Dame Jacinda Ardern: 'I'm a very ordinary person'

14/08/2023

“A very ordinary person, who just happened to be in extraordinary circumstances.” This is how former New Zealand Prime Minister, Dame Jacinda Ardern, describes herself when asked to reflect on her six years leading her country through a series of crises - from earthquakes and one of the world’s deadliest mass shootings to a global pandemic. 

 

With a humility and honesty rare in most politicians and leaders, it is this refreshing relatability that endeared the Rt Hon Dame Jacinda Ardern to much of the world when she became the world’s youngest female head of government at age 37, and what continues to inspire girls and women today.

Speaking at two Business Chicks breakfast events in Melbourne and Sydney on Wednesday 9th and Thursday 10th August, Dame Ardern talked about growing up in a remote forestry town on New Zealand’s North Island, what inspired her to go into politics and the role models that played a helping hand. She also reflected on her time in the top job and offering her thoughts on what it takes to be a good politician and leader.

“I was not a normal child - in the sense that I was always very conscious of the world around me. I saw that New Zealand at times could be a very unequal, fair place… it was those little moments like that where I knew I wanted to do something that just made the world a bit better than what it was and politics was the way to get there.”

WOB members in Sydney (top right) and Melbourne (bottom right) attended the breakfast with the Rt Hon Dame Jacinda Ardern. 

In a frank admission, Ms Ardern told the gatherings of more than 1500 people in both cities - which included two tables of Women on Boards members - that while she holds on to the belief that politics is a vehicle to make change, she never intended to be in the top job; in fact it took her somewhat by surprise.

When first asked to run for Parliament Ms Ardern was reluctant. “I just thought, I'm too sensitive, I'm too thin-skinned. I didn't think I was smart enough or clever enough. I just thought I wasn't what was needed, so I said no.”

“I never saw politics as in of itself something that I was deeply driven to do. The cut and thrust of it has never been particularly attractive to me. Those are the parts of the job that I like the least - I hated question time in Parliament and I didn't enjoy the media side of things very much at all. It was all just part of what you had to do. And I definitely didn't like the idea that my job was to just bring down other politicians… But events took hold and eventually I found myself front of house, as it were, with no regret,” she said.

She said that as well as the shock of becoming New Zealand’s second female Prime Minister in 2017, dealing with ‘imposter syndrome’ and then surviving in the cut-throat world of politics was also a revelation. “The fact that I could be myself and still survive and do that job, and competently, because for so many years I doubted that was possible. But not only that, that people accepted me for who I was.”

When asked if she had a secret for overcoming doubt and imposter syndrome, Ms Ardern said being thrust into the limelight with very little time to dwell on it had its advantages.

“I wish I could stand up here and say, here is the blueprint, here is the golden ticket, the thing that you've never been told, to overcome that confidence gap that you feel…But in fact, maybe there's more power of being honest and saying, I never found it. And yet I still persisted for five years as Prime Minister, doubting myself every other day.”

She said young people and future leaders need to realise that “sensitivity can be a superpower too” and understand the value of empathy and curiosity.

“You CAN do those big things that you think you can't because of those emotions. You can do jobs that you think are well beyond your wildest imagination and still feel that way. And maybe that's what we need to hear,” she said.

'I was just a human being'

In describing what happened on 15 March 2019 Christchurch terrorist attacks, Ms Ardern admitted she has still not processed the events of that day and talked about the reaction to her first televised media conference shortly after the mass shooting, which propelled her to a global prominence.

“People afterwards asked me, did you have someone give you advice on what to say? Did you focus group or test some of those messages? No, I was just a human being and said how I felt. And that's what we did all the way through. I thought, my job is just reflecting what everyone else felt. We were a nation mourning together and you just become chief mourner. “I think that's where, as politicians, we fall down sometimes. We're not very good at expressing grief because we think it's weakness.”

She also reflected on her decision to step down as Prime Minister. “I had enough to govern, but I knew from my past experience that that wasn't enough…I didn't want to do a mediocre job.”

On leadership

Ms Ardern also talked about the importance of mentors and role models - such as former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clarke and her high school sociology teacher - and her new role at Harvard Kennedy School’s Centre for Public Leadership and her mission to inspire the next generation of young female leaders. “There is this ongoing gap in confidence for young women about what leadership looks like.”

“I’ve never thought, just because you've been a leader, that somehow means that you've then got the right and the credentials to espouse to everyone else what leadership should be.

"But my message would be a very simple one. I was, and am, a very ordinary person who just happened to be in some extraordinary circumstances. And maybe that means that we should just reflect back on some of those traits that we value every day. What do you teach your kids? You teach them to be kind and empathetic, you teach them to be brave and you teach them to be curious. And I just think those traits we don't talk about nearly enough, and yet we expect them in our kids, but we don't expect them in our leaders. Why not?”

Also Read: Farewell Jacinda Ardern
 

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