Jacinda Ardern is an inspiration to women – here’s why

By Michaela Jeffery-Morrison
Credit: Getty Images/Hagen Hopkins / Stringer
Michaela Jeffery-Morrison, CEO and co-founder of Ascend Global Media reflects on Jacinda Ardern’s time as New Zealand’s prime minister

“I know what this job takes. I also know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.” With these words, Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister, announced that she would officially be exiting the world stage no later than 7 February.

On one level, it’s easy to see her resignation as a failure. “Couldn’t take the heat,” people will say. “Didn’t want to face the next election.” Her critics across the Anglosphere have already taken to the airwaves and the newspapers to decry her “vanity”, among other vices. This is par for the course for women in leadership, whether in business or statecraft. Do something right, and it has nothing to do with being more intelligent, creative and compassionate than men (according to Pew research). Do something wrong, and it has everything to do with being a woman, as for example when Ardern was criticised for taking maternity leave. We should ignore these double standards. It is possible to remain politically neutral and still say that Ardern was – and will remain – a model of leadership from whom women the world over can learn a number of valuable lessons.


It’s ironic that Ardern should be accused of vanity. In an age when bellicose politicians can boast of their hand size, Ardern is the very embodiment of humility. This was obvious in her resignation speech. “With such a privileged role comes responsibility,” she said. “The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also when you are not.” I can think of another leader who stepped down for similar reasons. Her name is Angela Merkel. Another example of Ardern’s humility was her decision to rename certain state departments in te reo Māori, the country’s indigenous language. This shows a willingness to attend to both past and present grievances, and to adjust one’s perspective accordingly. Research shows that women in business are disproportionately encouraged to focus narrowly on “operational delivery and expertise”. So, by focussing on the ‘big picture’ of what kind of a country New Zealand (Aotearoa) should be, Ardern shows that it’s possible for women to transcend what’s expected of them in a still largely male-dominated world.


One of the defining characteristics of Ardern’s leadership was her willingness to collaborate. To reach out to as many people as possible. This went right down to the level of language. “We,” not “I,” was her pronoun of choice. Even in her resignation speech – the perfect time to indulge (deservedly) in self-congratulation – she opted instead to focus on others: “I’d like to thank New Zealanders for giving me this opportunity to serve.” Women tend on average to be more collaborative than men, while men tend to be more competitive. Both, of course, have their uses. But clearly collaboration is more essential to a well-functioning company culture. And with company culture now the priority for more than half of young jobseekers, leaders need to be ensuring that their leadership style is one of gratitude and mutual appreciation – leading to higher engagement, happiness and revenue. There are a number of ways to pull this off. For example, like Ardern, it’s vital to focus not just on what is said, but how it is said; just as good manners cost nothing, inclusive language is free to use and easy enough to implement in job advertisements and onboarding material, and can also be codified in HR practices across the business.

Admitting humanity

“I am human. Politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time.”

“I am human.” Leaders should frame these words above their desks – not that female leaders need to be reminded. It was only in 2019 that they were no longer regarded as being less competent than men; women, that is, have long lived with the perception that they are “all too human”. This is a great shame. Eighty-six percent of women report that when they see more women in leadership, they are encouraged they can get there themselves. So, you’ve got to wonder just how many women never reached leadership positions – and inspired others – as a result of gender-biassed perceptions holding them back. And women have it even harder in the sense that not showing any weakness can lead to the age-old accusation of being too bossy. It’s a minefield. 

But Ardern entered it with dignity and nuance: “You can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focussed. You can be your own kind of leader.” This is a rallying cry to female leaders everywhere to ignore the biassed babble and be yourself. And the good thing is that it appears to be working. Ardern is no stranger to the obstacles of female leadership. The fact, however, that she was even a leader to begin with shows how far we’ve come and how far we’ll go. More women than ever are starting businesses and entering tech. Ardern and others are addressing the Global Empowerment Gap. The STEM disparity decreases every year.

Jacinda Arden is just one of many examples of inspiring female leadership. By resigning, however, she has drawn attention to the tantalising possibility that, for organisations to flourish, female leaders need only be themselves. 


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