A leader’s parting grace

In a surprise departure, New Zealand’s prime minister reminds a nation of the qualities that she – and the people – needed during a few big crises.

TVNZ via AP, File
In this 2019 image, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a woman as she visits the Kilbirnie Mosque in Wellington after a mass shooting.

One study of the pandemic found that the gender of a country’s leader did not make much difference in fighting COVID-19. Rather, a low death count depended mainly on particular traits, both feminine and masculine, within each society. The study, conducted at the University of Memphis, was prompted in part because a few female leaders, such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, did make a huge difference. Her country had the lowest death rate in the Western world.

Ms. Ardern, who surprised her nation on Thursday by resigning after five years in office, helped emphasize this point about societywide values during her gracious exit speech.

“I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused,” she said. “And that you can be your own kind of leader – one who knows when it’s time to go.”

She cited two qualities, courage and responsibility, in knowing when a leader is not “the right person to lead.” She and her ruling Labour Party have declined in popularity, and she admits she no longer has “enough in the tank” to do the job. She said her young daughter – born while Ms. Ardern was in office – and her fiancé have “sacrificed the most out of all of us.” That sort of transparency, marked by self-effacement, may be another of Ms. Ardern’s legacies.

If she leaves her fellow Kiwis with one leadership quality, it would be grace under fire, literally. Her empathy and compassion shone bright after a 2019 mass shooting by a gunman at two mosques and a violent eruption of Whakaari volcano in the same year. She also set up a commission to evaluate her government’s response to the coronavirus and recommend changes.

In her response to the mosque killings – which included her donning a headscarf while comforting victims’ families – she assured minorities that New Zealand represents diversity, kindness, and compassion.

“Those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack,” she said.

Despite a few failed promises and some missteps, Ms. Ardern has had certainty in the tangibility of leadership values, available to all. That boldness was matched by her humble grace, a gift to a nation that needed it during a few big crises.

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