By Mohamed Harees –
Jacinda Ardern indeed is a global superstar, who won her second term as Prime Minister for her Labour Party, with an historically impressive margin over her National Party (Conservative) rivals in the recent election in New Zealand, thus setting her country on her own radical course. Ardern’s Labour now have enough votes to govern without a coalition partner – something that’s unheard of in her country. The result, which was lambasted as a “total disaster” for the opposition, was so strong it “defied logic” given New Zealand’s voting system almost always lead to coalitions. Many commentators believe this could be a high water mark for Labour. Serving as prime minister only since 2017, she has certainly made her mark on the world stage beyond Kiwi borders.
Analysts credited her effective Covid-19 pandemic strategy for saving Labour’s campaign; the success of Ardern’s handling of the pandemic was evident in the Kiwis partying shoulder-to-shoulder on election night as many countries head into another lockdown. The charismatic young leader has been tested like no other leader worldwide in the last three years. Her strong and empathetic leadership style came into prominence during the Christchurch terror attacks, then during White Island eruption, and afterwards in the on-going Covid-19 pandemic and resultant economic fallout. Her response to all of the above has been internationally feted. That popularity and international media praise, solidified her celebrity status.
She may not have a cake walk in meeting her immediate challenges to re-engage with the rest of the world, after her country remains effectively sealed off because of the pandemic and also transform international goodwill into investment for a country depending much on international tourism. But with many in other countries’ seeing her as a counterpoint to US’ Trump, Ardern will continue to exude her positive leadership image which should hopefully make her to act as a role model for leaders around the world, providing apt lessons and examples.
It is not the size of one’s chest that matters. It is the moral standing that defines one’s person. Ardern has shown that she could be small only in terms of heading a small country but she is above all in human and moral values. Her leadership was legendary. Of course, we cannot compare country to country as circumstances and situations differ. But the way its prime minister responded to crisis situations holds out lessons in leadership. In an interview to Time magazine, Ardern aptly summed up what leaders can do in times of trouble: “When voters feel powerless and disenfranchised, we can either stoke it with fear and blame, or we can respond to it by taking some responsibility and giving some hope that our democratic institutions, our politicians, actually do something about what they’re feeling.” By providing a type of leadership that combined strength, inclusivity and compassion, Ardern, prime minister of a tiny island nation, thus became an international celebrity and a model for leaders elsewhere.
In the space of less than a year, she was confronted with three grave situations — a mass shooting by an extremist in two mosques in Christchurch killing 51 people on March 15, 2019; a deadly volcano that erupted on December 9, 2019; and this global virus in early 2020.As recent as the public health crisis caused by COVID-19 it brought into sharp focus the vital importance of leadership. This pandemic crisis was of course unprecedented and each nation has devised its own strategy to tackle the dreaded virus. However, the one essential requirement to deal with and overcome any crisis was effective leadership, be it at the local, state, national or global level. In this context, the leadership displayed by Prime Minister Ardern has been exemplary. She did not indulge in blame games, but came to grips with real issues.
How Ardern dealt with the Christchurch shooting incident in particular is worth recalling. At the time the shooting took place, she was travelling in a van to visit a school in the town of New Plymouth. As soon as she was informed about the incident, what she did. was something unusual for a prime minister. She did not give instructions to any of her ministers or officers to go to the spot and deal with the situation. She asked the van to be turned back, drove to the nearest police station, and closeted herself in a room with an aide. In between calls apprising her of the developing situation, she scribbled her thoughts on a piece of paper. After an hour, she rushed to a rural hotel and with a makeshift arrangement for a broadcast, the young prime minister delivered her message to the people of her country.
As reported in the media, recalling this tragedy Ardern later said, “I just remember feeling this overwhelming sense of, here are people who have made New Zealand their home. Regardless of whether someone had been in New Zealand for a generation or whether they moved here a year ago, this was their home, and they should have been safe and they should have been able to worship here, and that was when I wrote down those words: they are us.” She further demonstrated her feelings by wearing a scarf and visiting a mosque, reassuring the Muslims in her country that she was one among them. Ardern then exhibited another trait of her strong character and conviction. She refused to reveal the name of the shooter and called a spade a spade- she referred to the killer as a terrorist without mincing her words. She also called for a meeting of heads of key European states and technology companies like Facebook and YouTube and sought their cooperation to prevent the spread of extremism and hatred online.
