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Why women should celebrate Jacinda Ardern's decision to step down

Ardern’s decision to resign as New Zealand prime minister teaches us all an important lesson about burnout, leadership and authenticity.
Image: *** BESTPIX *** Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Gives COVID-19 Update
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaks to media during a post cabinet press conference at parliament on March 01, 2021, in Wellington, New Zealand.Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images

The news that New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is stepping down early, quitting – in the Darwinian language of the corporate world – was, I admit, a bit deflating. I initially thought, “Is she really just giving up and leaving us with one less woman on the world stage?”

I could almost hear the self-congratulatory retorts from recalcitrant male leaders I’ve met over the years at the implication that Ardern couldn’t hack the pace, or, in her language, she “didn’t have enough in the tank.” They might say, “we told you women aren’t tough enough,” or “they don’t have enough stamina,” or they “are simply too burdened with child care,” to give their all to a top job. (To that last critique, at the age of 58, with four children behind me, I’ve at last found a nifty response – “well, if you’d do half the laundry, pack half the lunch boxes and organize half the birthday parties, she wouldn’t have to carry the weight of that burden alone.”)

From the moment Ardern, at age 37, was elected as the youngest female head of government in 2017, she has been something of a rock star in the women’s movement.

While her approval ratings have since fallen at home, Ardern still has a massive global fan base of women and girls who see in her what they could be one day. To many, she is a leader who looks and sounds like them. They too may have a pang of disappointment over her decision to step down and her reason why.

Perhaps we should have seen the signs of exhaustion. A month ago, Ardern was caught on a hot mic calling a male opposition politician “an arrogant pr---.” She then apologized to him and the pair turned the incident into a political win by auctioning off a signed copy of the transcript for, yes, a prostate cancer charity. It was the kind of political deftness her fans still admire her for.

That incident aside, there is certainly something a bit shocking and different about Adern’s announcement. It’s not the way most prime ministers handle their power. I’m struggling to think of a male political leader who’s announced they are leaving early because they simply don’t have what it takes any more to do the job properly, and that staying on would be in her words a “disservice” to their country. Political leaders only usually reach for that language when they are forced to step down because of a scandal.

I’ve come to the realization that it’s because of the distinctive nature of Ardern’s decision, and her honest, emotional explanation of it, that it should be celebrated not disparaged. How refreshing to have a leader who has the insight to recognize when they aren’t at their best anymore, someone who has the confidence to say so publicly, and then follows through with the altruistic action of handing over power? This is especially true in an era when ageing men around the world refuse to accept that their time in power is over, even when voters tell them it is.

Image: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sits with her baby Neve before speaking at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern sits with her baby Neve before speaking at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit during the 73rd United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 24, 2018.Carlo Allegri / Reuters file

Ardern has never struck me as a person who wanted power for the sake of it, she wanted power to achieve an end. And she defines a classic gender split on power – research shows women tend to value power for its ability to change things for the better, men have a more hierarchical view of power as a way to wield power over people or resources. There is an important difference.

There is also something to be said in her decision that advocates for term limiting all top elected leadership positions – indeed all top positions anywhere. Let’s be honest, being prime minister or president of any country is grueling. It demands crazy long hours, little sleep and zero downtime. Ardern hasn’t lived up to all her campaign promises, and her popularity has been sliding recently. But, as is the case with many leaders, and as she referred to, she has dealt with a string of unusual crises – a fatal mass shooting at a mosque, the Covid-19 pandemic, and a devastating volcano eruption. And she’s done it while having a baby. No wonder she’s worn out. And wouldn’t any other person be, if they’re honest.

We want our leaders to perform at their best. Unless we want robots, who never need a break, we also must recognize that human beings have limits and peak performance can’t last forever in the 24/7 demands of today’s overworking world.

I understand the disappointment that Prime Minister Ardern isn’t finishing her term. October doesn’t seem so far away; wouldn’t it have been less disruptive for her just to carry on until then? But we are supposed to be living in an era with a fresh empathy for mental health issues, and if we are going to say we want people to be honest about burnout (an element of which is how I read having an empty tank) then who better to role model that than someone at the very top?

Diversity isn’t just about gender, race, or sexual orientation, it’s about values, character and style. It’s about instilling a whole different notion of what it means to be a leader. Research by Professor Kelly Shue at Yale University shows that our typical impression of a leader is still very male. Specifically, she found that what constitutes leadership potential is having characteristics like assertiveness, charisma and ambition. Those are traits often associated with men and they help account for why few women make it to the top of corporations. We don’t fit the model of what it looks like to be a leader.

Image: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand.Hagen Hopkins / Getty Images file

But there is a growing consensus that our model needs to change to include traits like empathy, authenticity, and values. Ardern said she hopes she’ll be remembered “as someone who always tried to be kind.” One by one women leaders, in politics and business, are changing our perspective of what a leader can and should be. It’s slower going than many women of my age hoped it would be, but we are moving in the right direction.

It's why Ardern’s premiership has been refreshing. She has hugged mourners in public, taken her baby to the United Nations General Assembly, all while acting decisively on issues like Covid-19. It’s why her unusual departure is also refreshing. It is authentic, honest and in the public good. It’s what the world needs more of in leadership.

Katty Kay is a U.S. special correspondent at BBC and an MSNBC contributor.