Jacinda Ardern, 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand and leader of the Labour Party since 2017, is proudly a self-identified, empathy-driven politician. Ardern’s distinct style of leadership sets her apart, not only from her male peers, but also from notable female leaders in history who achieved power through playing the ‘guy’s game’.
Jacinda’s Ascent In Politics
Born the daughter of a police officer and a school catering assistant, Ardern grew up as a Mormon and studied a Communications degree in Politics and Public Relations. After graduating, she was introduced to politics by her aunt and spent some time working as a researcher in the offices of Phil Goff and Helen Clark, both NZ politicians. Ardern joined the Labour party at the age of 17, before spending some time in London as a senior policy advisor under Tony Blair, the then-British prime-minister. Unlike a lot of teens, Ardern didn’t shy away from politics, she instead sought experience and opportunities that aligned with her passion and interest in the field. This helps explain how she managed to become New Zealand prime minister at the young age of 37.
Her Challenges as a Leader, Especially as a Young Female PM
Both men and women judge female leaders harshly, and after entering office as NZ prime minister in 2017, all eyes have been on Ardern and the media has watched her every move. Despite this, Ardern’s three years so far have been marked by promising change: she appointed the most diverse cabinet New Zealand has ever seen, including a Maori woman as foreign minister.
In 2018 Ardern became the first NZ prime minister to march in a pride parade, this was the same month she gave birth to a baby girl, before returning to work six weeks later.
Ardern’s time in office has seen an earthquake, a terrorist attack, and a pandemic, and in each scenario Ardern rose to the occasion with calmness and strategic action.
Following the Christchurch shootings in March 2019, Ardern acted rapidly and sensitively to prevent future attacks. She passed legislation to ban semi-automatic weapons, saying “these weapons were designed to kill, and they were designed to maim and that is what they did on the 15th March”.
Finally, in March 2020, Ardern passed a bill decriminalising abortion, changing a law that had been in force since 1977. And following the COVID-19 that swept 2020, Ardern has taken a 20% pay cut along with her cabinet for 6 months to show support in action for those economically affected by the pandemic.
Ardern moves fast, and unlike many politicians her words find swift reinforcement in her actions. In very little time she has achieved significant change – something other leaders haven’t done in decades. This has propelled her rise to the global stage and marked her as a leader that others (men) could learn from.
She answers her office phone personally
She Shows the World How She Leads
It takes courage to be different, and Ardern’s kindness-driven leadership style has attracted much scrutiny, particularly as a female leader. The fact that Ardern had been the leader of New Zealand’s Labour party for less than 24 hours when she was asked whether she felt a woman could have both a baby and a high-powered career, speaks volumes on the gender biases still rampant in politics and other male-dominated sectors.
Like every leader, Ardern’s term has had its lows, but unlike every leader, Ardern has dealt with harsh criticism from men and women alike because of her gender. Ardern has been criticised for failing to fire on KiwiBuild, a plan to build 100,000 houses in 10 years in collaboration with the private sector. Critics have said her government over-promised and under-performed in this area.
In September 2019, Ardern’s Labour party image was rocked when serious sexual assault allegations emerged from within the party. The alleged victim claimed the Labour party ignored her numerous official complaints about the issue. Ardern was accused of letting down sexual assault survivors who had trusted her to champion their rights. This scandal put huge pressure on Ardern to redeem her party’s image.
To critics of Ardern’s leadership style, the lows of Ardern’s term in office are read jubilantly as proof of the inefficiency of empathy-driven leadership. Or – to take matters ad hominem – as proof of the incompetence of women as leaders. This is a hopelessly one-sided reading. Considering the bar for other (male) leaders, Ardern is held to extremely high standards. It is by comparing her trajectory with that of her contemporaries that her achievements can be viewed in the realistic ‘light of day’.
Despite obstacles, Ardern’s recent election numbers shout her undiminished success. This October, Ardern’s party won a landslide election victory, securing the highest percentage of the vote in more than five decades and claiming 64 seats in parliament. Should Ardern have chosen, this feat allowed Labour to govern the country alone.
She said she's not a superwoman
The Secrets to Ardern Success
One of the secrets to Ardern’s success is her empathetic approach to politics, that emphasises the fact that, despite differences, humans are far more similar than they are different. The strength of this approach comes hugely from the fact that this is a very hard point to dispute. And while politicians before her have sought a similar angle, Ardern’s actions reinforce her words in a way that has won her huge loyalty and political sway.
Ardern’s approach is very action-centred - this is after all, someone who left the Mormon faith because it conflicted with her support of LGBTQ rights. Her personal branding is almost impeccably consistent as a result, and this gives her huge leverage over her political opponents. This is the second secret to Ardern’s success: powerful personal branding. Ardern knows what she stands for and why. Through words and actions she is always tracing a golden thread of shared humanity between all peoples. Her crystal-clear communication enables her supporters to algin with her and carry her to landslide election victory.
Finally, Ardern’s support group has enabled her success in more ways than are visible. Ardern herself has been vocal on how her partner, Clarke Grayford, has enabled her to simultaneously have a high-powered career and a baby. She told Financial Times that, “The only reason that I can do what I’m doing is because my partner has the ability to be a pretty much full-time carer. So I don’t want to appear to be a superwoman because we should not expect women to be superwomen.” It is safe to say that Ardern made a wise choice of partner, and this has helped enable her to get as far as she has.
She takes selfies with people.
Ardern’s success is the product of:
- Leading with empathy and taking a people-centric approach. Ardern has realised that a woman who competes in a male-dominated world does not have to leave empathy at the door. Ardern is very people-centric, not status-centric. Often ambitious women make decisions and build relationships from a status-centric perspective, having been pushed into this habit since their way to the top is so fraught. It is through forging genuine relationships and connections with those she leads, that she has established herself as a leader that thinks beyond herself.
- Consistent personal branding. Ardern’s personal branding is a model of consistency. Let your actions reinforce your words, and remember that consistency communicates authenticity, authenticity wins trust, and trust drive business and influence.
- Support group. Ardern’s smart choice of partner helped propel her success by enabling her to be both a mother and a prime minister. Keep your support group close and don’t underestimate how far they can help you.
- Unwavering vision. Finally, Ardern took steps early on to choose experiences that aligned with her vision and mission in life. From an early age, Ardern has been restlessly proactive in taking steps towards her goals. Jacinda’s record-breaking career trajectory shows that no doors are closed to a woman determined to succeed.
She's on social media
Article: By Bridget Chin, Writer & Artist, Lead Contributor for Wifa Global, living in London, UK.
Image credits: Jacinda Ardern's Facebook & Instagram
Title image (background): Aaron Sebastian on Unsplash