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"Tough, but gentle" - Lessons on Leadership from a Place I call Home

A personal reflection on Jacinda Adern's leadership in the midst of crisis.. and how we as leaders can learn from it.

The 9th of March, 2020… there I was, sitting on an Air New Zealand Airbus A480 bound for Auckland, via Los Angeles. Little did I know what was about to unfold. Sure, at that time there were murmurs of this “covid_19” thing, but I truly believed things were overly inflated by the media. After 30 plus hours of travel, I was “home,” well home to my childhood home at least, New Zealand. As the days went on, it started to get increasingly evident that this “covid-19” thing, was not just a “thing…” It was a reality, and by reality, I mean global pandemic…

Suddenly, everyone in our bustling Luxembourg, Paris and London offices were to head home, and almost over night. Just a few days prior I had sat with my team, and chatted over lunch at our long communal dining tables, we had laughed, headed back to our desks and we had worked, as normal... Next, my son’s school was closed, shops could only have one person in them at a time, masks covered the faces of a globe and Europe was officially in lockdown… and where was I? On the other side of the world, and I had just arrived… Typical.

Now, I have to admit, it was an interesting experience, but one for which provided me with a very first hand, world-wide insight into leadership, leadership when it arguably matters most - at a time of a global health and financial crises. The world was changing before my very eyes, and I was traveling it. In the month of March I had stepped foot in German, US, Singaporean and home soil... I had read the newspapers from each and sensed the feelings in the air..

Now, as exciting, stressful, thrilling, terrifying and exhausting as this journey across the planet in the midst of a global pandemic is, it is not what I am going to talk about here. Rather, I will use this opportunity to discuss one of the most critical aspects of not only eliminating a global pandemic, but also to every single area of our life, from running a company to managing kids at home, and everything in between. This is new territory for me also, I generally stay neutral here, I believe adamantly in creating a working environment free from bias, people are free to support whoever they wish, to believe in whom ever they believe, to be straight, gay, yellow or blue. So believe me when I tell you this is not a political push, it is a pure assessment of real, functional leadership.

And for me, it was witnessing first hand the unfolding leadership of, who many consider one of the best global leaders, Jacinda Adern my Prime Minister, and a leader I am sincerely proud to call my own.

Now disclaimers aside, whilst frantically tracking the evolution of Covid-19 across the world, listening to every leader, from the US, to Asia then back to my other home in Europe, trying to rebook cancelled flight after cancelled flight, through Dubai, Singapore, India - or any route back, it got me thinking... I witnessed the emerging juxtapositions in leadership approach. How some leaders backed science, others less so. How some leaders ignored what was going on, others even denying. But there, Adern was. Standing in front of a nation, with an A3 piece of paper, on a mission to "flatten the curve." It wasn't just me, it wasn't just New Zealand, it was the world, looking at her with sparkling eyes and admiration, yet again. The Atlantic even went as far as to describe her as one of the world’s most effective leaders, other countries (cough Australia) constantly follow her unprecedented strides and policy decisions. So it got me thinking, it got me analysing, it got me watching... How? How is her leadership like no other? But most importantly, how is it possible that one leader has achieved so much, so admirably, in such little time. I wanted to use this as the backdrop of this article, not only analysing what makes her unique, but how we as leaders, as team members and as parents can embrace the leadership lessons we can witness in Adern, and how we can change this world for the better.

From the moment she nailed the election, to the moment she announced her pregnancy… while being… ummm Prime Minister (you know, that stuff that almost no one has ever done before), to her strong stance on Climate change, poverty, her remarkable response to the Christchurch Terror Attack… oh and the White Island Eruption and now this, you know, global pandemic thing, I have gained an increasingly growing admiration for not only her courage, but her "human-ness." No matter where loyalty or political opinions lie, she has earned respect across the board. But what I wanted to analyse in more detail is the connection she has with her people, how does she do it? And why does this connection constantly lead to her overcoming such giant feats?

