NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian took some time out from managing the state’s response to the pandemic to speak to Governance Institute about the biggest challenges of the last six months, how her role as leader has evolved during that time and how society’s attitudes to leadership have changed.
She also lists some key lessons for all leaders from the crisis — and why changing course shouldn’t be feared if that’s what the pandemic demands.
What has been your biggest challenge during the last six months?
Having to make decisions when there’s no precedent, or no rule book.
Obviously when you are dealing with other major issues that normally face state government you are dealing with things that may have happened before, things you planned for or things that even though they are unexpected, there is a precedent for dealing with.
But when you are talking about natural disasters or COVID, there’s no rule book and that’s what makes it especially difficult.
Has your role as leader changed in the last six months?
We’ve had to be much more flexible. We’ve had to do things very quickly, so it has changed the way I lead but also the way my government works because we now have a very whole-of-government approach to the pandemic.
We have to be one voice, especially when giving messages to the community and asking them to follow instructions.
How is your government different to how it was six months ago?
We are definitely more flexible, more nimble, we can do things quickly, [there’s] less red tape and I think quite courageous as well in making sure we are doing the right thing.
Don’t be afraid to change course if that’s what the pandemic requires.
How do you think society’s attitudes to leadership have changed?
Pre-COVID all of us have been cynical to some extent about institutions and organisations but I think COVID has allowed people to consider trust in experts and that’s why we base everything on expert advice.
All of our decisions are based on expert advice, not based on what elected members of parliament think.
Trust has become really important when it’s life and death and I think we do well when we rely on expert advice and convey that because that gives people confidence that they should follow the instructions we are providing.
What is your first thought in the morning and last at night?
I think you are always thinking about scenarios in your head because we live in very unpredictable times. So you are always considering ‘what are the options, what’s the best option to take, what if this happens?’
It’s almost scenario planning every day and every night to make sure you are on top of anything that comes your way but also trying to get ahead of the curve and ahead of the decisions you are likely to make or need to make.
It’s really just processing everything, all the data you have and all the information you have and how is that interpreted in good public policy.
What is the biggest change or challenge likely to be for NSW in 2021?
Firstly, it’s dealing with the unknown. We don’t really know what the future holds. We don’t know to what extent our lives will be impacted.
And secondly, having the right balance between dealing with the virus but then also keeping the economy going as strongly as possible. I think that will be the biggest challenge next year.
What are the key lessons for leaders from this crisis?
Key takeaways are don’t be afraid to change course if that’s what the pandemic requires.
Don’t be afraid to take advice as it comes in because there is no rule book.
Also don’t pay attention too much about what commentators think. Do what you think is in the best interests of citizens.
It’s almost being quite liberated in your leadership, having less regard for what commentators think and always thinking about what will keep the community safe and in jobs.
[It’s about] not worrying if you have to change course, not worrying if you have to amend things as your go along as there is no rulebook as long as you always keep top of mind what is in the best interests of your citizens.