A crisis such as the corona crisis asks for strong leadership. What counts as “strong” and how leaders respond to the crisis differs tremendously between countries—and between leaders. The Netherlands has a unique tradition of a consensus-based, egalitarian style of leadership that has its own name—“polder model”—and Wiki-page.
While generally effective in “normal” circumstances, it is not necessarily the kind of fast and decisive leadership that some would like to see in times of crisis. Therefore, it is insightful to analyze the Dutch approach to crisis leadership and learn how it works.
In doing so, I will not focus on the actual measures that are taken in response to the corona virus. I also won’t make any claims about the effectiveness of the Dutch approach to crisis leadership in comparison to other leadership approaches. I will focus on describing the leadership itself, and especially on how Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Deputy Prime Minister Hugo de Jonge are leading their country through the current crisis. Their leadership can be described along six principles.
Principle 1: Stay calm and optimistic. Always
This first principle is typical for Mark Rutte’s general style of leadership and illustrated in the photo above. The Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant recently characterized him as “zen master” Rutte. Whatever happens, it seems that nothing is really touching him. Like a true Mr. Myagi, he never loses his temper. And he always remains positive and optimistic, cheerful even, like a little boy, one might say.
Sometimes this is visibly difficult. When journalists keep on asking the same questions or make accusations during press conferences, you witness an annoyed Rutte having physical difficulty to keep his emotions under control. But he does so and stays calm and optimistic. Always.
Some may see this style of leadership as naive, and it certainly annoys many other politicians, because they can’t really touch him or throw him off his game. But in times of crisis, it reflects confidence. And his calmness and optimism are broadly appreciated. As various polls have shown, citizens trust Mark Rutte, leading to an increased popularity as political leader.
Principle 2: Rely on layers of expertise
Rutte, as well as the Depute Prime Minister and Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport, Hugo de Jonge are very clear about the fact that they don’t have all the expertise. At the start of the crisis, this was obvious, since no one knew much about the virus or about how to respond. But also today, three quarters of a year later, they remain transparent about the fact that they are not the experts.
Therefore, they surround themselves with experts. Most notably, there is the “Outbreak Management Team” (OMT) consisting of various specialists advising the government. Their recommendations are generally embraced and implemented. There is also the unofficial “Red Team,” which was formed by criticasters of the OMT and the government, to get a more balanced view. There recommendations are taken seriously as well.
Next to these central teams, there are also 25 decentralized “Security Regions,” consisting of mayors of the largest cities in these regions. The central government regularly meets them and asks for their experiences and advices. Furthermore, the government regularly organizes informal (online) discussion sessions with various groups of people to also stay directly in touch with citizens.
While medical specialists and virologists are well-represented in these various teams, the body of expertise that government relies on is more multidisciplinary than that. For example, they also asks for advice from economists, psychologists, and sociologists, to be able to approach the Covid-19 crisis in a multidisciplinary manner.
Principle 3: Treat people as responsible adults
Perhaps the largest difference between the Dutch approach and the style of crisis leadership in other countries, is that the Dutch government generally advises rather than tells its people what to do. Together with Principle 2, this shows that the consensus-based “polder model” remains in tact: there is a dialogue in which government assumes people are intelligent, responsible adults that will act appropriately when they know the facts.
Along these lines, there has not been a formal lock-down so far; people were always allowed to go outside without a permit; the military played no significant role in maintaining order; and face masks are still only “strongly recommended”—not obliged.
Treating people as responsible adults also means that Mark Rutte and Hugo de Jonge keep on emphasizing that it is people’s behavior that can stop the corona virus—not legislation, formal measures, or politicians. And while emphasizing that, they keep on pointing at everyone’s responsibilities toward others—especially toward weaker and older citizens.
Principle 4: Communicate often and at predictable intervals
Treating people as responsible adults requires frequent communication. Because, if law and order are not seen as the solution, people need to know what kind of behavior is expected from them.
