Strength in weakness – Leadership lessons from Jacinda Ardern

Posted by: Lucy Chapple

Tags: communications Feminism leadership

In the wake of the worst mass murder in New Zealand’s history, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern received a call from US President Donald Trump. After sharing his condolences, President Trump asked if there was any help the United States could provide. Prime Minister Ardern had a simple request for the commander in chief – ‘sympathy and love, for all Muslim communities’.

It’s been nearly two weeks since 50 New Zealanders were murdered in Mosques in central Christchurch, and the style and substance of Prime Minister Ardern’s response to the violence continues to make headlines around the world.

In a speech made in the hours following the massacre, Ardern called the perpetrator a terrorist, and said little else of the Australian white supremacist, except to assert with brutal simplicity – he is not us, they [his victims] are us.

Prime Minister Ardern’s approach puts her at odds with other Western leaders who have traditionally responded to acts of terror by calling terrorists cowards, and attesting to the courage and strength of their country. ‘Our military is powerful and it’s prepared’, George W. Bush famously declared in the aftermath of 9/11, ‘these acts of mass murder were intended to frighten our nation into chaos and retreat. But they have failed; our country is strong’.

Rather than asserting the strength of the island nation, Ardern argued that the attack exposed a clear weakness, and promised swift reform to New Zealand’s lax gun laws. Wearing a hijab, she tearfully embraced and consoled victims and their families as they grieved and prayed, awaiting news about missing loved ones.

By passionately defending Muslim New Zealanders’ right to live and pray as equal citizens, and by turning the ‘us vs them’ rhetorical device on it’s head, Ardern sent a clear message that those who seek to encourage division won’t succeed, and aren’t welcome. Within days she moved to ban semi-automatic weapons and assault rifles, with new legislation expected by 11th April.

What’s apparent in the outpouring of love and support that Jacinda Ardern has received from around the world, is that our understanding of what makes a powerful and effective leader is changing. Ardern’s authentic and empathetic leadership style is rightly lauded, but the strength of character she shows by revealing ‘weakness’, and taking decisive action, is what sets her apart from the rest.

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