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Jacinda Ardern proved a true leader knows when to step back

Op-Ed 2023-01-21, 11:07pm


Jacinda Ardern (Wikimedia Commons) resigns as Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Jehangir Hussain

It was inevitable that someone was going to ask that most cliched of questions and, voilà, they did. Shortly after Jacinda Ardern’s shock resignation as as New Zealand prime minister this week, the BBC tweeted out a story about Ardern balancing motherhood with politics, with a headline asking if women can really have it all. After being accused of “staggering sexism”, the BBC deleted the headline and apologised, writes Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi.

Having it all. Please, ban that stupid phrase. It is 2023! I’m pretty sure we’ve spent at least a decade talking about the fact that nobody ever asks whether working dads can have it all. When Boris Johnson had two new kids during his tenure as prime minister of Britain there wasn’t a lot of handwringing about how he’d balance life with a newborn, and the responsibilities of being a father of seven with his job. When Elon Musk became a dad for the umpteenth time the BBC didn’t ask how he was going to balance fatherhood with colonizing Mars. Or, if they did, I must have missed that article.

Forget “having it all”, Ardern showed us all a powerful new model of leadership. Our current model of leadership, which, shameless plug, I’ve written an entire book called Strong Female Lead about, often treats empathy as a weakness. Ardern showed us all that kindness and compassion aren’t weaknesses, they are strengths. Our current model of leadership prioritizes confidence over competence and tends to reward arrogance. Ardern, meanwhile, has spoken about the importance of self-doubt. “Some of the people I admire the most have that self-consciousness and that slight gnawing lack of confidence,” the politician said in a 2020 interview. When impostor syndrome creeps in, she explained, she thinks about how to use it constructively. “Does [that self-doubt] mean I need to do a bit more prep, do I need to think more about my decision making?” Wouldn’t it be nice if more politicians went through that exercise?!

For a long time, women have been told to “lean in” to a patriarchal model of leadership. They’ve been told that, in order to be successful, they have to mold themselves into the image of a leader dictated by men. Ardern didn’t do that. She led on her own terms. And, perhaps, most powerfully, she stopped leading on her own terms. “I know what this job takes,” Ardern said when she announced her resignation. “And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.”

We tend to equate leadership with being the loudest voice in the room. But true leadership means knowing when it’s time to pass the mic. True leadership means knowing when it’s time to step back. Unfortunately most lawmakers, particularly in the US, seem desperate to hold on to power for as long as humanly possible even if it’s not for the greater good. I mean, do you know how old the average senator in the US is? 64.3 years old. That’s over 20 years older than Ardern. Joe Biden, the oldest president in American history, is 80 and is expected to run again in the 2024 election. Senator Chuck Grassley is 89 as is Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. There have been a lot of concerns about Feinstein’s cognitive health and yet she still refuses to say whether she’s going to run for another term or not. Does it really serve her constituents for her to have another term, or does it serve it her ego?

I’m not saying that there should be an age limit in politics, by the way. Experience is important. But there’s a real problem when the same people cling to power for decades and refuse to make room for new blood. Ardern, 42, says she no longer has enough in the tank to do her job justice. I’ve got to wonder what on earth some long-serving politicians in the US have in their tanks. I’ve got a feeling it may be narcissism.