Jacinda Ardern became the youngest prime minister of New Zealand and then shortly tested as the country’s leader with moments of internal crisis and a global pandemic. Ardern is consistently praised by colleagues and the media for displaying emotional intelligence, especially empathy, and be an effective communicator. Ardern’s leadership development is bolstered by her conscientious motivation, strong mentors, and challenging experiences that created an authentic transformational leader’s identity.
Early Life and Education
Jacinda Ardern was born in 1980 in New Zealand and credited her rural life and parents for her conscientiousness and empathy. Both of her parents were civil servants, with her father a police officer and her mother working in the school cafeteria (Betrand, 2014.) Ardern attributes her upbringing and living in a rural area to her work ethic and her down-to-earth disposition. Even at a young age, she was intensely aware of the inequity between other children and displayed a highly conscientious personality that made her sensitive to unfairness. While interviewing Ardern as an uprising political influence, already having the honor of youngest sitting member of Parliament (MP), journalist Kelly Bertrand (2014) quoted her saying:
“Of course, when you’re a kid, you don’t call it social justice. I just thought it was wrong that other kids didn’t have what I had. When we moved to Morrinsville, I was eight years old, and I started doing something about it – joining human rights groups at school and things like that.”
Bertrand (2014) relays a story Ardern shared about entering school politics and moving the governing board to allow the female students to wear trousers as part of their mandatory uniforms.
Jacinda Ardern graduated from the University of Waikato with a degree in communications and public relations. Before going to university, Ardern was unsure of the field of study she would pursue and briefly mentioned politics as one of the possibilities to her aunt, Marie Ardern. Marie Ardern was a long-time member of the Labour party and offered to mentor Jacinda Ardern and get her involved in a re-election campaign for Labour MP Harry Duynhoven (Cooke, 2017). This experience guided on Ardern’s leadership path and gave her the contacts to eventually segue her formal college education to be a researcher in New Zealand’s Prime Minister Helen Clark’s office.
Early Political Career
After serving in Prime Minister Helen Clark’s office, Ardern spent some time in New York before taking on senior policy advisor’s role for British prime minister Tony Blair. Ardern became elected as the president of the International Union of Socialist Youth. Ardern returned to New Zealand, where she became actively involved in New Zealand politics, becoming the youngest sitting MP. Ardern is elected as the Labor party leader and is soon supported as the becoming the prime minister.
In 2017, at the age of 37, Jacinda Ardern became the youngest female head of government as Prime Minister of New Zealand. During her first term, she became a mother and faced several crises that would try her country and her leadership. In October 2020, Jacinda Ardern easily won the election for her second term as prime minister, giving credit to the virus’s successful response (Hollingsworth, 2020).
Less than three months into her term as Prime Minister, Ardern announced her pregnancy. Ardern gave birth to her daughter in June of 2018, sharing the event on Instagram. She openly shares about being a mother, exemplifying motherhood’s role and being a leader simultaneously; she brought her three-month-old daughter with her to the United Nations General Assembly (McLaughlin & Hadden, 2020). Ardern feels modeling being a mother and leader and showing the challenges helps normalize working mothers and create workspaces that accommodate both roles’ balance.
Christchurch Mosque Attacks
In March, 2019 terrorists attacked a mosque during prayer time, murdering 51 people. Ardern mourned with the country and held up a mirror to examine the country’s populace and the reasons for this happening. She reached out to the Muslim community and the country in an empathetic and straight-forward manner. Tony Manhire (2019), a New Zealand journalist and editor, expressed this by sharing:
In the days and weeks after the attack, however, Jacinda Ardern, drawing on the leadership of Muslim Christchurch, revealed an empathy, steel and clarity that in the most appalling circumstances brought New Zealanders together and inspired people the world over. (para. 20)
Early in the year 2020, Ardern faced the challenge of leading New Zealand through the coronavirus disease’s global pandemic (Covid-19). Relying on her empathy skills and communication competencies, Ardern was able to connect with her followers. At the same time, she and her leadership team were able to develop policies and procedures to mitigate the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Ardern reached out to New Zealand citizens via Live Facebook Chats, often being transparent in dealing with the pandemic as a leader and a person (Friedman, 2020). It was during the Facebook Chats that she was able to exhibit the traits of an authentic leader of self-awareness and acting on her beliefs and values (Cooper, Hellriegel, & Slocum, 2018).
Ardern’s authentic leadership style proved to be the approach for leading the New Zealand citizens through this crisis, including the implementation of national lockdowns and travel bans (Friedman, 2020). New Zealand was able to keep the case count and number of deaths low with a COVID-19 related mortality rate at 4 per 1 million, the lowest rate of the 37 that counted in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (Baker, Wilson, & Anglemyer, 2020). The country of five million people ended up counting only 25 deaths and returning to schools, workspaces, and events with few restrictions. Even with this successful outcome, Ardern shared she still felt some amount of imposters syndrome. (Associated Press, 2020).
The identity of being an authentic leader that serves others is one that Ardern possessed early on in her political career and one that those close to her attest she still maintains (Cooke, 2017). Ibarra, Snook, and Ramo (2010 ), citing earlier scholars, highlight leaders’ key behaviors during transitions of ambiguity: offering blessing, sharing advice, manifesting possibilities, and believing in their vision. Ardern displayed her identity through all of these behaviors publicly during the pandemic’s ambiguous time transcending traditional media outlets and becoming transparent through social media.
