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Auckland mayor Wayne Brown and former prime minister Jacinda Ardern (Image: Tina Tiller)
Auckland mayor Wayne Brown and former prime minister Jacinda Ardern (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONPoliticsFebruary 2, 2023

Now might be the time to stop talking about empathy as a nice-to-have

Auckland mayor Wayne Brown and former prime minister Jacinda Ardern (Image: Tina Tiller)
Auckland mayor Wayne Brown and former prime minister Jacinda Ardern (Image: Tina Tiller)

Empathetic leadership is not some magical superpower – it’s a necessary skill in a time of crisis.

It’s more ironic than rain on your wedding day that we’re having to contemplate the qualities of good leadership two weeks after the formal resignation of Jacinda Ardern. 

In assessments of the former prime minister’s leadership, her ability to lead during a crisis shines through. So does the word empathy. Aucklanders are now contemplating whether they have a deficit of empathy in the leadership of their city. As record-breaking rainfall caused floodwaters to rapidly rise, Auckland mayor Wayne Brown’s performance last Friday has been roundly criticised. In the eyes of many, his inability to communicate in a timely and empathetic manner was his cardinal sin. 

The dusty binders of plans for such an event in a city that has remained blessedly free of large scale natural disaster will be examined in time. It’s not for us to yet speculate on whether an earlier warning, or even a “heads up, stay safe” message would have changed the outcome or mitigated the loss of life. Those questions carry weight as families grieve and the scale of the required recovery effort unfolds. As it stands, finance minister Grant Robertson says the floods are likely New Zealand’s most expensive non-earthquake disaster. There is also the toll stress, anxiety and loss will take on those who have been impacted to be considered.

Brown’s subsequent responses, including the now infamous message about media drongos and the conversation with the Herald’s David Fisher published yesterday, reveal something beyond his well-documented aversion to media and lack of communications prowess. The media will be fine. His disdain for the industry may play well with some, just as I suspect his initial refusal to do interviews probably did. Some people think and say far worse things about the media. His disdain is unhelpful in a climate of misinformation, but “drongo” is a superficial cut. 

His continued defiance and defensiveness, writ large in Fisher’s article, centres him, rather than the people impacted by this disaster. He is entitled to a right of reply, but he continues to pull focus in a room he seems incapable of reading. You could argue that inability relates to a lack of empathy. 

No one was asking him to cry on command, but in a crisis the ability to understand what other people are thinking, and therefore what they need, is required at scale. In a crisis, it must also be demonstrated. It’s all very well to say you were in the office doing the hard yards, but we expect and take behavioural cues from leaders we can see, and who we trust can see us.

Wayne Brown signing the state of emergency declaration on Friday night, in a photograph provided by the mayor’s office.

There was an air of chaos in Auckland last Friday. Brown has chastised councillors who stepped in to fill the information vacuum. We don’t know what the alternative event timeline would’ve looked like had he spoken earlier, but people would have felt calmer and more reassured if communication had come from the leader that’s meant to sit at the top of the city’s phone tree from the outset. Instead information dribbled out over several hours, sourced and pieced together from disparate social media and media reports, fuelling anxiety about whether anyone was in charge. 

To know what people need in a crisis and be able to show that you understand that is just empathy in cognitive form. There’s often a tussle about whether empathy is a trait or a skill. Most research now lands on there being different types of empathy. Cognitive empathy, the ability to recognise, understand and predict how others will respond in certain situations, is regarded as a skill that can be learned. 

Empathy was lauded as one of Ardern’s signature traits, but her deftness in a crisis sometimes got tossed into the baskets of soft skills and stardust. Ardern’s communication ability was just “being good with words” and her recognition of people’s needs was just “being kind.” Ardern’s natural empathy, the emotional and compassionate kind, made it easy to mythologise empathy in general as some kind of rare and anointed superpower rather than a necessary leadership skill. 

To compare Ardern and Brown is not to elevate Ardern to the pantheon of the gods, nor condemn Brown to the depths of hell (he may well be capable of that himself). But in close proximity, the resignation of one leader with preternatural crisis leadership ability and the sudden thrusting into the spotlight of another with an observed lack thereof, does present a juncture to look at what’s both demanded and required of leaders in the 21st century. Demanded and required are different things but they are connected in the need to preempt, perform and act at the same time. That’s especially crucial in an era of fast flowing information and opinion, which sets molten perception into cast-iron reality instantaneously. 

Fisher writes that Brown’s “engineering brain and an inclination to make quick decisions are good skills to carry into the aftermath of a disaster.” But Brown’s reality as a leader is now also cast by his inability to perceive what was required at the outset of this disaster and to demonstrate he understood that. This will have a corrosive effect on the way he is received, and more importantly, whether he is trusted.

Empathy is not a nice-to-have for a leader in crisis and, at this moment, Aucklanders could be forgiven for thinking it’d have been nice to have someone else.

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