Jacinda Ardern’s leadership: Empathy and Authenticity can make a Leader World-Beater

  • Leaders of nations like New Zealand, Germany, Finland and Taiwan have done much better in handling the Covid-19 outbreak than some of their more celebrated male counterparts in countries like the US, UK or Russia. And of these leaders, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been special in her leadership style.
Jacinda Ardern’s leadership: Empathy and authenticity can make a leader world-beater
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The fact I’m the third female Prime Minister, I never grew up believing my gender would stand in the way of doing anything I wanted. Jacinda Ardern

As the world continues to battle the coronavirus pandemic and majority of countries face the same challenge of protecting their citizens from the disease, some have come up with a better performance in tackling the crisis and it is not a coincidence that they are led by women. Leaders of nations like New Zealand, Germany, Finland and Taiwan have done much better in handling the Covid-19 outbreak than some of their more celebrated male counterparts in countries like the US, UK or Russia. And of these leaders, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been special in her leadership style.   

Ardern, who became the island-nation’s 40th prime minister in October 2017 when she was only 37. The Labour Party leader became the youngest woman to lead a government and in nearly three years since coming to office, she has already proved herself to be an effective leader, especially in times of crises. 

To take for example, Ardern’s approach in fighting the coronavirus pandemic was cautious. Ardern addressed her fellow New Zealanders in a casual Facebook Live session that she held on her phone after putting her two-year-old daughter to sleep. She dressed in a cozy-looking sweatshirt and spoke to the citizens in a tone of empathy and apologized for having surprised people with the emergency lockdown alert on March 25. 

“There’s no way to send out those emergency civil alerts on your phones with anything other than the loud honk that you heard,” Ardern said, adding: “That was actually something we all discussed: Was there a way that we could send that message that wasn’t so alarming?” When we compare how leaders like President Donald Trump spoke several times in the wake of the pandemic which has paralyzed the country, Ardern’s words seem to be more humane and effective. There was no sense of attacking others or underplaying the crisis.  

Earlier in June, NZ was declared a Covid-19-free nation while many bigger nations in the world are still clueless about what lies in the future. It is true that NZ has a much lesser population than say countries like the US, Russia or India, but that is not to belittle the leadership that Ardern offered to get her country out of trouble. New Zealand has just over 1,500 cases of coronavirus positive and 22 deaths.  

An elated Ardern told the media that she did “a little dance” when she was informed that NZ had no active virus cases any longer. She also aired caution that people should not become too complacent and the next task was to rebuild the economy which has been hit by the virus. The balanced approach that Ardern displayed speaks volume about her leadership qualities.  

“While the job is not done, there is no denying this is a milestone. So, can I finish with a very simple, ‘Thank you, New Zealand’,” she said. Even Ardern’s biggest critics would be proud of the Kiwi premier.  

Jacinda Ardern’s remarkable leadership after the Christchurch terror attacks 

The ongoing pandemic is not the only time that Ardern has shown exemplary leadership. After the devastating terror attacks at a couple of mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019, Ardern came up with a response which, according to analysts, revolutionized the response mechanism and won hearts worldwide. Instead of hunting down the perpetrators and adding fuel to political battles that have already been drawn worldwide, Ardern came up with something unique. She said: “Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand; they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand. There is no place in New Zealand for such acts of extreme and unprecedented violence.”  

Ardern surprised people more by wearing a headscarf to comfort Muslim mourners and even cried. Her government offered to support the victims’ funeral expenses, irrespective of their immigration status. But even as she showed her softer side, she did not forget her administrative role. She pushed new gun-control measures through parliament as well to put a ban on using military-type assault weapons in her country which is deemed peaceful. Even anti-gun activists in the US, which is often troubled by gun violence, questioned whether it could imitate New Zealand’s way.  

The empathetic woman in Ardern has come to the fore on other occasions too. She is one who became only the second head of government to give birth in office after Pakistan’s late former premier Benazir Bhutto. She welcomed her daughter Neve with her partner Clarke Gayford who is a celebrated television fisherman. Ardern went to maternity leave while serving and returned to work after six weeks. In a world where women leaders are still in a hopeless minority, Ardern definitely is a woman who led the way in her own terms.  

Born in Hamilton in July 1980 (she will turn 40 next month) to a police officer and school-catering assistant, Ardern is one who never stops short of standing up for humanitarian causes — be it in support of women or children or victims of natural disasters like climate change or volcanic eruptions. She has said openly that it is also important to possess qualities like kindness and empathy.  

“I think one of the sad things that I’ve seen in political leadership is – because we’ve placed over time so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength – that we probably have assumed that it means you can’t have those other qualities of kindness and empathy. And yet, when you think about all the big challenges that we face in the world, that’s probably the quality we need the most,” The Guardian said about her saying. 

Analyzing Ardern’s leadership
One aspect of Ardern’s composed character was evident when she faced an earthquake during a live television interview in Wellington in May. “We’re fine,” she said, making it clear that she cares about her image as a leader. From the above examples, we have seen that Ardern is a woman of composure and self-discipline who is empathetic and leads from the front. But what really makes her different from the rest is her genuineness. According to Helen Clark, also a former woman prime minister of New Zealand, her successor is a natural communicator who always conveys the message to people that she is always standing with them. It is because of her authentic communication and the empathetic nature that Ardern wins people’s trust and that helps her as an administrator.

She is not a self-serving leader and doesn’t use her authenticity as a political mantra but attaches true significance to their deep values, even when facing odds. Such leaders also have a realistic understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, and this helps them to fathom the impact that their leadership has on people. Leaders like Ardern make it easier to unify people with their empathetic and deep-from-heart messages. They also leave an influence on other leaders who face comparison and are compelled to improve their own performances (just as Ardern’s Australian counterpart Scott Morrison who faced an incomparable comparison with the former after his government’s response to the bushfire catastrophe earlier this year).  

Like Ardern, who is running a government with able hands, her leadership qualities can be an asset for one who is leading a business venture. In a world where positive leadership is increasingly becoming rare, Ardern is a live example for all those women who aspire to establish themselves in a leadership role in various walks of life. 

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