Jacinda Ardern’s abrupt resignation made headlines around the world and not simply for the novelty of a politician deciding on their own terms it was time to go. The surprise was over one of the world’s most inspiring leaders, a role model for our times, bluntly admitting that after six years in the job, she was simply burnt out.
And for all the tributes being paid to one of the world’s youngest and most effective leaders – her 2020 election win was the biggest in New Zealand since 1951 – and the excessive attention that was paid to her as a female premier and new mother, along with how she managed to cope with so many pressures, there are practical lessons for the workplace that we can draw from her departure.
Being so frank about burnout is a sign of strength, not a weakness
1. Letting go is a sign of strength
Jacinda Ardern stated that the reason for opting out now was that she had simply ‘run out of gas.’ She was refreshingly honest, sharing that after years of continual challenge, leading her country through a perma-crisis had deeply affected and drained her energy.
My firm view is that being so frank about burnout is a sign of strength, not a weakness. It’s a clear contrast with other leaders who have to be dragged out of their office, almost clinging to the doorframe. Such stubborn displays might amount to steely resolve in these leaders’ own minds but to onlookers, it is quite the reverse: a final inability to lead and inspire.
We know that engagement can decline and teamwork frays with uncertainty over a leader or a line manager’s role, and with it, the organisation’s purpose and productivity.
2. Prioritise your life
Jacinda Ardern knew ‘when it’s time to go’. It is very unusual to see this at a senior level. Such a decision not only requires careful reflection on one’s current mental and physical health but also conveys a sense of a leader prioritising what matters in their life: power or family, success or happiness, leading or being led.
Those priorities don’t have to be opposed to each other, but at times they will be. As we see erratic or flawed behaviour in the boardroom or the seat of power, how many leaders can say that they have retained this all-important balance of priorities in their life? How many can be confident that they are an effective and inspirational leader for their employees?
In our own workplaces, we need to think honestly about what factors truly drive us
3. Keep a balance
Jacinda’s decisiveness stems from the fact that she, as an individual, is less driven by an all-consuming need for power and position, something that leaders, and those who appoint them, should be aware of. True leadership is less about oneself and more about the wider cause: what’s best for the organisation, its workforce and its future development.
It is striking how infrequently we see business or political leaders deciding to step back after a frank assessment of their own abilities, but also their needs.
In our own workplaces, we need to think honestly about what factors truly drive us, and to ensure that we maintain a balance between these different elements as we move through our lives and careers. Only then can we be sure that we will give our best and contribute effectively to the mission – and keep doing so over time.
4. Support the game-changers
Jacinda Ardern was portrayed as the politician that crossed the boundaries, but how high is the emotional cost to the game-changers in organisations that carry the burden of being the ‘first’?
In Ardern’s case, much of it was media intrusion, being regularly asked predictable questions about “being a female leader” rather than how to lead a country. But such lazy assumptions, or microaggressions, and even the welcome aspect of becoming a role model for women, were a considerable weight on her.
While we should celebrate a singular achiever’s progress, we should also be cautious about putting continual pressure and expectations on those that break the mould. They’ve put in the hard work, challenging received wisdom or finding a way to inspire others. Perhaps the rest of us need to step forward and take the load from there.
Her exit stage left offers practical lessons for those leaders and line managers grappling with leading, inspiring and supporting colleagues
Exiting stage left
Jacinda Ardern’s departure shocked many – but her ability to go at the right time, remember what matters, honestly assess her motivations and, crucially, consider the implications of her burning out on those around her, shows her lasting self-awareness.
More importantly for us, her exit stage left offers practical lessons for those leaders and line managers grappling with leading, inspiring and supporting colleagues.
Interested in this topic? Read HR’s newest problem: Managing leadership burnout.