PM Ardern wins people's hearts

PM Ardern wins people's hearts

Down-to-earth Kiwi leader reveals the secret of her success

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has proven to be that most uncommon type of leader, capable of being both strong and empathetic. bloomberg
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has proven to be that most uncommon type of leader, capable of being both strong and empathetic. bloomberg

When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern visited Thailand for the East Asia Summit in 2019, she surprised officials and media waiting at the airport for the world's youngest PM.

Ms Ardern stepped out of the plane, dressed in a blue shirt, with rolled-up sleeves, black pants and an oversized black bag -- definitely not a designer brand -- slung over her shoulder.

If Thai officials had initially perceived the visitor's dress code as overly casual, they were immediately won over by Ms Ardern's disarming smile and down-to-earth demeanour. These humble attributes have become the trademark of the woman who, at the tender age of 37, became the world's youngest prime minister in 2017.

That record was broken in 2019, however, when 34-year-old Sanna Mirella Marin was elected premier of Finland.

In the early days, Ms Ardern's youth and humility did not inspire much confidence, especially among her critics, who made it clear they did not believe that smiles, charm and a positive attitude were enough to run a country.

But Ms Ardern proved to be that most uncommon type of leader, capable of being both strong and empathetic. Her performance in office has certainly won the respect of people around the world, especially in times of crisis.

In March 2019, a few months before visiting Thailand, the Kiwi PM made her mark on the international stage through the level-headed way she led New Zealand, which she described as "Our team of 5 million people" through the tragic shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, where 50 people were shot dead by a white supremacist.

She chose to unite the country and to console, sending out an inclusive signal by wearing a hijab (Muslim head scarf) to attend the funerals, offering her sympathy to Muslim communities and making widely quoted speeches.

''He is a terrorist, he is a criminal, he is extremist but he will, when I speak, be nameless,'' she declared. ''He may have sought notoriety but we in New Zealand will give him nothing, not even his name.''

Kind words alone cannot be effective unless followed through with decisive action. Within weeks of the tragedy, Ms Ardern tightened the country's gun control laws even more.

But what catapulted her status as a truly global leader was the way she coped with the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that has destroyed the reputations of many leaders.

In March last year, New Zealand declared a state of emergency and imposed a one-month lockdown. The lockdown would have been much harder without the much-admired communication of the prime minister, who had studied mass communication at university.

"Make no mistake this will get worse before it gets better. We will have a lag and cases will increase for the next week or so. Then we'll begin to know how successful we have been," she said in an early Facebook live update in March 2020.

Ms Ardern was reelected in a landslide victory in October last year.

Her lifestyle has often captured media attention. She made headlines in 2018 when she took her infant with her to a United Nations meeting, since she and her partner did not have a nanny.

"I am not the first woman to multitask. I am not the first woman to work and have a baby -- there are many women who have done this before," she reportedly told BBC's Victoria Derbyshire in 2019.

Asked about her leadership style, Ms Ardern said she was just a woman who was not afraid to let people see her frailties.

"To me, leadership is not about necessarily being the loudest in the room, but instead being the bridge, or the thing that is missing in the discussion and trying to build a consensus from there," she said.

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