5 Lessons on Leadership From New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
When you look at the timeline of human history, you observe that it’s only relatively recently that women were allowed access to the spheres of education, commerce and politics. It’s no surprise, therefore, that our role models for leadership were molded to distinctly "masculine" characteristics — competition, assertiveness, achievement.
In order to succeed as leaders, women have tended to adopt these masculine traits. The successful female leaders we recall — the ones who "get stuff done" — are often the ones with a singular focus, a desire to win, the ones who want to be seen as high achievers. The Superwomen.
Comic female superheroes exude the same masculine energy as their male counterparts. They fight, they are physically strong and they succeed by dominating. They are also drawn with the physical traits of the other female stereotype we associate with power and influence: the woman who uses sex as power.
However, more recently we have seen the emergence of a third example of female power. One that draws on more "feminine" characteristics — modesty, compassion, empathy. This is what I call soft power, and it's exemplified by New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
Finding the right energy
Before we look at the characteristics of soft power, I want to be clear that this is not an argument about what type of energy — masculine or feminine — is best for leadership. That's a question for individual leaders. Only you can decide what energy you need to evoke in your leadership, and when. There will be times when you need masculine energy to power through a particular challenge, and there will be times when soft power is more appropriate.
I founded my company to empower, support and encourage women to step into leadership, and to advocate for a greater understanding and appreciation of soft power. I believe — and the evidence on burnout and stress bear this out — that we are currently missing out on a rich talent pool because the masculine role model of leadership burns a lot of people, particularly women, out.
The 5 C’s of soft power
The hallmarks of soft power are collaboration and collectivism. Facilitating collaboration requires a leader to be courageous, connected, compassionate, clear and creative.
A courageous leader leads by example. Dedicated, involved, quick to act, they lead through championing their cause and participation.
A connected leader looks after their own wellbeing and that of others. They lead through invitation and appreciation.
A compassionate leader is patient and kind, always looking to bring out the best in others. They lead through love and encouragement.
A clear leader is comfortable and certain of themselves. With a clear vision of what they want for their colleagues, customers, family and friends, they lead through vision and inspiration.
A creative leader is innovative, curious and able to facilitate transformation. They lead through faith and wisdom.
The 5 C’s of Jacinda Ardern
It takes a certain degree of courage to lock down your country and close its borders. But it takes a different type of courage to announce a national lockdown and then go on Facebook Live — fresh from (and still dressed for) bathing your toddler and putting them to bed — to answer questions about the new restrictions.
In that one Facebook Live from her home, Ardern did two things: First, she showed that she was as involved and as affected by the lockdown as everyone else, explaining that she wanted to "check in with everyone as we prepare to hunker down for a few weeks." Secondly, she showed that she was as dedicated to the people of New Zealand as she was to her young daughter.
One thing that has consistently impressed me about Ardern is how she uses language to connect with others. Approaching the end of lockdown in May 2020, she thanked her “team of five million” for the sacrifices they had made to protect the country's most vulnerable.
In her election acceptance speech last October, she used "we" 30 times and "I" only six times — three times to thank people and the other three times to say "hope, believe and promise." There’s no "I" in Ardern’s team; she is a leader who leads from collaboration and connection, not individualism.
I remember the feelings of revulsion, grief and huge sympathy that came over me when news of the March 2019 New Zealand mosque shootings first broke. Ardern's reactions to the shootings instantly impressed me: She wore a hijab, and then addressed Parliament with an Arabic greeting, all while under the lens of a Western media arguably tinged with Islamophobic sentiment. It was an incredible demonstration of compassion.
"Be Strong, Be Kind" is more than an election slogan for Ardern, it's a way of being. When she hugged first responders after a volcano eruption on White Island killed 21 people, no one suggested it was just for the cameras. Similarly, when she announced she would take a 20% pay cut to her salary in recognition of the financial impact the pandemic was having on people’s incomes, no one said it was a publicity stunt. Her concern for the wellbeing of others is obvious, and it is earning her widespread appreciation at home and abroad.
Prime Minister Ardern has been clear and consistent in her Covid-19 strategy, “go hard and go early”. Border closures and a system of alert levels and associated restrictions were introduced within three weeks of New Zealand’s first Covid case being identified. Just over two months after the country entered full lockdown, all restrictions were eased, and by June 2020 sports fans were back in stadiums.
Throughout Ardern has not tried to sugar-coat how challenging and difficult the response would be, but when asked early on in the pandemic if she was scared, she replied “No, because we have a plan." Her resolute clarity was one reason why voters re-elected her by a landslide in last year’s general election and gave New Zealand its first majority government in more than 25 years.
Creativity in leaders can be misunderstood. People think it means having endless new ideas and initiatives, but really it’s the ability to facilitate change by questioning, listening and responding. Ardern wasn’t the only international leader who didn’t know how to handle a global pandemic. But unlike some of her peers, she didn’t attempt to downplay the threat. Instead, she quickly sought the advice of epidemiologists and then acted on it decisively.
In the case of the 2019 shootings, where other leaders might have focused on the specifics of the attack, Ardern’s response was to frame the shootings not as an attack on Muslims, but as an attack on everyone in New Zealand. "[The victims] are us," and the "perpetrator is not," she said. She vowed to never say his name and then work with parliament to ban assault and military-style weapons.
A powerful example of the strength of soft power
In addition to admiring her as a role model for soft power, I also connect with Ardern’s purpose. I founded my company because I want my children to grow up into a better world, and I believe greater diversity in leadership will help unlock that. Ardern says she got into politics because of children: She wants to transform her country for the wellbeing of children and young people.
In her first term as prime minister, she committed to halving child poverty in New Zealand by 2028. Conscious that our degrading environment will have huge consequences for future generations, she announced a ban on single-use plastic bags throughout the country. During the early days of the pandemic, she held a press conference just for children, saying they needed extra help understanding the pandemic. She followed it up days later with an announcement that the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy were essential workers and were exempt from lockdown.
Jacinda Ardern is a powerful example of the strength of soft power. As she told the New York Times in 2018: "One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong”.
Here’s to fierce compassion.