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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Leading with empathy

Neil Jurd OBE examines Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style to reveal what business heads can learn from leading with empathy and kindness

When New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden announced she was stepping down in January, she left us with powerful words on leadership:

“I hope I leave behind a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused…”

She led New Zealand through the Covid-19 pandemic and a strong economic recovery during her tenure as Prime Minister. She laid a solid foundation for the country’s future, giving her successor Chris Hipkins a good chance of success and making room for a new generation of leaders to rise through the ranks.

Despite all her successes, she faced critics who saw her empathy for weakness – yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Leading with empathy and kindness is the foundation of leadership as it is the basis of creating a connected and unified team.

Though I cannot speak to running a country, my own experiences as a strong leader come from my time as an Officer in the British Army where I saw – first-hand – the importance of kindness and empathy. So often leaders forget about the impact their own behaviour has on their team – but it is key to understand that when a leader presents kindness and optimism, their team will take on this behaviour too. This kind of positivity is infectious and is the key to creating a positive culture in the workplace.

The motto at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst is ‘Serve to Lead’. Leadership is an act of service, serving the people you work with and serving the purpose that your team is working towards. As an officer cadet, we were taught to check our soldier’s feet for blisters and injury after long marches. There is very little glamour in checking smelly feet. But by showing kindness and caring for your team, the leader makes sure they are fit and able to focus on the objective. The team notice and people feel safer working for leaders that care.

While you probably won’t need to check for blisters, it is still crucial to sit down with your team to allow them to communicate their feelings. This might be as simple as sitting down together with a cup of tea or spending time to work on the production line for a few hours or a day. This is a disciplined and deliberate leadership activity to build human connections and to foster greater empathy.

Effective leaders work hard to build and nurture such great connections with their people. They take time to get to know them, listen to their ideas and opinions, and be open to their perspectives.

If you are by nature, a shy or introverted person, it may feel uncomfortable, but the benefit is worth the cost. You will make people feel connected, engaged, valued and safe.

Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style has been admired across the globe – she took positive leadership to the global stage and showed it leads to positive results. Kindness, empathy, patience and care build strong and supportive relationships. Leaders who foster trust can give more freedom – creating engagement as they empower their time to think, create, and make decisions without constant management.

If there is one takeaway from Jacinda’s time leading New Zealand – it’s that we should all be reflecting on how our own leadership style is impacting on our team. Taking time to reflect, and then connect with others, will help you be an effective leader and motivate your team to perform at their best.


Neil Jurd
Neil Jurd
Neil Jurd OBE, Founder, Leader Connect. Neil is a global expert in leadership development and the author of The Leadership Book - the bestselling handbook to leadership and team development. His articles regularly feature in international business publications. https://leader-connect.co.uk

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