March 2021

By Sally A. Painter

Two years ago, we celebrated International Women’s Day with a recognition of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand. The 2019 theme was “Balance for Better,” a concept that reflected Prime Minister Ardern’s commitment to strong but compassionate leadership. Earlier this week, International Women’s Day offered a new focus—“Choose to Challenge”—calling for increased recognition of gender bias, inequality, and the power of sustained and meaningful action to provoke change. Once again, we find ourselves looking to Prime Minister Ardern’s example—this time to help guide the new U.S. Administration, led by President Biden and Vice President Harris.

In October of last year, Prime Minister Ardern was reelected in a landslide victory demonstrating that inclusive leadership can be successful as well as have an impact beyond the country’s borders. In an age too often characterized by political populism and confrontation, Ms. Ardern’s message of empathy and kindness combined with skillful crisis management won her Labour Party its biggest share of the vote in more than 70 years. That contrasts starkly with the divisive politics seen during the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Prime Minister Ardern has not shied away from making difficult choices or challenging institutionalized norms that no longer feel appropriate for today’s dilemmas. What lessons might her leadership have for the United States? Ms. Ardern has skillfully weathered difficult crises while shaping a vision that emphasizes quality of life and happiness. She has embodied a new type of leadership, one that balances kindness with strength, rejects racism and isolation, and fosters inclusion.

Buoyed by her country’s island geography, Prime Minister Ardern’s approach to combatting COVID-19 prioritized public health by enacting—at an early stage—one of the world’s strictest nationwide lockdowns. As a result, New Zealand is one of the few countries whose economy has bounced back, achieving a so-called V-shaped recovery.

Throughout it all, Prime Minister Ardern has also had to confront a challenge familiar to President Biden and Vice President Harris—the competing priorities of the two wings of her political party. As in the U.S., Ms. Ardern has consistently pushed for compromise and communication between the more liberal members of her party who seek bold action to address global challenges such as climate change and income inequality and those who wish to keep the more moderate elements of the party on board.

After the mass shooting terrorist attacks committed against the Christchurch Muslim community in March 2019, Ms. Ardern again demonstrated what it means to step up and rise to a challenge without losing sight of one’s values. Her messaging never wavered as she championed the concept of compassion as a responsibility that we all must take on ourselves and called for New Zealanders to make their country “the place we wish to be. A place that is diverse, that is welcoming, that is kind and compassionate. Those values represent the very best of us.”

In light of the recent disturbing events committed at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC that struck at the heart of America’s democratic values, Prime Minister Ardern’s approach serves as an important model for the new U.S. administration. Leaders must be firm about what is expected in a just and compassionate society and must challenge the inclination to trade accountability in favor of forward momentum. Actions matter and have consequences. Among the most basic requirements of participatory democracy is respect for institutions and the rule of law.

Prime Minister Ardern’s efforts to promote decency and empathy were concretely reflected in her officially released ‘wellbeing budget.’ The first of its kind, this budget seeks to change the way New Zealand’s national economic priorities are determined by prioritizing such factors as life expectancy, education levels, air quality, and a sense of belonging. It requires that any spending broadly support at least one of the government’s five key priorities: improving mental health, reducing child poverty, strengthening welfare for indigenous peoples, living in the digital world, and increasing sustainability efforts. While the wellbeing budget was introduced amid tough economic times, it is proving effective and has been embraced by New Zealanders, as evidenced by Ms. Ardern’s 2020 landslide reelection. 

Prime Minister Ardern’s approach is as refreshing as it is unique, for it asks us to consider our individual as well as our collective humanity. One without the other is not a life of dignity. Ms. Ardern challenges us to do more than what is easy and to work for what is good. To treat one another with the basic decency and respect we deserve as human beings who are all, as America’s founders so eloquently exclaimed nearly 250 years ago, “created equal.” Two years since our first article, Prime Minister Ardern remains a worthy and powerful example of leadership and vision for our new U.S. President and Vice President to consider in the years to come.