Solace and steel
The world’s sitting up and watching Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, as a new model of leadership.
Currently the youngest head of a country, at the age of 38, Ardern had been prime minister for only 17 months when she faced a most serious crisis. On March 15, an Australian gunman killed 50 people worshipping in two mosques in Christchurch.
Ardern moved swiftly, putting on a black headscarf and meeting the relatives of the victims. She embraced them, held them in her arms to console them.
From the day of the attacks, she spoke out firmly on various issues. Reacting to how a live stream of the shooting had been put up on Facebook, she practically scolded social media sites for acting “all profit, no responsibility.”
She acted swiftly, too, calling for action on New Zealand’s relative laxity with gun ownership. The problem is partly cultural, guns being part of the lives of New Zealand’s population of farmers and hunters. Within days, her government announced a ban on semiautomatic weapons, accompanied by a buyback offer. Yet, even before the ban, New Zealanders began to turn in their semiautomatics.
Terrorists seek to divide society, but Ardern did not allow that to happen. People got her message, said softly but coming through loud and clear: The terrorist was “not us.”
When she addressed New Zealand’s parliament, she began with “As-salaam-alaikum,” peace upon you. She noted how the gunman was looking for notoriety. Her response: “He will, when I speak, be nameless.” Those few words effectively silenced evil.
When she first became prime minister there was cynicism about her youth and being a woman. The expectations of women leaders have, unfortunately, been calibrated by male standards; women are expected to be an “iron lady” like the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
This time around, we find a description of praise for Ardern: “solace and steel,” first used by the New Zealand Herald and picked up by many other papers.
Whether offering solace or being resolutely steely, what seems to have been winning people’s hearts is Ardern’s sincerity. One security analyst, Paul Buchanan, interviewed by The Guardian contrasted her with US President Donald Trump, who postures, “designed to mask weakness, sometimes it is a thirst for revenge.”
Observers noted, too, how Trump has tended to propagate hatred and fear of Muslims and anyone different. Ardern has shown that the power of empathy comes with letting people know, especially those who are suffering, that they are not alone.
I want to be optimistic about the possibilities of her leadership style in the Philippines but know, too, that we have some way to go because we are a nation where we confuse theater/cinema with the real world. We still live in a make-believe world of glamour and glitter, and of Superman and Superwoman complete with gender stereotypes. It is not surprising we give a premium to the politician as artista, and the artista as politician.
Ardern shows the possibilities of an alternative model, of people who can enter politics without giving up their humanity. She had a baby during her first year in office but she has not capitalized on baby pictures to gain a following. When she does go public with her child, it is something as a matter of fact, rather than a photo op.
I particularly like her characterization as one of “solace and steel.” The ability to comfort, to offer solace, can be one of the most difficult challenges for a leader. To some extent, women have an advantage here, being able to be physical when offering comfort, but there’s more to offering solace than embracing someone: People can, will feel the sincerity, or its lack thereof, in the physical contact.
In fact, one of the most powerful photographs of Ardern did not show her in physical contact with anyone; quite simply, it showed her looking out of a window, her face so full of anguish and sorrow. You cannot fake those emotions.
Male or female, we Filipinos can nurture leadership looking at Ardern and thinking of the premium we place on kapwa, finding our self in others.
At the beginning of this column I was about to write about how Ardern had been “in power” only 17 months but felt that was awkward. She comes through not as someone “in power,” not as someone “wielding power,” but as someone who is powerful in being herself, a woman of high moral ascendancy.
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