Since the start of the crisis around March, the main way of communicating have been press conferences on Tuesday evenings, at 7PM. While the press conferences are not held every week or other fixed intervals, their intervals are predictable. At every press conference, the next one is announced already. Occasionally, extra press conferences are held, but this creates a predictable rhythm that makes that people know what to expect.
Equally predictable is that one or two days before a press conference, the main news is already leaking. In this way, the media and the people already know what to expect so that they are not taken by surprise.
Finally, also the format is virtually always the same: Mark Rutte and Hugo de Jonge standing next to each other with a sign language interpreter in between. Mark Rutte always starts, and after a while gives the word to Hugo de Jonge. And after 20 minutes or so, there is time for questions by the media.
Principle 5. Communicate clearly and richly
It is not only relevant to see how much and how often communication takes place, but also what and how is communicated. Again, the basis is treating people as responsible adults. This means first and foremost explaining clearly what will be done, what will not be done, and why.
In giving such explanations, Rutte en De Jonge are trying to be as transparent as they reasonably can, going at length to explain how a virus works, what kind of information is included in the “Corona dashboard” on which they base their decisions, and what kind of measures will be taken over the next few weeks. And they also go at length explaining which measures they don’t take and why—because people may expect or anticipate certain measures when they look at other countries.
One of the returning elements in every press conference is praising people for their behavior. When things generally go well, the praise is addressed at people in general, and when there is a specific group that behaves well, this group is praised and used as example. Along with that, there is also repeated attention to people’s emotions, showing awareness of the stress and uncertainty that many people experience.
Finally, an important part of the way of communicating is to use phrases and words that are easily remembered. Examples are “1.5 meter economy,” “intelligent lock-down,” “we may be done with corona, but corona isn’t done with us,” and the aforementioned “Corona dashboard.” In this way, a new jargon is created that enables discussion and dialogue about the crisis and that makes what was said stick.
Principle 6. Hold back as long as possible
The last, and probably most criticized principle of the Dutch approach to the Covid-19 crisis is to under-react rather than over-react. Compared to many other countries, the Dutch government is hesitant in taking actions that could have significant negative effects on the economy, on privacy, or on any other non-medical aspects of society. They only do what they assume is necessary and not before it is absolutely necessary.
This shows there is no thirst for action; no urge to show one’s power and vigor. Or, as far as this thirst is there, it is contained and not acted upon. Some find this weak and a sign of indecisiveness, arguing that the Dutch government responds too late and too little, thereby creating more harm.
But it does match the other principles. It shows a certain calmness and a trust in the ability of people to behave as intelligent and responsible adults. It also makes that the government always keeps on having something up their sleeve. By taking modest measures, there are always stronger actions in reserve. Every now and then, Rutte and De Jonge refer to this when arguing that they will do “whatever it takes” to reduce the number of people that are infected. This mild threat should urge people enough to do what is required so that enforcing it will never be needed.
In sum, the Dutch approach to crisis leadership that has emerged over the past few months is one characterized by modesty and a genuine believe in people’s ability to do what is best for themselves and others.
Is it a perfect approach? Not at all. Like in many other countries, corona goes up and down. And like in many other countries, there is unrest and dissatisfaction, and conspiracy theories are blooming. Furthermore, there is a lot of criticism on all six principles. Some find the kind of leadership weak, others find it harmful, and still others criticize the government for indecisiveness and confusing or even misleading communication. But such criticism can be expected in a time where people are anxious, uncertain, and angry.
Treating people as responsible adults doesn’t always work. While it turned out to be reasonably effective during the first wave, people’s willingness to keep social distancing alive has substantially declined during the second wave. So, maybe there is a limit to this style of leadership.
But considering that, overall, the Netherlands doesn’t seem to be doing worse or better than other countries in terms of containing the effects of Covid-19, I am glad with this style of leadership. All things together, I prefer leaders that stay calm and optimistic, rely on layers of expertise, treat people as responsible adults, communicate often and at predicable intervals, communicate clearly and richly, and that hold back as long as possible.
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