma or expression of strong emotions including empathy. However, this has not prevented her from renewing Germany’s reputation through her values or maintaining the confidence levels from her peers and the German population even during a crisis.


(, 2020) states that in the year 1890, the National American Woman Suffrage Association changed their approach in the pursuit of voting rights for women by arguing that women were ‘different’ from men rather than ‘created equal’ to men. This can clearly be seen with the new wave of women leaders who have acted ‘differently’ by being resilient and quickly adapting, responding and transforming nations during the Covid-19 pandemic. The key factors contributing to this resilience has been both science communication and a duty to care as displayed by powerful female world leaders. It is important to note that these key factors are not gender-based and can be adopted by both men and women in leadership. The underlying aspect however, is a strong ethical foundation.

The 21st century is the age for social change and creative activism where many have chosen to ‘disrupt’ what was once considered to be the status quo. (Donaldson, 2008) recognizes this change and the need for leaders to be guided by their own moral compass and humility especially when managing the inter-relationships with their various stakeholders. Leadership now calls for open and honest communication, authenticity and a servant leader or transformational approach which has been clearly demonstrated by the new wave of women in leadership.


Boyum, G., 2006. The Historical and Philosophical Influences on Greenleaf’s Concept of Servant Leadership:. Servant Ledaership Research Roundtable , p. 3.

Burke, R., 2006. Why Leaders Fail: Exploring the Dark Side. International Journal of Manpower, pp. 91-100.

Burns, J. M., 1978. In: Leadership . s.l.:New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Chamorro-Premuzic, T. & Wittenberg-Cox, A., 2020. Will the Pandemic Reshape Notions of Female Leadership?. [Online]
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Ciulla, J. B., 2004. Ethics and Leadership Effectiveness. p. 309.

Ciulla, J. B., 2010. Being There: Why Leaders Should Not ‘‘Fiddle’’While Rome Burns. Presidential Studies Quarterly, p. 38–56.

Donaldson, C., 2008. Defining Tomorrow's Leader. [Online]
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Farr, C., 2020. Germany’s coronavirus response is a master class in science communication. [Online]
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Glatter, R., 2020. Calls To Poison Centers Spike After The President’s Comments About Using Disinfectants To Treat Coronavirus. [Online]
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Greenleaf, R. K., 1977 . Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York : Paulist Press, 2020. Women's Suffrage. [Online]
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Lai, A., 2011. Transformational-Transactional Leadership Theory. Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering, p. 4.

LeBard, R., 2020. What Jacinda Arden Can Teach Us About Science Communication. [Online]
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Middelhoff, J., Schijvenaars, P. & Landtsheer, C. D., 2016. The Psychological Profile and Leadership Style of Angela Merkel, the world's most powerful woman. 11.

Mochari, I., 2015. The Leadership Qualities That Made Angela Merkel 'Time' Magazine's Person of the Year. [Online]
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Office of the Prime Minister , 2020. [Online]
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Tan, Y., 2020. Coronavirus: How New Zealand got its coffees and fries back. [Online]
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The Guardian , 2020. Jacinda Ardern and ministers take pay cut in solidarity with those hit by Covid-19. [Online]
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The Guardian , 2020. Relief as much of New Zealand eases out of coronavirus restrictions. [Online]
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    • CHRIS57 profile image


      11 days ago from Northern Germany

      Sometime ago i read that behavioral difference between men and women goes back to the stone age and before. In those times we learned that men were hunters and women were the household organizers.

      Just think of this in our times. Until today women are very careful in selecting products. They can drive us men crazy while shopping. Actually what women display in modern day selective shopping is what in the stone age women had to do to select only good crop to bring the family/tribe over the winter. So - women thinking and planning seems to be more long term strategic.

      Men on the contrary rush through shops, make quick decisions. That resembles the adrenalin pushed reaction while hunting prey. More short term tactics, i would say. On the other hand, men had to be innovative to overcome unforeseen obstacles during their hunting sessions.

      Coronavirus - a systemic problem. You need the thinking of "what is good for us (family/tribe/country) to bring us through the winter (of Corona). Real world examples seem to prove this.

      Of course differences in Corona response success do not necessarily depend on behavioral differences between men and women in leadership positions. But - listen to advisors carefully - check options - make strategic decisions - this is what women seem to be prepared for better.

      You can challenge this theory, but it has some beauty.

    • profile imageAUTHOR

      Nalini C 

      12 days ago

      So should men in leadership follow in the footsteps of the new wave of women leaders?


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