Leading with Empathy

“Empathy makes me a stronger leader.” - New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Resolve and compassion. Strength and empathy. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern won worldwide praises for her strong and compassionate leadership in the aftermath of the mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch. She immediately took action following the incident, “I can tell you one thing right now,” she said a news conference. “Our gun laws will change.” Ardern showed the world what effective leadership looks like.

Ardern’s decisive approach during a time of tragedy was also balanced with her compassion. A day after the March 15 attack, the prime minister, donning a headscarf, visited the city’s Muslim community and consoled grieving families and survivors. During a memorial service for the victims on March 29, she delivered a moving speech that earned her a standing ovation from the tens of thousands of people attending the service as well as immense support online.

Female leaders like Ardern shows us a new model of leadership: balancing empathy and steadiness, decisiveness and consideration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s compassionate approach in handling the Europe refugee crisis set her apart from other leaders riding on the populist tide.

Zuzana Caputova, an anti-corruption and environmental activist, was elected the first female president of Slovakia. A liberal lawyer who supports abortion and LGBT rights, Caputova shunned personal attacks on her political rivals, instead emphasising the importance of “values such as humanism, solidarity and truth”.

Nonetheless, women at top political positions are still rare. According to the new Inter-Parliamentary Union and UN Women report, women’s representation in top-level leadership has decreased in the past two years: from 7.2% of elected heads of state to 6.6%, and from 5.7% of heads of government to 5.2%. The good news is: women now make up 20.7% of government ministers globally, a 2.4% point increase since 2017.

As we highlighted in our blog last year, Ardern played an instrumental role in increasing parental leave in New Zealand, less than a year after she was sworn in. It’s imperative to have gender parity in governments because it leads to more inclusive decisions – from child care and reproductive rights to flextime and sustainability.

Carrie Lam, who became Hong Kong’s first female chief executive in 2017, has pledged women-oriented policy changes, from extending maternity leave to calling on listed companies to appoint more women on their boards.

At the legislative level, however, we aren't seeing improvement in female representation. While the overall number of Legislative Council members has increased in the past decade, the number of female lawmakers has slightly decreased, from 11 in 2009 to 10 in 2019.

The world is beset by seemingly insurmountable challenges – unprecedented environmental changes and dwindling natural resources, political upheaval and humanitarian crises.  We need more leaders who emulate Ardern’s leadership style of prioritising inclusion, compassion and action to effectively tackle these complex global issues. While many countries are yet to have their first woman leader, let’s figure out how we can genuinely level the political playing field for women.

Get in touch at Fiona.Nott@twfhk.org


Written by

The Women's Foundation