Ardern found the strength and understanding to give voice to a wounded nation’s horror and grief. Her address at a remembrance service in Christchurch for victims of the mosque attacks rose far above the merely dutiful. It was inspiring, consoling and defiant in equal measure. Thus, unexpectedly faced by an appalling atrocity, she showed exemplary leadership skills. Her instinct was to trust her humanity and the humanity of others. By quickly moving to meet, embrace and comfort the bereaved, by wearing the hijab, by taking swift action on gun control and by refusing to acknowledge the killer, she brought out the best in her fellow citizens. What could have become an ugly slugfest of recrimination and blame, fuelling hatred as the attacker hoped, became instead a moment when a nation came together, honoured its differences, accepted its failings and united behind a future vision of a land where bigotry and racism are not welcome. “The answer lies in our humanity,” Ardern said. “We each hold the power – in our words, in our actions, in our daily acts of kindness. Let that be the legacy of the 15th of March, 2019”.
Martin Luther King said genuine leaders did not search for consensus but moulded it, Suzanne Moore wrote in the British paper the Guardian: “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.” The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor wrote that “Ardern has become the face of her nation’s sorrow and grief, and its resolve”. Annabel Crabb wrote on the ABC Australia website that “having been confronted with the worst news a leader can receive… Ms Ardern has yet to put a foot wrong”. Grace Back put it simply in Marie Claire Australia: “This is what a leader looks like.”
Ardern did not pretend to have all the answers. As in other countries, ignorance, prejudice and intolerance, fomenting social division and political extremism cannot be wholly eliminated. But in confronting these evils in so compelling, uncompromising a manner, New Zealand’s prime minister set a global standard that national leaders everywhere should follow. At present, too many do the opposite, purposefully exploiting fear of the other for narrow political ends – or simply because they, too, are ignorant and prejudiced. She emerged as the progressive antithesis to right-wing strongmen like Trump, and Modi, whose careers thrive on illiberal, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric.
On December 9, 2019, New Zealand witnessed the eruption of a volcano in White Island, a tourist spot, killing nine people and injuring about 30. Ardern reached out to the affected families saying she knew “there will be a huge amount of concern and anxiety for those loved ones at the island at that time” and assured them of quick rescue and relief operations. In dealing with coronavirus, when the cases of infection started rising in her country, she declared a lockdown, with a 48-hour notice before it took effect, saying that a pandemic required “a significant and coordinated response by and across central and local governments” and for citizens to minimise their contact by self-isolation. The police and civil defence personnel were adequately empowered to ensure public safety and to regulate the flow of food, fuel and essential supplies.
The empathetic woman in Ardern also came to the fore on other occasions too. She was one who became only the second head of government to give birth in office after Pakistan’s late former premier Benazir Bhutto. She went to maternity leave while serving and returned to work after six weeks. In a world where women leaders are still in a hopeless minority, Ardern definitely is a woman who led the way in her own terms.
This charismatic Prime Minister was giving even most Western politicians and also other world leaders, a masterclass in crisis leadership. But how can we assess Ardern’s leadership in making such difficult decisions? A good place to start is with American professors Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield’s research into effective leadership communication. The Mayfields’ research-based model highlights “direction-giving”, “meaning-making” and “empathy” as the three key things leaders must address to motivate followers to give their best. Of course, not everything has been perfect in New Zealand’s or Ardern’s COVID-19 response. But, Ardern’s response to COVID-19 for example, used all three approaches. In directing New Zealanders to “stay home to save lives”, she simultaneously offers meaning and purpose to what we are being asked to do. Through her unprecedented leadership capabilities, she was able to convince her people to act for the collective good. With her strength, empathy and commitment, Arden demonstrated leadership which serves as an example for others to follow as the pandemic continues to threaten lives across the globe.
Ardern’s statesmanship, or should it be states-womanship, has thus earned her iconic status as an extraordinarily exemplary world leader. Her youth, her sincerity, her unrivalled courage in such a difficult situation, has been hailed internationally as the only way ahead, to stop violence and create global unity. The people of NZ rightly rewarded her with a well-deserved second term. In a world where positive political leadership is increasingly becoming rare, Ardern is a live example for all those leaders who aspire to unify their people with their empathetic and deep-from-heart messages. Will her leadership style and actions and the effect they had on her people, and people around the world, turn the tide? Can world leaders emulate her? Only time and sincerity of purpose will decide!