Rethinking Leadership - what can we learn from Jacinda?

What is it about NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Adern that captures the imagination of so many who admire her, and, most importantly, what can we learn from her about how to lead in the 21stCentury?

It’s not often that I admire politicians, or even get a bit of a crush. I have to confess, that I was a bit of a fan girl when it came to Obama but since then I’ve become increasingly disillusioned with the state of leadership around the world as we’ve seen a rise in populism, and a form of leadership that, to me at least, appears toxic; reverting to what I had hoped amounted to out-dated notions of the heroic leader, the ‘strong man’.

So, it seemed like a little ray of much needed hope when I heard that New Zealanders had voted Jacinda Arden into her second stint as PM; three years ago she needed a coalition in order to form a government, this time she won a landslide, her leadership through a series of crises gaining her the trust and confidence of swathes of the population. NZ is a small country but in recent years it has managed to capture the attention of the world, partly due to its magnificent landscape providing the backdrop to some major films and TV shows. Sadly, NZ has also garnered attention for some of the wrong reasons; earthquakes, an horrific terrorist attack, and a deadly volcano explosion. And most recently this small nation state has been noted for its hard-line response to Covid-19: a swift and severe lockdown of its borders, and what I can only describe as a zero tolerance response to cases, resulting in the near elimination of Covid in the country; this is, of course, in stark contrast to much of the Western world where Covid continues to wreak havoc, either through its first or second wave.

I trawled articles about Jacinda to see what words commentators use to describe her. Oddly enough, most of those words are NOT the ones that we generally associate with leadership; instead, I stumbled across words such as compassion, instinctive, inclusivity, healing, honesty, embracing, uniting, empathy, kindness, straightness, and warmth. Helen Clarke, New Zealand’s PM from 1999 – 2008 is cited as saying: people feel that Adern doesn’t preach at them; she’s standing with them; They even think ‘well I don’t quite understand why the government did that, but I know she’s got our back’. This suggests that people trust her and have confidence in her decision-making, even if they don’t always agree with her.

But Adern’s style is not just about the warm and fuzzies. You don't rise to the top of the Labour Party at such a young age without ambition and drive and good political skills; this woman is no push over. She is also described as concise, direct, agile, clear, focused, and determined. She manages people’s expectations. She communicates clearly, openly, and often. People see her as capable and competent.

There is often a tendency to attribute traits such as warmth, empathy, and kindness to the feminine; in doing so, I think there is the risk of consigning these traits to the 'unhelpful' bin in leadership, in favour of more masculine traits. What Adern demonstrates is that it is possible to be a leader at the highest level and embrace strength with empathy, kindness with clarity, determination with instinct, warmth with focus. Furthermore, I challenge any notion that these are particularly ‘feminine’ traits; for starters, I have experienced plenty of female colleagues and leaders in my time who do not fit these characteristics, and plenty of male colleagues and leaders who do. For me, they are human traits, and traits that we are in desperate need of, in an increasingly divisive, disjointed, self-absorbed, and competitive world.

The other word that used a lot in relation to Ardern is ‘authentic’. The notion of authentic leadership is often wildly misunderstood; based on the Greek maxim ‘know thyself’ it is often argued that to be authentic in a leadership role involves being ‘straight up’, being in touch with your own values, telling it as it is. Authentic leaders are said to have a strong moral compass, acting on their values and doing what they feel is right. My nervousness around this narrow definition of authentic leadership is that how you perceive an authentic leader may depend on your own personal moral compass – if it’s aligned with yours, fantastic. You could argue, on that basis, that Donald Trump embraces authentic leadership, yet many who don’t share his political leanings would fundamentally disagree. Perhaps what is often missing from the narrative around authentic leadership is the nuance and a deeper understanding; authentic leaders are thought to put the needs of the collective before the needs of the individual and of themselves; to understand and appreciate their own biases and strive to see things from multiple viewpoints, respecting different perspectives before forming opinions or making decisions; and perhaps most importantly, authentic leaders are thought to cultivate open and honest relationships through active self-disclosure and the display of vulnerability. I liken this aspect of authenticity to the foundation of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team; the notion that people engagement and commitment is more likely to be formed when members of the team build trust through shared vulnerability.

In my work, I coach a lot of leaders and managers at varying stages of their career; it is not uncommon to find that they have grown up with a distorted and unhelpful perspective on leadership that results in them questioning their own suitability to lead. As such, they often have a sense that they need to shed themselves of feeling, of compassion, of empathy, and instead embrace ruthlessness. Yet this flies in the face of the reality; for example research by Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger (2013) found that those leaders who were able to combine competence and warmth were far more likely to influence and gain the trust and confidence of their staff, than those who were simply competent. What I always encourage my coachees to do is to build competence in their field, and get in touch with their passions – discover what makes them tick – and then to develop their own style, one that is true to who they are, one that fully embraces their humanity, and one that makes space for some humility.

What is apparent is that Adern is definitely walking her own path and - hopefully - setting a template for leadership that breaks with tradition; less of the 'strong man' heroic leadership of the past, towards a more empowering, embracing, human centred form of leadership that encourages people to stand together, whilst offering realistic hope and encouragement.

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