Date October 6, 2023
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At Brown, former New Zealand PM encourages optimism, perseverance in the face of division

Jacinda Ardern, who served in New Zealand’s highest office from 2017 to 2023, discussed imposter syndrome, leading through the COVID-19 pandemic and a range of other topics.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Jacinda Ardern might have joined her small-town high school’s board of trustees to lobby for girls’ right to wear pants to class. She might even have become heavily involved in politics after attending college, joining election campaigns and serving as a political party researcher. But the New Zealand native never aspired to public office. 

“I spent a year working for [former New Zealand Prime Minister] Helen Clark,” Ardern said. “The closer I got to observing her… the more assured I felt that being prime minister was for no one. It was a horrific job.”

Yet in 2017, seven weeks before a national election, Ardern found herself nominated for the job — and at age 37, she stepped with some trepidation into New Zealand’s highest political office. She became the youngest prime minister the country had seen in 150 years.

“There wasn’t a day when I woke up and said, ‘I want to be prime minister,’” she admitted. “There was a day when I woke up and saw, shoot, I’m prime minister. It was not a traditional trajectory.”

Ardern — who stepped down from her role earlier this year after five years in office — spoke about imposter syndrome, international political divisions and a range of other topics at Brown University’s 102nd Stephen A. Ogden Jr. ’60 Memorial Lecture on International Affairs on Thursday, Oct. 5. Ardern was the latest of dozens of heads of state, diplomats and other leaders to participate in the 58-year-old series; other recent guest lecturers have included former British prime minister Theresa May, New York Times editor and Brown alumnus A.G. Sulzberger and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo.

An in-person audience of close to 2,000 in Brown’s Pizzitola Sports Center and hundreds who joined online listened raptly as Ardern discussed her experiences leading New Zealand during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she called “without doubt, one of the hardest experiences I faced.” In the pandemic’s early months, Ardern and her administration made the decision to close the country to outside visitors and quarantine New Zealanders who chose to travel home from abroad. That policy not only saved thousands of lives and increased the nation’s average life expectancy, she said, but also netted her unusually high approval ratings.

“There were a number of precursors that made that possible, [and] the first was transparency — right from the start, being open about what we knew and what we didn’t,” Ardern said of the country's success. “That in itself may seem very obvious, but in politics, it can be a rare beast… There’s often an assumption in leadership that… we cannot reply, under any circumstance, with ‘I don’t know.’ [But] conceding we had knowledge gaps wasn’t just the truth, it was a critical path to building trust.”

Things became more complicated, Ardern said, when vaccines arrived. A small but vocal sector of the population voiced skepticism about the vaccines’ effectiveness and spread conspiracy theories, heightening political divisions in the country. Ardern acknowledged that she didn’t know how to persuade the skeptics.

“I found that incredibly difficult,” she said. “I was constantly thinking, ‘Could we be getting through this pretty differently? What could I have done that would’ve kept us all united for longer?’ But at the time, it was just a choice between hard and hard.” 

But, as Ardern repeated several times throughout the lecture, she remains an optimist — even in the face of ever-widening political divides in New Zealand and across the globe.

“There has always been a tendency to form ‘us’ versus ‘other...’” she said. “My optimism tells me that if creating a sense of tribalism can be used negatively, it can be used for good, too… What if we simply change what ‘us’ means? What if, instead of fierce nationalism… we seek to form our tribes based on concepts or even solutions to problems? …And perhaps we should start by asking that of our leaders first.”

Ardern tested that theory in 2019 when, after an Australian man traveled to Christchurch and live-streamed his massacre of 51 people inside two mosques on Facebook, she successfully lobbied for a nationwide ban on military-style semi-automatic weapons by appealing to New Zealanders’ shared values.

“We had a coalition government, which meant that I did not have the numbers in the debating chamber to do anything without going out and extensively negotiating with the two other parties we were working with,” she said. “[But] I went down to the podium and explained to everyone that [the attacker] had legally obtained those weapons, and therefore our law must change.”

In a Q&A with Brown President Christina H. Paxson after her remarks on leadership, Ardern discussed her efforts to curb methane gas emissions, extend paid parental leave to six months and preserve an endangered species of flightless parrot while in office. In response to one student’s question about how to become a change-making leader, she emphasized that it’s better to stay true to oneself than to hew to others’ advice about what traits make an effective leader. 

“If, in your mind’s eye, you picture… what it looks like to be [a leader] and you think, ‘If I don’t match that, I either won’t succeed or I have to change’... actually, neither of those things can be true,” Ardern said. “We need more people who are willing to carve that fresh path of different styles of leadership in different occupations, because otherwise we will keep getting the same styles and the same decisions and the same thinking.”

That was true for Ardern herself. The leader admitted that she thought she was “too sensitive” to be prime minister, and that sensitivity would cause her to “buckle under the pressure.” But Ardern said she has learned that people who suffer from imposter syndrome can sometimes make great leaders.

“You might be one of the people who’s quite reluctant around the idea of leadership,” she said. “[But] we need more of those people at the table — they often don’t see the skills they will bring because of their hesitancy… Look for the people who don’t put their hand up.”