Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Jacinda Ardern and I’m the prime minister of New Zealand. And I’m the third female prime minister, the second youngest, and the youngest female prime minister.
You were 17 when you joined the Labour party in New Zealand?
Yes, I joined a political party when I was a teenager and for me it wasn’t because I thought a life in politics was for me. Absolutely no! In fact, if anything, I thought it looked like a very hard life. It was because I was one of those young people that thought I’d like to change the world, even if it was in the smallest of ways, it just felt like I was doing something that would make a difference.
At 17 did you imagine ever that you would become prime minister?
Until the day before I became prime minister I couldn’t have imagined becoming prime minister! And in part that’s because I’m a New Zealander and we are naturally quite a self-deprecating people, and part, if I’m honest, it’s probably because I’m also a woman who looks more quickly at my deficits; the things that I’m not good at, rather than what I am. But either way, I never would have imagined as a child that I would end up doing a role like this, because I grew up in a very small town, and there are 120 MPs (members of parliament) in New Zealand. How could I possibly imagine being one of them?
You’ve become an internationally famous person, a role model for many around the world, but it was just over three years ago that the then leader of the Labour party called you into his office and said, “I don’t think I can get there,” and said that he wanted to place his trust in you. I remember that first press conference.
… So do I!
… the impact you made, and the authority and confidence you brought to that moment. I think many people around New Zealand felt that perhaps you didn’t have enough experience, or that you were too young. What gave you the confidence to suddenly step forward?
You’re absolutely right. It was my birthday when the leader of the political party that I was then deputy leader of, said to me, “I don’t think I can get the numbers up in order for us to win the election.” It was seven weeks away and I remember being absolutely adamant [saying], “You have to stay.” I thought we needed to be consistent and that people wouldn’t appreciate us losing a leader so close to an election, but he’d made his mind up. And at that point I thought, “Well, he’s decided, now I just need to get on with it.” There wasn’t a question in my mind that now I had a job to do and that I could do it. You know it’s one thing to not be able to necessarily imagine yourself in that position, but when you’re there you’re just actually thinking, “Right, there’s no time for me to second-guess myself now, people don’t need to hear me question anything right now, they just need to know, and hear me say, ‘I can’.” And so, in that moment, I absolutely knew I could and so it was just a matter of going out there and showing that.
You’ve talked about that moment in terms of trusting your instincts. Was that something you trusted before you got into this?
Yes. I don’t know what I would do in this role or in politics without having instincts that I trust. Now that doesn’t mean that I choose to ignore evidence and research – that’s very, very important to me, to make evidence-informed decisions – but actually you just can’t ignore what your instincts are telling you; nor should you. I think one of the dangers of leadership now, and particularly in politics, is that we have so much information now, and so much research around the way that people think, and the way they process what they hear, and how we’re meant to present ourselves, that you run the risk of becoming over-engineered. And I think, if there’s anything that people need right now, is they just need to see human beings doing their best as leaders. And that means that from time to time you’ll stumble, and you should be honest about that; it means that people will see your failings and we should be honest about that too. People need authenticity, not, I think, some manufactured idea of what political leadership is meant to be.
If you were to summarise the qualities that have underpinned your path to this leadership role, what do you think has been most important for you?
Kindness, and not being afraid to be kind, or to focus on, or be really driven by empathy. I think one of the sad things that I’ve seen in political leadership is – because we’ve placed over time so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength – that we probably have assumed that it means you can’t have those other qualities of kindness and empathy. And yet, when you think about all the big challenges that we face in the world, that’s probably the quality we need the most. We need our leaders to be able to empathise with the circumstances of others; to empathise with the next generation that we’re making decisions on behalf of. And if we focus only on being seen to be the strongest, most powerful person in the room, then I think we lose what we’re meant to be here for. So I’m proudly focused on empathy, because you can be both empathetic and strong.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned as a leader?
That you won’t necessarily get tougher. When I first came into politics I remember talking to a member of parliament who I thought was quite a tough cookie, and asking him, “How did you, how do you, build your thick skin?”. He was horrified that I thought that he was like that! He said stuff still got to him, and that actually if stuff ever stopped getting to you then you’d probably lost your empathy, and it was never worth losing that. And so, I actually decided I didn’t necessarily want to build some tough exterior. Instead I just learned how to filter things; how to kind of take on board that criticism and listen to it when I needed to, or otherwise say, “Well, actually that person’s just coming from a very different perspective”, and just learn how to filter it. And so that was a really big learning curve, you know? Actually, the world doesn’t need a whole lot of massively thickskinned politicians; they do need people who care. The odd sensitive flower is OK.
Can you describe a key moment or crisis that has particularly tested you as a leader?
Yes, the 15th of March . That was when New Zealand, for the first time in its modern history, experienced a horrific terrorist attack in the Muslim community. Fifty-one people lost their lives.
Tell us a little about your process and feelings around that time. How did you work out how you, as a leader, were supposed to react? What you could do?
You know, I don’t ever remember thinking about how I was meant to react or what it was I was meant to be. The only thing I did remember thinking, was that I knew I couldn’t show every emotion that I was feeling; that wasn’t what everyone needed. They really just wanted to hear what everyone else was thinking.
I’ve always said I felt like all I did at that time was just reflect back what I was seeing, and amongst this horrific human tragedy I just saw this outpouring of grief and love for a community who gave that all back in return. And that was one of the things I think to this day remains the most staggering for me in all of this, that not even 24 hours after the shooting I went to Christchurch and sat face to face with some of the people who, the day before, were in the media covered in blood having been right there where this massacre occurred, and as they stood up I just couldn’t imagine what they were going to say. I thought it might be anger, but they stood and said, “Thank you”. They thanked New Zealanders. Twenty-four hours later they were thanking us for our response to the community, and that was both devastating and also had me in awe; that a community could be so forgiving.
And so really, from there, that just said to me, “Well, who are we to display anything other than love and kindness under those circumstances”, and that’s what New Zealand did.
This is an edited extract from I know this to be true: Jacinda Ardern, interview and photography by Geoff Blackwell, Murdoch Books RRP $17.99