Donald Trump telephoned a grieving Jacinda Ardern in the aftermath of New Zealand’s largest ever mass murder. According to reports, the President asked what the United States could do and received an answer he couldn’t have been expecting. “Sympathy and love for all Muslim communities,” the Prime Minister told him.
Jacinda Ardern has been widely praised as doing a magnificent job in a situation no national leader should have to face. In response to unimaginable horror, after an Australian gunman killed 50 people at two Christchurch mosques on Friday, she is deliberately employing language of empathy not hate. Ardern has chosen a message of togetherness instead of reaching for the easy, crude politics of division that have worked so effectively, and for so many, in the past.
Under these circumstances, her kindness is a radical act.
The traditional script for a world leader reacting to a terrorist attack on home soil is one of power and retribution. To prosecute an “us and them” case from the outset. By way of example, you might recall that US President George Bush wanted to “find out who did this and kick their ass” in the wake of 9/11. He later declared that Osama Bin Laden would be taken “dead or alive”.
Ardern approach is markedly different. She’s barely wasted a word on the perpetrator of this terrorism. Instead, focusing her energies on the victims, their loved ones and a nation in need of healing. By declaring “they are us”, she set the tone for how people should respond to this tragedy. The unspoken message? Victims of this crime may not share your faith or ethnicity, but they are New Zealanders and that is all that matters.
We tend to understand leadership as being about position and power. Usually delivered through firmly worded speeches, laden with commanding rhetoric and these days, uncompromising three-word slogans. The complexity of real life can’t be reduced to a sound bite and so issues are framed as black or white, and people as good or bad. There is no room for the shades of grey when our public debate is conducted in 240 characters.
Jacinda Ardern has said little beyond the security focused press-conferences required of a national leader at such a time. Instead, she listens. A skill that has been lost here in Australian politics. Ardern comforts not by instruction but by making space for the thoughts and feelings of others. There is value in those feelings. Far more value than there is in fury. Yet it’s an approach that cuts directly against standard leadership tropes.
We’ve all seen the videos where little kids are asked to draw people with powerful jobs. CEOs, doctors, judges and of course, politicians. They draw men each and every time, before being shocked when women who do those jobs walk into the room. It makes for a cute 30-second clip but those stereotypes stick with people well beyond 30 seconds. We learn them in childhood and they stay with us for life.
“This week the world watched as a woman, new mother and Prime Minister demonstrated typically ‘feminine’ behaviour. And she has proven just how powerful that can be.”
The Australian media still describes women politicians using coded gender-biased language. Recall recent descriptions of Julie Bishop as “poised” and “graceful” during her press conference after losing the Liberal Party’s leadership ballot. These are words that would never be applied to a man. Women CEOs who cry publicly are deemed “too emotional” and those who don’t are labelled callous, cold-hearted robots. Dreamworld’s Deborah Thomas actually copped both of these criticisms within the space of a week in 2018.
Traditionally masculine leadership remains what is expected, and it is why women leaders can never seem to win. They either meet the expectations placed on them as leaders, or the expectations that come with their gender. Society considers outward displays of female emotion as somehow inconsistent with leadership, so women get slammed whatever path they choose.
A new model that allows leaders – both women or men – to pursue their personally preferred approach is well overdue. A model that says gender norms are a historical relic best left to the past. Jacinda Ardern is providing exactly that model of leadership, balancing empathy and steadiness, decisiveness and consideration. It’s something that Australian – and indeed global – politics could use a whole lot more of.
Authenticity and compassion go beyond gender, or race, or religion, or next week’s polling numbers. Authenticity is an atheist leader donning hijab without thinking about the “optics” but simply because it’s the right and respectful thing to do in the circumstances. Compassion is refusing to engage in the rhetoric of retribution and standing alongside those who are navigating the muddy waters of shock and grief.
This week the world watched as a woman, new mother and Prime Minister demonstrated typically “feminine” behaviour. And she has proven just how powerful that can be.
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