How Jacinda Ardern Sets a New Global Benchmark for Leadership and Why We Should Pay Attention

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.”  Jacinda Ardern

There is so much written and discussed about what good leadership is.

Ultimately though, whatever the context, leadership is as leadership does.    And nothing demonstrated this as well as the authentic and emotionally intelligent leadership of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern the last few weeks.

In the wake of the horrendous terrorist act and the massacre of 50 people innocently going about their daily life which at that moment was praying at their local mosques, one thing that did shine through and united us was the inspirational leadership of our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

What happened that Friday fifteenth of March left New Zealanders feeling shocked, personally and nationally attacked and moved beyond words, “How could this happen here?”

Our unsuspecting little paradise at the bottom of the world had been subjected to the horrors that other countries had endured many times and we had now lost that innocence. We were in a state of pure disbelief.

During these dark days of shock, unfathomable loss and despair, Jacinda Arden’s vision, values and genuine words of comfort and connection pulled everyone together.

So, what made our PM’s leadership stand out and touch so many?  This even more so in the current global context where some other leaders are driving and deepening the fears and divisions based on “us and them.”

Here are some of the signature strengths, qualities and values that she embodied in the handling of this tragedy which got the attention of people globally:

  • Empathy– She felt and connected with the pain of the victim’s families along with the Christchurch residents who had already been through so much already with the earthquakes along with New Zealand’s pain. These were not just empty words. The image of her giving comfort as she hugged a victim’s family member with a boy in her arms still resonates powerfully.
  • Compassion– Her kind, compassionate and “ego-less” approach to handling this terrorist attack has reverberated through the entire world. Her authentic approach conveys heart and care.  It is such a refresher from how politicians generally act and speak.
  • Fronting up– The PM availed herself and was on the ground the very next day meeting the families in their sorrow. This was followed up with further visits including mosques and vigils in other cities as well.
  • Cross-cultural awareness and sensitivity– She put on a hijab like it was second nature – a respectful singular act which spoke volumes; the image reverberating across the globe including being projected on to the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world in United Arab Emirates.
  • Decisiveness– She acted fast and almost within 48 hours she had declared that there was going to be a ban on the semi-automatic rifles which the terrorist had used. She later announced that a Royal Commission of inquiry was to be held about how the intelligence and security agencies had handled the situation leading to the events.
  • Composure, dignity and grace– She demonstrated grave sorrow while at the same time remaining calm and composed. At the National Remembrance Day today, with over 25,000 attendees, she spontaneously received a standing ovation.
  • Values based leadership Integrity– A very important point is that all of her above responses and behaviours did not that just get “turned on” but remain a true reflection of her authentic leadership. That is who she fundamentally is – she leads with her core values that she believes and lives by.
  • Vulnerability – She was not afraid to show her vulnerability – her sense of devastation and deep loss and being moved close to tears on occasions.Her face with the hijab said it all.  When asked by a student at a Christchurch school how she was feeling, her response was, “I’m very sad.”
  • Language– The PM used words that were inclusive, comforting and also clear. Her powerful speech included the following  … “This is not us. Many of those affected will be members of our migrant communities — New Zealand is their home — they are us. The terrorist is not us. He chose us but we did not choose him. You will never hear me mention his name.”  Powerful stuff that pulled us together and united us.

Through it all, Jacinda Ardern has highlighted a new blueprint for leadership – that leadership and politics can be done differently.

That care, compassion and kindness can be strongly partnered with strength, decisiveness and unity.

She has set a new benchmark for leaders everywhere to re-think things and step out of the fixed mind-set of “business as usual.”  Will others follow?

Here’s  one  analysis which  lays out the necessary  steps. It’s from  Guardian writer  Suzanne Moore who wrote:

Ardern has moulded a different consensus, demonstrating action, care, unity. Terrorism sees difference and wants to annihilate it. Ardern sees difference and wants to respect it, embrace it and connect with it. 

Here is an agnostic showing that love will dismantle hate. This is leadership, this light she shines, guiding us though to a world where we see the best of us as well as the worst.


Image: The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern speaking at the National Remembrance Day in Christchurch on 29 March, 2019.

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