Last week I heard the magnificent unicorn of a national leader, Jacinda Ardern, speak at the Town Hall in Melbourne. The room was packed with an audience who seemed excited simply to be in the presence of New Zealand’s Prime Minister. Despite our soaring expectations, nobody left disappointed.
Her topic was governance, and why good government should matter to ordinary citizens. It sounds like the subject of a university essay, not fodder for a warm and captivating speech. That is, however, just what Ardern delivered. She described how political environments permit leaders to either capitalise on fear or choose another path and the importance of doing the latter.
Ardern reflected on the massacre of her own people, inflicted by an Australian-born terrorist, at a mosque in Christchurch earlier this year. She spoke about the love and kindness that manifested itself in the face of tragedy. “I have seen humanity in the darkest of spaces” she said hopefully.
While listening to Ardern’s warm words, my mind embarked on some reflections of its own. The first was this: We’ve built this woman such an enormous pedestal, is there any possible outcome other than her tumble from it. While my faith in Ardern’s commitment to empathetic and responsible governance is strong, I fear that she will suffer for one day failing to live up to the false perfection we project upon her.
“Wins are sweeter when they happen together. And similarly, the losses are less painful, when the work of rebuilding will happen collectively.”
The world is a cruel place for women leaders of governments. Patriarchal notions about what a woman should be and how she should behave run deep within our veins. All of us. Women and self-proclaimed feminists included. The result is that our expectations of women in positions of power are higher, and our retribution keener, when those expectations go unmet.
My second thought came a day or so after the event. It struck me that Ardern barely made mention of herself during the speech. She opened with one self-deprecating anecdote but then proceeded to avoid employing the words “I” or “my” or “mine”. Ardern speaks in truly inclusive language; giving credit to “our” government, rather than claiming achievements as her own.
The realisation came to me when listening to tennis player Ash Barty talking at a post-match press conference. Barty, who had just bowed out of a major tournament, talked about her ‘team’ and the work ‘we’ have to do to improve ahead of future matches. Even in a solo sport like tennis, this remarkable and talented sportswoman approaches her work with a team mentality.
The humility of these two women is impressive and worthy of praise. I can think of a few male leaders who could use a healthy dose of it. It’s a reminder for all of us that wins are sweeter when they happen together. And similarly, the losses are less painful, when the work of rebuilding will happen collectively.
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