Jacinda Ardern’s rise to political power serves as a case study of someone who hasn’t compromised her personality to suit her career.
The world faces a nagging question, one that seems to gain impetus as the century progresses: Why, after decades of activism, equal employment opportunity and anti-discrimination legislation—not to mention ceaseless public debate—are there so few women in the upper echelons of leadership? It grates that while there has been change for women, so much for the better in the last half-century, corporate boardrooms are still, by and large, old boys’ clubs, peppered with the odd woman here and there. The vast majority of heads of state, too, are men.
There is a myriad of reasons for this, and an even greater number of explanations, many of them contentious. Most of these have been well-discussed.
First, a corporate and political culture steeped in masculine competitiveness, rather than consensus decision-making, means many worthy women leaders are overlooked.
Then there is the subtle marginalization in the workforce of women who choose, as a majority do, to have a family, or prioritize their children’s needs over work. Lack of familial support for women in power, which has traditionally been afforded most men, takes more out of contention, as do the often extreme, 24/7 demands of most corporate CEO and senior political posts. Women, unlike many of their male counterparts, tend to favor a balance between their professional and personal lives.
None of these could be considered definitive, and few explanations offer helpful insight. This information is useful for policymakers and activists—but less so for women seeking to fulfill their potential.
For career women, Jacinda Ardern’s rise to the summit of political life is a case study, because the challenges she has encountered are very familiar. Unlike a number of women outliers holding office, Ardern hasn’t compromised her personality to suit her career; she hasn’t become “masculinized.” Assertive and effective in politics, she invokes a style that a broad spectrum of people, of both sexes, may seek in coming generations: the strong woman—as opposed to the strongman—who embodies astuteness, along with the ability to bring opposing forces together for a greater goal.
So much the better. Seeking counsel, weighing options with others to determine the most appropriate course of action beyond the limits of one’s experience and personal conviction, doesn’t sit well with a patriarch. It may be a woman leader’s very essence, a strong suit that allows her flexibility to adapt to new or unforeseen circumstances. Absolute certainty and self-assurance could well be the ‘strongman’ politician’s weakness, rather than strength.
Although Ardern is a confident, strong woman, absolute self-assurance is not one of her character traits. This is where so many can relate to her, and learn from her rise to power. Ardern demonstrates that one doesn’t need preternatural self-possession and an absence of self-doubt to succeed. Most people struggle with confidence issues, self-doubt or anxiety. Many of us have misgivings about fulfilling our potential, as well.
Few, however, share their struggles so openly, and in public, as Ardern has done; fewer still in positions of power.
“I’m constantly anxious about making mistakes. Everything in politics feels so fragile,” she told a magazine interviewer. “I do live in constant fear of what might be,”—she says, acknowledging that her anxiety is “just who I am.” Her honesty and her frankness about such a personal issue is remarkable, almost unprecedented in politics.
At least as remarkable, in the upper echelons of public life, is Ardern’s lack of cut-throat ambition. From the time she was touted as a leadership prospect for the Labour Party and a potential prime minister, she voiced her ambivalence towards assuming office. This is hardly unusual in politics: Most politicians deny their ambitions emphatically, until the very hour of their leadership challenge. Ardern’s qualms about New Zealand’s top job, however, are sincere.
In a radio interview in June 2014, she described the prime ministership as an “awful, awful job,” and she meant it. Earlier, she had told a reporter that Helen Clark “had to give up everything” for her position—and she was not willing to do likewise. She had “no desire” to be prime minister.
Ardern’s experience of Clark’s tenure, and the strain of her mentor’s last successful election campaign in 2005, had left their mark. She describes that election year as “extraordinarily stressful.” So stressful was it that her overseas experience was as much a sabbatical as a means of broadening her horizons. She might have nurtured teenage ambitions of running the country, but her encounter with the ninth floor of the Beehive—the executive wing of the New Zealand Parliament buildings—had left her cold.
It seems she was scotching any likelihood of her becoming prime minister by talking of her anxiety—shooting her prospects in the foot, as it were. A ministerial post would be more than enough for her, she had concluded—one where she could pursue policies for the betterment of children and families.
Excerpted from Jacinda Ardern: Leading with Empathy, out June 8, 2021 from Oneworld Publications.