The Rt. Hon. Jacinda Ardern, by Tracey Groves, CEO, Intelligent Ethics and Visiting Fellow, IDEA Centre, University of Leeds
On the 19th January 2023, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, delivered an unexpected resignation announcement. At the same time, she confirmed a national election for the following October.
She stated “It’s time……I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility – the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”
The announcement sent shock waves around the world. Questions were raised about the timing of Ardern’s announcement. What were the true reasons behind her departure? Given her impressive leadership track record, why would Ardern quit? How could she do this at a time when her party needs her? The politics of her decision are confounding. Labour MPs and many supporters are angry given the party faces a very steep climb in the upcoming election. Inflation, high interest rates, and a likely recession would make that the case for any incumbent government.
But let’s remember, Ardern is also a human being as well as a political leader. What normal person hasn’t taken a summer holiday, as she just has, and not wanted to return to work? Would you pick a whole year ahead of working 18-hour days fighting an election you will most likely lose, when you also have a child about to start school and a fiancé you would like to marry? Political figures also believe that abuse may well have contributed to the Prime Minister’s resignation. Over the past year, Ardern has faced a significant increase in threats of violence, particularly from conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine groups, infuriated by the country’s vaccine mandates and lockdowns.
For us to begin to understand Ardern’s decision and why the impact has been felt so keenly, we need to learn more about her leadership style. What type of leader has Ardern been,what are her leadership attributes, and why has her resignation spurred such a high profile reaction?
When she was elected prime minister in 2017 at age 37, Ardern became the world’s youngest female head of government. Her leadership was dominated by her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but she also led New Zealand through major disasters including the terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch, and the White Island volcanic eruption.
She became something of a global celebrity for her crisis management skills, but more recently her domestic popularity has waned. Over the past year, her party’s polling slumped amid concerns about the cost of living, the economy, and crime. Hence the political timing of her departure is not easily reconciled. Some followers will see her as Labour’s greatest post-war leader – a strong leader through a succession of crises who also gave the party its largest win in decades. Others will say she leaves the party in a far worse shape to fight this election than it would have been under her continued leadership.
The motivation behind Ardern’s departure is explicit in her resignation statement. She says “I am human, politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.” Ardern said she had reflected over the summer break on whether she had the energy to continue in the role, and concluded she did not.
This ‘humanness’, or humanity, which Ardern showed throughout her premiership is what stands out, together with her belief and strong conviction that kindness, empathy and compassion in a leader are critical leadership strengths, not weaknesses. Ardern was not afraid to show her humanity. Even during her first term as Prime Minister, which was defined by crisis after crisis, she showed her human side. Less than 2 years after Ardern assumed office, the Christchurch Mosque terrorist attacks shook the country. These attacks led to the deaths of many innocent worshippers who had gone to the mosques that day. Ardern’s response to this crisis was swift and strong, banning assault-style weapons in New Zealand within a month of these attacks. It is not only her empathy, but her decisiveness in responding to these type of crises, that won admiration.
Let’s reflect on this for a moment. Why should showing your human side as a leader be admirable? Why wouldn’t we want our leaders to be kind, to show care and concern for others, as a matter of course?
If we look back over the 20th century, leaders have risen to power by projecting traditionally masculine qualities like aggression and stubbornness to dominate their opposition. Leaders of this century towered over their opponents and condemned vulnerability. Vulnerability is often perceived as weakness, drawing on the idea that if one is seen as weak, then one cannot be an effective leader. Being labelled as a “weak” person is a blow to one’s dignity that you seek to avoid, leading many politicians to embrace traditionally masculine and aggressive qualities. While the discussion around vulnerability has progressed to where it can be seen as a sign of leadership maturity and strength, many leaders still look to embrace the archetype of a strong, masculine leader as the right one.
This model has faced a huge challenge from the leadership of Jacinda Ardern. She is a shining example of a new era of leadership, where leaders are authentic, empathetic, and bold. And, to top it all, Ardern was a canny political operator as well as a charismatic leader.
Her magnetism enabled her to translate her strong political instincts into empathy and humour that we, as fellow human beings, could all relate to. How did she do this? Through her highly effective communication skills. Ardern articulated her plans and solutions for problems to her citizens, whether that was through her COVID-19 press conferences or social media live streams. She told people what was going to happen and the reasons for her decisions, so that New Zealanders understood what she was doing and why she was doing it. This kind of communication demonstrated that she wanted people to be involved, feel engaged, and that they had a role in the political process. Ardern also wanted them to understand how she felt about situations, conveying her emotions about certain issues and situations through her transparency of reactions and responses.
Throughout Ardern’s messaging, she was able to convey that her decisions are based on choices that she believed to be right and ethical. She was open to talking about how intuition and values affect the decisions she makes. Admitting that leadership decisions can be based on morals and emotions is not a common leadership characteristic. Emotions have been traditionally seen as weak leadership characteristics and perceived to make you vulnerable. But Ardern proved, time and time again, that using emotions in critical decision-making can lead to stronger and more popular decisions.
Whilst the definition of what a leader should look like has changed over the last few decades, many still believe leaders should be masculine in their actions and beliefs. Society has consistently looked at traditionally masculine qualities as the epitome of what a leader should be, often labelling capable leaders with more feminine or non-masculine qualities as too weak or fragile.
Ardern embraced leadership qualities that were both traditionally masculine and feminine, rejecting the premise that leaders must be masculine by nature. Instead of being an aggressive leader, Ardern listened to who she represented and communicated her decisions with values and empathy in mind. At the same time, she was a leader who was still strong enough to take potentially controversial and decisive action. Ardern’s active choice to embrace empathy, morality, and openness, traditionally feminine qualities, is what makes her a perfect example of what the leaders of the future should be like.
When announcing her resignation, Ardern was asked how she would like New Zealanders to remember her leadership. “As someone who always tried to be kind”. She went on to say “I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader – one who knows when it’s time to go.”
And with these words, Ardern shines a light on her unique leadership qualities and her true legacy as only she could do – with intellect, strength, empathy and insight.