Leading with Heart: Lessons on Authenticity from Former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

This year at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women, we were honored to hear former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern share profound insights from her globally lauded premiership. Ardern made history as the world’s youngest female head of government when she took office in 2017 at age 37. During her tenure, she led New Zealand through tragedies like the Christchurch mosque shootings and the COVID-19 pandemic with remarkable strength and empathy.

Though no longer in office, Ardern’s reflections on leadership resonated deeply with the audience. She emphasized the importance of bringing one’s full self to leadership – uncertainties, imperfections, and all. While admitting the tremendous pressures and responsibilities of governing, Ardern refused to pretend she could somehow “do it all” alone. Instead, she urged women leaders to reject perfectionism and guilt, quoting her view that, “Batman had Robin – Wonder Woman deserves a crew too!” Rather than shouldering everything herself, she learned to ask others for help and work collaboratively while staying true to her values.

This commitment to authenticity meant embracing imperfection, working through her own struggle with imposter syndrome, and focusing on the people. Ardern stated, at the end of the day she would “rather be a mediocre politician than a bad human being.” Throughout her tenure she resolved to lead with compassion first. Ardern reflected candidly on how all leaders, herself included, “carry the burden of guilt” – wondering if we’re doing enough both professionally and personally. However, by accepting that no one can be all things to all people, we can find peace in simply doing our best.

Ardern’s most profound lesson came from reframing her experiences as a top politician and mother through her young daughter’s eyes. Having a child while in the prime ministership led to intense public scrutiny and unfair criticism, from others and herself. However, she came to realize her daughter would grow up seeing a woman succeeding greatly at the highest levels of leadership without having to sacrifice her family. Ardern emphasized that what was important was that her daughter realized she is loved and strong, and she has seen that women can do anything. This motivated Ardern to stop judging herself by others’ impossible standards and instead lead authentically as only she could. She emerged stronger, proudly advocating for working families.

Jacinda Ardern’s candid reflections reveal the power of bringing one’s whole self to leadership. By being open about self-doubt, asking others for help, and rejecting perfectionism, she led New Zealand with both heart and strength through tumultuous times. Ardern believes that when leaders connect authentically to their core values, they gain the courage and compassion to handle even the most difficult decisions and moments. Though no longer Prime Minister, her words will continue inspiring women everywhere to lead with empathy, vulnerability, and authenticity.