Did Jacinda Ardern just teach us our biggest leadership lesson yet?

So few leaders know when it’s time to step down. Fewer still have the courage to walk away from something they may have worked their whole life to achieve.

They say don’t meet your heroes. But last year I had the chance to meet Jacinda Ardern. In person she was more gracious, empathic and effective than the reputation that precedes her. New Zealand’s Prime Minister is something of a modern icon for speechwriters. Just about every speechwriter I know is moved by the speech she gave at the Christchurch memorial in the wake of the mosque attacks in 2019. I still feel a well of emotion every time I read it. 

To me, she’s a personal icon too: a woman who achieved so much, so young, and demonstrated a different kind of leadership. Prime Minister at 37, the second woman to give birth in office, and a working mum at the top of her game—to say she’s an inspiration is an understatement. When I met her in person I was a shameless fangirl and asked for a photo. I promptly texted the photo to just about every woman I know. 

So, when I glanced down at my phone last night and saw the BBC News headline that she was resigning I felt a little bit of heartbreak. It’s an incredible loss from a world stage that’s crowded by men. We need more leaders who are willing to publicly campaign on issues like women’s rights and child poverty, not less. 

Of course her resignation speech was another class act, and I can’t help but wonder if her decision to step down is her biggest leadership lesson yet. Jacinda, who led her country through multiple crises, and was arguably one of the most successful leaders of the pandemic, could have led through another election and would have done a better job than many of her counterparts. But in her own words, she didn’t have “enough gas in the tank.” A speechwriter friend texted me last night: “that line’s going to resonate with women. How many of us feel the same?” 

She also said: “I am leaving because with such a privileged role comes responsibility—the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead, and also, when you are not.”

So few leaders have the self-awareness and foresight to know when it’s time to step down. Fewer still have the courage to walk away from something they may have worked their whole life to achieve. But over the past couple of years we have seen some high-profile women make similar decisions: In a beautiful essay for Vogue, Serena Williams wrote, “something’s got to give” and shared her decision to move away from tennis to grow her family and focus on venture capital. I put Simone Biles’ decision to withdraw from some events at the Tokyo Olympics due to the twisties in the same category. Incredibly painful and public decisions that were necessary to move forward. There’s something we can all learn from these women, who are blazing a trail not just in politics and sport, but in leadership, motherhood, and mental health, sometimes in the most unexpected ways. 

Jacinda Ardern is just 42 and she has already given New Zealand, mothers, and women around the world a legacy to treasure. She has taught us all that leadership can be done differently, but that when it’s time to move on that’s ok too. Even though she has already achieved so much, something tells me this won’t be her final act. My not-so-secret hope is that she’ll show up at a speechwriting conference in the near future, but whatever comes next for Jacinda Ardern I know she’ll have the gratitude, love, and support of millions of women (and speechwriters) cheering her on. 

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