Jacinda Ardern, speaking to meaning, standing with people?

  • 3 February 2023

Jacinda Ardern’s resignation came as a shock to many. Globally she has been widely acknowledged for her style of leadership and for the results it produced. Commenting on Ardern’s relationship with the New Zealand people, former prime minister Helen Clarke hit the nail on the head by stating Ardern “doesn’t preach at them: she is standing with them”

But how does a leader know that they resonate with their people? Extensive research (Lips-Wiersma M., Morris, L.2017) shows that human beings share what they find meaningful in life and by referring to commonly held meanings in her communication Ardern connects with people. It is no coincidence that her communication is so effective.

The commonly held meanings of life and work are captured in the work of Professor Marjolein Lips-Wiersma’s Map of Meaning below:

Ardern understood the importance of both reality and inspiration and wove the two together in every speech. As the pandemic reached the country she enabled New Zealanders to face reality. She did not ask people not to worry and promise that all will be fine. She acknowledged the potential devastation that covid-19 could cause. “The worst-case scenario is simply intolerable. It would represent the greatest loss of New Zealanders’ lives in our history and I will not take that chance.” At the same time, she provided New Zealanders with an inspirational vision. She spoke about what we could achieve, beyond flattening the curve, always grounding her comments in the current evidence and scientific advice. This has been described in The Atlantic https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2020/04/jacinda-ardern-new-zealand-leadership-coronavirus/610237/ as “somehow simultaneously sobering and soothing”.  Meaning is held between the sobering (this is real now) and the soothing (but there is hope). Speaking to both grounds people; denying either reality or inspiration, leaves people anxious, angry, or directionless.

Jacinda Ardern also included the other key dimensions of meaningful living and working in her communication: Unity, Integrity, Service and Expressing our Full Potential. In speaking to Unity with Others she consistently reiterated that we were “all in this together,” “a team of 5 million”, “united against covid-19”. When the population was worried about the tens of thousands New Zealanders returning (some of whom had Covid at the time of their return), as well as a new cluster of cases emerging in Auckland, and feelings of solidarity began to fray. Ardern worked to retain unity through practical steps, collaborating with others such as the army, hotels and airlines, to find ways of keeping New Zealanders safe; through many Facebook chats she also spoke directly to the public, or with key members of specific communities.

Ardern consistently spoke to “Integrity with Self”. During the lockdown, she told us we were all on an honour system. In this spirit, money was made available to the businesses who had lost their income overnight: “We will trust people to be honest, because otherwise it will take too long.” Now that we are moving beyond the immediate crisis, people want to be reassured that the system is transparent. We are assured that businesses taking the money and not giving it out in wages, are followed up;  a minister not sticking to the rules was let go and companies taking wages while making people redundant are questioned.  In this way she kept reminding us that we are capable of integrity and also responsible for a transparent system. 

Ardern also consistently spoke to “Service to Others”. Locked down as we were, Jacinda asked us to ‘Be kind” to each other, “help your neighbours”, and we did. She reminded us of our health workers who went “beyond the call of duty” as well as the contribution so many individuals and families were doing to the community as a whole by sacrificing family visits, proper farewells, schooling and face to face collegiality. Moving forward she encouraged us to be collectively responsible for responding to the need to create new jobs and rebuild industries, such as tourism, devastated as a result of covid, as we as ‘cover for the other’ the current slogan to remind us to wear masks in public places.

Finally, she spoke to the meaning of “Expressing Full Potential”. We did not have to passively undergo the restrictions, we could respond creatively. Jacinda backed this up with her podcast interviews with specialists such as Nigel Latta, psychologist, on managing mental health; or with educationalist Suzy Cato on amusing and educating your kids during the lockdown, and with business leaders on innovative iniatives they had implemented.  Many people are now faced with creating new work for themselves, refocusing their business or, developing new skills.  The Government created 11,000 new jobs to protect the environment, fast-tracking infrastructure projects to provide another 20,000 jobs and making apprenticeships and specific trade training free.

When a leader speaks to all the dimensions of what is meaningful, it engages the whole person. As a nation we were engaged and mobilized, able to use our energy as fully as possible towards a common goal. In having a leader that spoke to both reality and inspiration, the people of New Zealand were not forced to listen to wild unfounded fantasies, or obvious denial.  We were not encouraged to claim personal freedoms at the expense of everyone else.  We did not have to witness lies, preferential treatment, cronyism, and lack of integrity in our leaders.  We did not have to see people forced to compete with others for life-saving equipment.  Instead of the rage and shame that many citizens overseas feel we have noticed a quiet pride in New Zealanders, in what ‘we’ have accomplished, and with it an appetitie to take on the next challenge. 

Jacinda during this time was called a saint.  She is not, and would never see herself as one.  She is human, flawed, and funny. But she is a human being who speaks to the humanness in others by speaking to meaning. And she continues to do this, as she has done from the beginning of her job.

Even though Jacinda has stepped down, the task of recreating the country continues.  The power of having a Map of Meaning is that we can, with such a framework, actively design what is meaningful into our future.  We can generate a meaning-centred society. Jacinda Ardern has demonstrated compellingly that understanding what is meaningful to human beings is core to good government and good leadership.


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