Ardern proves that she is an effective communicator and mastered connecting with her followers using social media. Although she is known for her Facebook presence through Live chats, her Instagram account touts over 1.4 million followers. She regularly posts pictures and short videos one to five minutes in length, at times outside of professional attire (Kapitan, 2020) reinforcing her authenticity. These connections engage her with followers while simultaneously reinforcing her identity as a leader. Waldman, Galvin, & Walumbwa (2012) discuss this leader and follower relationship with DeRue and Ashford’s quotation as a social construction process that strengthens the leader’s role identity when conceded by followers. Ardern’s acumen of social media gives her a voice outside of her country while bringing awareness of New Zealand to the global community (Mohsin, Northington, Ueckert, & Unger, 2020).
Ardern is compared to Barak Obama as a leader that remained controversial in their home country while being widely accepted by a global audience (Friedman, 2020). Van Jackson, scholar and expert of international relations, is optimistic about Ardern’s leadership style but warns that decision-making during a crisis is quite different from strategic decision making (Friedman, 2020). Ardern still faces navigating foreign relations, especially with nearby Australia, and global economic factors.
An Authentic and Transformational Leader
During her leadership of the Covid-19 crisis, Ardern fully came into her identity of an authentic leader. Through her leadership, she listened to her team of experts and embodied the policies that were adopted. Ardern used social media to connect with followers on a deeper level and displayed authentic leadership markers in stimulating follower identification, creating hope, reflecting trust with followers, showing positive emotions, and raising optimism (Cooper et al., 2018). Acts such as taking a 20% pay cut with the rest of her staff also showed solidarity. Ardern continues to be an authentic leader by making an effort to maintain her empathy, avoid blame-shifting, give credit to those around her, and living out her values and beliefs in a public manner.
Ardern politically identifies as a progressive. She is concerned with justice and fairness as she serves her constituents. Transformational leaders anticipate the group’s future needs and inspire others to move towards these goals; these leaders are risk-takers understanding the intersection of culture, technology, and external factors (Cooper et al., 2018). Ardern’s actions after the Christchurch terrorist attack are an example of how she is moving to change New Zealand for the better. Ardern is inspiring others, even those outside of New Zealand, to consider gender equality, eradication of childhood poverty, education reform, racial equality, and mental healthcare (McLaughlin & Hadden, 2020).
I always wanted to help people, and I realised politics was the way to do that.
After being introduced to Jacinda Ardern by my cohort members in the Organizational Leadership and Learning at The George Washington University, I quickly gravitated to this impressive leader. I admire her ethical compass and her pursuit of bringing justice to the world. She avoids becoming quixotic in the quest for fairness for others and has proven to be an effective and successful leader. How Ardern has maintained her values and epitomizes her leadership identity can be found in one simple quote from an article by Cooke (2017), “I always wanted to help people, and I realised politics was the way to do that.” (para. 20)
Associated Press (2020, December 16). Ardern reveals the moment she chose Covid elimination strategy. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/16/ardern-reveals-the-moment-she-c-covid-elimination-strategy
Baker, M. G., Wilson, N., & Anglemyer, A. (2020). Successful Elimination of Covid-19 Transmission in New Zealand. New England Journal of Medicine, 383(8). https://doi:10.1056/nejmc2025203
Bertrand, Kelly (2014, June 30). Jacinda Ardern’s country childhood. Now to Love. Retrieved from https://www.nowtolove.co.nz/celebrity/celeb-news/jacinda-arderns-country-childhood-2894.
Cooke, H. (2017, September 16). How Marie Ardern got her niece Jacinda into politics. Retrieved from https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/96921185/how-marie-ardern-got-her-niece-jacinda-into-politics
Cooper, C. D., Hellriegel, D., & Slocum, J. W. (2018). Mastering Organizational Behavior (Version 14.0). FlatWorld.
Friedman, U. (2020, April 19). New Zealand’s Prime Minister May Be the Most Effective Leader on the Planet. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/04/
Hollingsworth, J. (2020, October 17). New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern wins second term in landslide election victory. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/17/asia/new-zealand-election-2020-results-intl-hnk/index.html
Ibarra, H., Snook, S., Ramo, L.G. (2010). Identity-based leader development. In N. Nohria & R. Khurana (Eds.), Handbook of Leadership Theory and Practice (pp. 657-678). Boston: Harvard Business Press.
Kapitan, S. (2020, September 3). The Facebook prime minister: How Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s most successful political influencer. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/the-facebook-prime-minister-how-jacinda-ardern-became-new-zealands-most-successful-political-influencer-144485
Manhire, T. (2019, December 13). The decade in politics: From Team Key to Jacindamania. Retrieved from https://thespinoff.co.nz/partner/decade-in-review/11-12-2019/the-decade-in-politics-from-team-key-to-jacindamania/
McLaughlin, K., & Hadden, J. (2020, April 15). New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been praised for her response to the coronavirus pandemic, with some saying she ‘squashed’ the curve. Here’s everything you need to know about her. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/new-zealand-prime-minister-jacinda-ardern-biography-2019-3#ardern-took-office-as-new-zealands-prime-minister-in-october-2017-4
Mohsin, S., Northington, K., Ueckert, S., & Unger, Y. (2020) A Tale of Two Leaders: Leadership through Social Media. [Unpublished manuscript.] The George Washington University.
Waldman, D.A., Galvin, B.M., Walumbwa, F.O. (2012). The development of motivation to lead and leader role identity. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 20(2), 156-168.