‘I live in fear of what might be’
A new biography of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern charts her rise from ambitious small-town schoolgirl through Jacindamania to globally respected leader. This extract explores why her style of leadership is proving so successful.
Feminism the world over faces a nagging question, one that seems to gain impetus as the century progresses: why, after decades of activism, equal employment opportunity and antidiscrimination legislation — not to mention ceaseless public debate — are there so few women in the upper echelons of leadership? It grates that while there has been change for women, so much for the better in the past half-century, corporate boardrooms are still, by and large, old boys’ clubs, peppered with the odd woman here and there.
The vast majority of heads of state, too, are men.
There is a myriad of reasons for this, and an even greater number of explanations, many of them contentious. Most of these have been well discussed.
First, a corporate and political culture steeped in masculine competitiveness, rather than consensus decision making, means many a worthy woman leader is overlooked. Then there is the subtle marginalisation in the workforce of women who choose, as a majority do, to have a family, or prioritise their children’s needs over work. Lack of familial support for women in power, which has traditionally been afforded most men, takes more out of contention, as do the often extreme, 24/7 demands of most corporate CEO and senior political posts.
Women, unlike many of their male counterparts, tend to favour a balance between their professional and personal lives.
None of these could be considered definitive, and few explanations offer helpful insight. This information is useful for policy-makers and activists, but less so for women seeking to fulfil their potential.
For career women, Jacinda Ardern’s rise to the summit of political life is a case study, because the challenges she has encountered are so very familiar. Unlike a number of women outliers holding office, Ardern hasn’t compromised her personality to suit her career; she hasn’t become “masculinised”.
Assertive and effective in politics, she invokes a style that a broad spectrum of people, of both sexes, may seek in coming generations: the strong woman — as opposed to the strongman — who embodies astuteness, along with the ability to bring opposing forces together for a greater goal.
So much the better. Seeking counsel, weighing options with others to determine the most appropriate course of action beyond the limits of one’s experience and personal conviction, doesn’t sit well with a patriarch. It may be a woman leader’s very essence, a strong suit that allows her flexibility to adapt to new or unforeseen circumstances.
Absolute certainty and selfassurance could well be the “strongman” politician’s weakness, rather than strength.
ALTHOUGH JACINDA Ardern is a confident, strong woman, absolute selfassurance is not one of her character traits. This is where so many can relate to her, and learn from her rise to power. Ardern demonstrates that one doesn’t need preternatural self-possession and an absence of selfdoubt to succeed. Most people struggle with confidence issues, selfdoubt or anxiety. Many of us have misgivings about fulfilling our potential, as well. Few, however, share their struggles so openly, and in public, as Jacinda Ardern has done; fewer still in positions of power.
“I’m constantly anxious about making mistakes. Everything in politics feels so fragile,” she told a magazine interviewer. “I do live in constant fear of what might be,” she says, acknowledging that her anxiety is “just who I am”.
Her honesty, her frankness about such a personal issue is remarkable, almost unprecedented in politics.
At least as remarkable, in the upper echelons of public life, is Ardern’s lack of cut-throat ambition. From the time she was touted as a leadership prospect for the Labour Party and a potential prime minister, she voiced her ambivalence towards assuming office. This is hardly unusual in politics: most politicians deny their ambitions emphatically, until the very hour of their leadership challenge.
Ardern’s qualms about New Zealand’s top job, however, are sincere.
In a radio interview in June 2014, she described the prime ministership as an “awful, awful job”, and she meant it. Earlier, she had told a reporter that Helen Clark “had to give up everything” for her position — and she was not willing to do likewise. She had “no desire” to be Prime Minister.
Ardern’s experience of Clark’s tenure, and the strain of her mentor’s last successful election campaign in 2005, had left their mark. She describes that election year as “extraordinarily stressful”. So stressful was it that her OE was as much a sabbatical as a means of broadening her horizons.
She might have nurtured teenage ambitions of running the country, but her encounter with the ninth floor of the Beehive had left her cold.
