Jacinda Ardern: ‘Simply being human is more than enough for a leader’

In the opening keynote session of LinkedIn’s Talent Connect Summit, the ex-prime minister of New Zealand talks about how to prioritise kindness while navigating conflict and crisis

Credit: Kerry Marshall, Fonikum-DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern has been seen as something of a standard bearer during her five years as New Zealand’s prime minister. First, for her all-too-rare global status as a woman leading a nation. Then, for her age – she was just 37 when she took the job.

Ardern is also a working mother who balanced running New Zealand with caring for her child. She showed that it is possible, but also exposed many strongholds of prejudice that illustrate how much more needs to be done.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, Ardern bore the standard for compassionate and progressive leadership. And having stepped down as leader earlier this year, her vision appears not to have been blurred by her years in power. Delivering a keynote speech at LinkedIn's Talent Connect Summit at the Javits Centre in New York yesterday (3 October), she said: “The decent traits of human beings should be the decent traits of leaders.”

Ardern began her speech by urging leaders to channel the urgency that comes with knowing their role is temporary. “Nothing focuses the mind more than seeing our time and leadership as temporary, not only when getting through the hard times, which focuses your attention on making every day count,”she said, adding that the challenge in this day and age was figuring out what to do when the good times feel “relatively limited”.

Ardern also warned delegates that they lived in an era of crisis leadership, arguing that "crisis and change is our new constant" and that we should plan for and expect that “whatever agenda we have will likely be disrupted". 

She noted that she did not believe there was a distinct category of crisis leadership since: “The characteristics we should necessarily deploy in troubled times are defined by the kind of humanity" we should bring to leadership at all times. 

Ardern then described her experiences as New Zealand prime minister during the Christchurch mosque shootings on 15 March 2019, saying it affected New Zealanders "forever".  

She said in times of tragedy and disaster if we want to represent the experience and feelings of our communities, we must ask ourselves one simple question: “‘How do I feel in that heartbreaking moment?’ Are you in mourning, sadness, anger or all of the above? Is the response ‘yes’?” Ardern said leaders’ employees are likely to feel the same way and that they should not be afraid to share the same sentiments.

Ardern also explained that, after a great tragedy, there was a sense of "helplessness" and a desire to do something. She said that channelling that desire for action and speaking to whatever emotion your community or team is experiencing was "not enough when it's within your power to prevent if possible that very thing from happening again in the future".

That, she added, was why New Zealand took only two days after the attack to change its gun laws. "We eventually made the change because that is what the public expected of us,” she said. “It was our responsibility to take action." 

Credit: LinkedIn – Tony Chung

Concluding her speech, Ardern said she has been asked a lot about religion and about being a woman in recent years, but that the most important leadership principles can be found in what we "teach our children". She said those qualities included "empathy, curiosity, bravery and kindness", but added that "we have ceased to demand respect in our leaders". 

Ardern added: "In some cases, certain traits, particularly those perceived as soft, are only expected of a woman; let us change that, with traits of decent human beings being traits of decent leadership."

She said we should stop thinking about what we demand of leaders in times of crisis, such as basic humanity and authenticity, and start talking about what we expect of them at all times. "Let's not pretend you have to be a rhino or a mule; simply being human is more than enough.”