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Image / Editorial

Why Jacinda Ardern is the extraordinary female leader we need in times of tragedy

by Jennifer McShane
20th Mar 2019

We watched the recent horrific shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in a state of horror and disbelief. It didn’t seem real. It was unbearable to think that such an atrocity had left 50 dead and 40 injured in just a few hours.

New Zealand has never experienced this kind of attack before, and it has shaken the country.

In such times, when many of us watch from afar feeling helpless, we look to the leaders of the country affected by tragedy to get a sense of what we can do – what we must try to do – to ease the pain and suffering of others.

The words we hear, the action being taken on behalf of the victims and their families, speaks volumes – not only about a nation, but how the rest of the world (and the media at large) will depict the attack.

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Will it be with empty words (largely said in ALL CAPS on Twitter) and cold, delayed action that discounts the victims, as we’ve seen of Donald Trump?

Or, will a leader show such genuine empathy and concern to all affected that she reduces those watching to tears?

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has done the latter. She has not only said all the right words to comfort and aid those in a time of extreme distress, but she and her Government have also acted in a meaningful way.

In the way that is right.

She has sent help to the victims and their families and done what many leaders rarely can: she acts for the people without a personal agenda at the fore.

She doesn’t victim-blame, she doesn’t skirt around acts of terror and she will not glorify the attacker.

“He will, when I speak, be nameless,” she said.

She swiftly deemed the attack an act of terrorism and rejected the notion that the victims, many of them migrants, were not part of the country. “They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home,” she said in a press conference following the attack.

“They are us.”

 “United in grief”

On Saturday, the prime minister travelled to Christchurch to meet with members of the community who are Muslim and refugees. Ardern dressed in respect of their culture; clad in black and wearing a hijab, which was interpreted by many as a symbol of unity towards those affected by the attack.

As she hugged some of the grieving families, she told them New Zealanders were “united in grief.”

And it was more than just a warm gesture. Ardern pledged to cover the funeral costs for every victim and offered additional financial assistance to the families who might need it.

She also promised that her cabinet will pursue gun control measures to improve the nation’s current laws and announced Monday the reforms would be unveiled “within 10 days of this horrific act of terrorism.”

Her leadership has been strong and swift; she has been deemed a perfect antidote to Trump and his careless blunders in similar circumstances.

At 38, she is one of the youngest female leaders in the world (and, of course, we have so few women in these roles compared to men) but her tenure has not been perfect by any means.  Domestically, she’s been criticised over her handling of New Zealand’s economy and other issues that haven’t worked such as social housing.

But her leadership of empathy, hope (which many cited as “weak” in her early days of office)  and action after such a tragic event, the first attack of its kind in New Zealand’s modern history, is what we need to see. Especially as we face times of growing instability and uncertainty.

We need to see that strength from those we would follow and emulate, the same way we need to see more women in leadership roles and setting the same example.

That example of empathy that was, for example, severely lacking when British prime minister Theresa May responded to the Grenfell Tower tragedy, deciding against going to meet the victims and families that were affected.

Jacinda Ardern could teach – and is teaching –  a thing or two to other world leaders who have come up short in times of strife.

We need more women in leadership roles yes, but generally we simply need more like her.

Main photograph: @albericie