It seems she was scotching any likelihood of her becoming Prime Minister by talking of her anxiety — shooting her prospects in the foot, as it were. A ministerial post would be more than enough for her, she had concluded — one where she could pursue policies for the betterment of children and families.
In addition, she and Clarke Gayford wished to have a family of their own, and they were trying to conceive.
PERHAPS THERE was one other factor holding Ardern back from taking high office, one so familiar to professional women. It is often referred to as the “confidence gender gap”, though the gap itself might have less to do with confidence and more with masculine bravado.
For his testosterone level, daring or sheer foolhardiness, a man might seek a promotion well beyond his level of competence. He might take a swing at the seemingly impossible and in doing so, even find success.
Women, however, as Ardern notes, have a “natural tendency . . . to wait until they have every skill required” before they put themselves forward for a higher position. She cites as an example Helen Clark’s own “questioning whether she had the credentials to . . . go and work at the UN”.
That is, after she had been a successful Prime Minister for three terms in her own country.
The confidence gender gap is discussed in the book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Co-authors Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and television and magazine writer Nell Scovell, cite a Hewlett-Packard internal report that states that while men commonly apply for jobs for which they fulfil only 60 per cent of the criteria, women will, for the most part, apply for positions that they are one 100 per cent qualified to occupy.
Perhaps this is feminine self abnegation, or maybe it is a milder version of another factor that is worth discussing — imposter syndrome.
In 1978, the academics Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Ament Imes wrote in their paper “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” that “despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise”.
While accepting the Gleitzman International Activist Award in a virtual conference from the Beehive in December 2020, Ardern said that although “there was never a point in my life that I can recall where I thought, ‘I can’t do that because I’m a woman . . . ’ I have on many occasions thought, ‘I cannot do that because it’s me’. Imposter syndrome is real.”
And it counts against women’s ambition and career progress.
Likewise, does natural caution, which is obviously more associated with women than men. A conscientious woman tends to put pressure on herself, well beyond that which is reasonable. She doesn’t want to let herself and others down, as she might see it, by not performing a task as she feels she should — that is, to the highest standard possible.
As much as her desire to have a family and her suffering imposter syndrome, it is this, perhaps, that held back Jacinda Ardern’s ambition. The clue here lies in her own words. She describes herself as a “high-guilt” person — guilt in this sense simply being conscientiousness turned inward. The fact is that while she brushes off most criticism, she acknowledges that “if people attack me for not doing enough on behalf of the causes that I feel strongly about, those are the things I take to heart”.
FOR ALL her misgivings, Jacinda had long harboured dreams of becoming New Zealand’s Prime Minister — indeed, since her teenage years. An Otago Post article from April 1997 now seems quaintly prophetic: “Jacinda
If people attack me for not doing enough on behalf of the causes that I feel strongly about, those are the things I take to heart.
for PM” declares the title beside a photograph of a smiling Jacinda.
In her school uniform, she is holding a large trophy for the speech competition she had just won. “Champion speechmaker Jacinda Ardern,” the article says, “has a huge goal — to be New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister”.
Jenny Shipley’s ouster of Prime Minister Jim Bolger in December that year, meant Jacinda would never achieve one part of her goal. But despite all her qualms — her dread of the onerous demands of the job, her selfdoubt, her feelings of inadequacy that she has so openly shared, her lack of feeling ready to assume the mantle of power — her ambition remained. And despite it all, her ambition to be Prime Minister was achieved.
For this, Jacinda is a role model for anyone who has a goal but lacks overwhelming confidence. Ardern says the best advice she has for young women is, “When opportunities come up, say, ‘Yep, I can do that job’.”
That is, don’t wait until you feel ready — you may never feel ready, or be fully qualified in every respect. Don’t let self-doubt, imposter syndrome, perfectionism, lack of confidence or misplaced conscientiousness undermine your ambitions.
Ambition, in any case, is not the only factor to determine success.
Aside from talent — and, dare it be said, luck — circumstance and timing have their own way. The first in a chain of events that drew Ardern to the prime minister’s office came in December 2016, when former Labour leader David Shearer resigned from Parliament.