In a world where leaders have so many conflicting ideas about how to lead, how to be, Jacinda Ardern encourages you to be yourself.
New Zealand’s former prime minister delivered a lovely, compelling valedictory speech earlier this week. Appearing in a Maori cloak, she began her farewell address by speaking in Maori, honoring the original people of her country first. She spoke of the responsibility and privilege of the role of prime minister. She took accountability for how controversial she was.
Most importantly, she articulated what she was proud of and celebrated — by name — those who had a hand in those successes. She looked at them and smiled a big smile as her way of saying thank you, while outlining some of what they achieved together:
“We won’t know what it means to the Pacific communities that we finally apologized for the dawn raids. There will be no list of the lives saved because of the banning of military-style, semi-automatic weapons. We won’t know how we made women feel about their ability to make their own choices when this parliament decriminalized abortion. Or when we improved pay equity. Or reached 50% representation of women in parliament. These are things I feel very proud of.”
She spoke of the tragedies she confronted as a leader and how they humbled her and focused her work. How a nation doesn’t move on from these heartbreaking moments, but how, instead, they become a part of its fabric.
She talked about how her mother sent her notes of encouragement that she would sometimes share with her staff — except for one, which she considered too grandiose. It read, “Remember, even Jesus had people who didn’t like him.”
She spoke about what remained unfinished and challenged the next generation of leaders to carry on the work. She engaged humor and personal stories, often causing the entire room to erupt with laughter. She shared several poignant perspectives for us to learn from, including “Leadership is always about progress. Sometimes you can measure it, and sometimes you can’t.” And “Whatever I did here, I never did alone.”
In other words, she was utterly herself.
She addressed her caring and sensitivity, her instinctive nature to provide comfort to those who were hurting by offering a hug. “I would rather be criticized for being a hugger than heartless. And so hug I did.”
She concluded with these deeply encouraging words:
“You can be anxious, sensitive, kind, and wear your heart on your sleeve. You can be a mother, or not. You can be an ex-Mormon, or not. You can be a nerd, a crier, a hugger. You can be all of these things. And not only can you be here, you can lead, just like me."
There is no formula for leadership, no tidy list of do’s and don’ts. Leadership is personal. If there’s just one thing I’d urge you to remember as you consider Ardern’s words, it is this: Be proud of what you have created, accomplished, made happen under your leadership. Thank those who helped make all of that happen. And be utterly yourself.
Previously published on Forbes