Opinion: Is Jacinda the real deal?

New Labour Party leader Jacinda Ardern shows the symbolic weight we attach to our leaders – but can they ever live up to the expectations?

By Dr Suze Wilson

The Jacinda-mania New Zealand has experienced since the Labour Party decided to replace its leader just seven weeks out from the election says much about the way we view our leaders.

Almost instantly, Jacinda Ardern was on the front pages of all our newspapers and it seemed the media and many members of the wider public had discovered a new source of fascination.

Much of the response to Ardern's election as Labour Party leader seems akin to finding a shiny new toy that can be poked and prodded to see what it can do. The more Ardern responds to this frenzy with composure, clarity of expression and good humour, the more she has commentators convinced that she’s the "real thing" when it comes to leadership.

It will, of course, take much longer to form a considered assessment of Ardern’s leadership, but our desire for a heroic, "ideal leader" is itself problematic, especially when attention focuses largely on stagecraft and “looking the part”.

Jacinda-mania highlights the huge symbolic weight attached to the role of a leader. Politicians and media commentators alike reinforce the view that there can be no interregnum (the period when normal government is suspended between successive reigns or regimes) without implying chaos.

This approach loses sight of the reality of the wider leadership capability within a political party, or any organisation. Regarding Ardern as a novelty ignores the fact that she was already deputy leader and had been playing a leadership role within the party and in parliament.

Dr Suze Wilson says effective leadership isn't the result of just one person at the top of a hierarchy.

Are we too focused on the person at the top?

This obsessive focus on the person at the very top of a hierarchy undermines our capacity to give due credit to the much more distributed nature of effective leadership, which involves the contributions of many people to make a political party, a sports team or an organisation successful. It is a distorting, romantic way of thinking that allows us to see only part of the leadership picture.

This focus on the leader has many other problematic consequences. It means we vest far too much hope in individual leaders, setting ourselves up for a greater level of disappointment when, inevitably, it becomes clear they are imperfect beings just like the rest of us.

Often this disappointment becomes vicious, bringing down good leaders simply because they weren’t perfect leaders. While we need to have high expectations of those in leadership roles, those expectations ought to remain human and humane. Everyone makes mistakes and nobody is perfect.

Another problem is the kind of fawning submissiveness and passive compliance which can result from a romantic view of leadership. This makes us vulnerable to leaders abusing their powers, or coming to believe they really are special.

Power is a brain-altering disorder and leaders are especially vulnerable to developing an exaggerated sense of confidence. Rather than indulging their egos, it would be better if we encouraged them to keep their efforts focused on serving the needs of constituents.

Look for results, not just stagecraft

What is it about Ardern that is triggering such positive commentary, given her leadership is still largely untested in the role she now holds? 

The phrases used by political commentators include that she looks and acts like a leader, has presence, looks in control, and has a serious vibe. Commentary of this nature highlights how much our impression of someone as a leader relies on matters of performance, in the sense of stagecraft, rather than actual results.

This is part of what allows charlatans, who may "look the part" but lack the substance, into leadership positions with alarming frequency. However, we also typically infer much more from such performances in regards to important, substantive issues of competence, character and commitment.

Being calm under pressure reassures others. Effective leaders do indeed play an important role in helping a group or society manage its anxieties. Not seeming fazed by difficult questions gives us a sense of someone’s self-belief, which is taken to infer something important about their ability to deal with the challenges we expect leaders to address.

Someone’s inclination to engage with, be defensive toward, or to shut down dissenting views gives us a sense of their approachability. In New Zealand, approachability is seen as an important quality of leaders.

A sense of presence, meanwhile, emerges from things such as a confident tone of voice, a measured pace of speaking, a direct gaze, a relaxed but confident stance and language that implies relevant knowledge tailored to the context and audience. All of this conveys someone who has competence and strength of character.

And then there's the "serious vibe" Ardern is said to have. It seems to rest on her spirited commitment to personifying Labour values in how she conducts herself. This appeals to those disengaged by more calculating approaches. This wider context matters a great deal for her potential for success: "Cometh the hour, cometh the woman", after all.

In Ardern’s case, it seems her time has indeed come. Her demeanour often accords with gendered expectations of women as friendly and approachable, so she is at lesser risk of offending against such biases. If she, crucially in my view, continues to challenge the often unrealistic expectations we have about leadership through her willingness to present herself as human and not perfect, then her approach may also help us become less romantic in our thinking, regardless of the election outcome.

Dr Suze Wilson is a senior lecturer from the School of Management at Massey University.

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