1. Actions entrenched in empathy and human-ness

Now, the concept “human-ness” is something very close to be my heart. It is entrenched in Tadaweb’s core values, in our technology and was the core component of my very first Ted Talk. I personally perceive this as the ability to interact with another human, on a human level. To form a true connection, an understanding, an ability for one to feel like the other person understands you. Where Adern nails this, it is her ability to achieve this at mass, across a nation, across a globe. She is a “hugger” (obviously during these times, “hugging” is not possible, but her people sense her embrace nonetheless) and she's not afraid of it. She uses many actions, that for many can be perceived as "weak" and metamorphoses them into strength.

Time and time again, Adern, speaks from her heart, she makes each and every one of her listeners feel as though she genuinely cares for them, she genuinely wants to help them. The devastating events that occurred in Christchurch last year could have brought a small country like New Zealand to its knees. Yet, her response was unprecedented. She united a country, when most leaders would divide, she refused to empower the guilty through the common “naming and shaming” through enforcing the stance that the attacker must remain nameless, and thus powerless. Then she immediately embraced the grieving minority Muslim population with open arms, and thus leading by example.

From this I have learnt one very critical element in my leadership: not to be afraid of what I always thought of was "soft." I am a hugger, I am a sharer, I am "who I am" in front of everyone. For many years, I believed these were not appropriate traits of a leaders, leaders needed to be stern, stoic and private. Leaders, I believed needed to be strong and never venture down to the level of those they were leading. Adern's leadership proves this is not the case, and to this day, I am happy to embrace what traits come naturally, and it has never let me down.

2. An excellent communicator

Adern is the epitome of an excellent communicator and she achieves this thanks to multiple techniques. She speaks to the audience in their own language, from their own level. She uses slang where appropriate yet educated, advanced jargon where deemed necessary. Whether it is her “catch-up” with the Queen of England or her unprecedented embracement of channels such as “Facebook Live Videos;” each are a testament to this. She is clear, concise, well-spoken but above all positive. When people understand what is being said, immediately a barrier is removed. Her presentations to the nation are for all, and she evokes feelings of trust, understanding, yet at the same time power and authority in even the most darkest of situations. She is tough, yet gentle – an incredibly hard balance to strike particularly for any leader, let alone a political one.

This "tough, yet gentle" concept is one that stays with me, every single time I talk to my team. Sometimes I achieve it, sometimes I don’t but every time I strive to achieve it. She illustrates to the world that authority and dictatorship are not the only path to having a nation that follows you. Her unprecedented approach to leadership is entrenched in psychological safety.

3. Creates connections, at their level

A lot of world leaders lead their countries from the top, from a place of so high that most people see it as out of reach from normality. Adern is different, her leadership style supports and pushes people up, it does not shout down. She is with her people when they need them, and she behaves like them. She went live on Facebook in the very early days of her motherhood, baby in arms, makeup off, hair frizzled and eyes sagging. She was a new mum and she was tired, but she was not afraid to show it.

In each and everything thing Adern does, she creates connections with the population, in each and every demographic, she hits the connection bulls eye, time and time again. If it isn’t getting covered in glitter at a local primary school, standing outside her residence on ANZAC day with a bunch of flowers her mum had picked from the garden, wearing a traditional Muslim hijab with pride, each and every single event – there she is, making a connection.

I have learnt that the power of connection with others can often be more important than the content of the dialogue. Each and every meeting I walk into, every talk I give, every meeting I take, I place "feeling connected to others" and equally as important as what I am saying. Neuroscience supports this, with studies showing that people retain information better, if there is a social connection.

So where are we now? New Zealand has recently been one of the first countries in the world to effectively manage Covid-19, they are already easing out of lockdowns and cases are not rising. The country listened to Adern's messages of "flattening the curve" and it seems to be working so far. New Zealand was one the first countries to undertake such drastic measures in the face of just a few cases, but it was a country that watched a world on fire, reacted quickly, made the population listen and now it is reaping the benefits.

Could another leader have achieved the same outcome? No one will ever know, but to face a pregnancy, a baby, a Terror Attack, a Volcanic Eruption and now a global pandemic, while at the same time incentivising the economy, reducing poverty and tackling some of the biggest issues around climate change - it is safe to say, she is one great leader. But that aside, what I particularly wanted to highlight was they was she breaks the mould in the way she leads, she is tough, but she is gentle - I believe this is something we should all strive for a little more.



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