In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley Holt, Roseanne Liang and John Campbell.
Capsule was lucky enough to sit down (at a masked, safe distance!) with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to discuss leading New Zealand through yet another traumatic time. Here, she shares what gives her hope, how she copes on her bad days and the moments throughout this unprecedented time that have moved her.
How are you today?
[Laughs.] I’m well, thank you. I’ve had a really good day. I’ve been out with people – even though it’s been at a distance – and that hasn’t happened for a while, so that’s been really nice for me.
When did you first come up to Auckland, in this new Level 2.5?
Monday! Straight on up. I went to see the Public Health Unit, I met with Phil Goff and I went and visited some new public housing. But it feels like a lifetime ago already.
Time is a very interesting beast – it’s really moving all over the place.
The concept of time has been lost altogether [laughs]. There’s pre Covid, lockdown, the time in between lockdown, and then there’s the second one.
When it comes to the language you’ve always used throughout your career, you’ve always prioritised words like ‘empathy’ and ‘kindness’. Why was including those words so important to you from the word go?
A couple of reasons. I’ve always been myself in politics and I’ve always had a bit of a view that if we want people to feel that politics is close to them and reflects the community and we attract people to come into this place because they can see themselves in it, then we have to show that we’re human. So, it’s a bit of that as well.
And then a third reason would be, I do think one of the big challenges that we as a nation keep needing to address is wellbeing and mental health, and that means being able to openly talk about how people are doing.
In the speech you gave when Auckland’s lockdown was extended three more days, you had a very beautiful moment where you said ‘if it feels hard, it’s because it is’. When it comes to giving those big speeches, I wondered how you balance the rhetoric you have to give as a leader, so people know they’re taken care of, with putting in those empathetic phrases so people know you yourself are a human, who’s also feeling these things.
I never hesitate to put in those things. It’s as simple as thinking ‘how do I feel now?’ And if I’m feeling that, I bet most people are. We’re very quick in New Zealand to be very stoic and we often don’t give ourselves the permission to say ‘Well, it feels a bit stink right now.’ I really wanted to acknowledge and validate that it has been really hard, and it’s okay for people to feel a bit low at the moment. Because it is tough.
At the same time, it will get better. And we will be okay. But knowing that that’s where we are now, for people to know ‘Okay, she’s not papering over anything. But also, if you can believe it’s going to get better, then I can believe it as well.’
You mentioned in one article that, when it was clear we were going to go back into lockdown in Auckland, you felt briefly gutted. How many of those ‘gutted’ moments are you allowing yourself during this process?
Oh, I definitely don’t let them last long. Because my job is not to wallow, my job is to process the information I’m given and then get on with fixing it. So, a brief moment of that, and then straight into a phone call or ‘this is who I need in a room to get the best information I can’. Let’s pull out our resurgence plan and get down to business. So, not long. But I felt the same way everyone else did, I just couldn’t feel it for as long. Because I couldn’t.
The message of ‘be kind’ was a big one in your initial speech and has become a phrase for this time – to the point where it was on the Vodafone banner on our phones, or on the electronic signs over the motorway.
I saw that! It really… [she puts her hand over her heart]. I was really moved by that. Because actually, maybe in those moments it’s the last thing you think about but it’s actually the first thing we need to think about. Be kind to yourself, be kind to the people around you. It’s going to be tough, people will be feeling stressed. If we’re going to centre ourselves on one philosophy right now, that’s a very simple but important one.
When it comes to leading in an empathetic way, how do you do the work you do but also create enough boundaries that the pressure of carrying the team of five million – and their hopes and dreams – doesn’t get too overwhelming?
Clarke says to me sometimes… you eat the elephant one piece at a time. And it’s… [laughs] it’s quite a graphic metaphor, but it’s that theory of taking whatever challenge there is – and in this job, I’ve found that to be entirely true – that no matter what challenge there is, take it day by day, one piece at a time. You’ve always got to have a view of where you’re going, because there has to be that wider perspective of ‘the plan.’ And then once you’ve got that plan, it’s just to take each day as it comes. Take the next challenge and the next challenge and the next challenge.
And as you go, recognising that ‘today felt a little bit harder than usual, I may need to give myself a little bit of time out at the end of the day, spend some time thinking about what that end goal is again, and then get back into it.’ No matter what you do, whether you’re a 16-year-old in school exams… some days, that day could feel as overwhelming for them as it does to feel in charge of a country. It’s all relative. The philosophy is the same – take each day as it comes.
You talked there about taking some time out… in this environment what does that look like for you?
Oh, I’m saying five minutes [laughs].
So, what does a micro break look like for you?
This is going to sound terrible but right now, a micro break for me at the end of the day is I read the BBC. And I briefly reflect on other countries’ states and what’s going on in the world. It just gives me a bit of perspective. That’s my micro break. Perspective is so important right now. And my other micro break is giving Neve a bath or reading her a story. There’s nothing like a two-year-old to just pull you back into reality and she’s wonderful for that.
I’ve got friends with Neve-aged kids and the number one thing they’re aware of that’s different is that the playgrounds aren’t open. How much is Neve aware of?
Oh, she was aware of that. On the first lockdown, we walked through a park that had a playground and she cried and cried. That was really hard – you can’t explain to a two-year-old why they can’t go down the slide. But as hard as it was – we were outside. When I was reading about Spain, their kids weren’t allowed outside for weeks. So again, just that perspective. But yeah, she noticed that. But otherwise, she’s of an age where there’s not much we can’t compensate for pretty easily.
You’ve talked very openly about the juggle it takes for child care, with both grandmothers, Clarke and yourself. How did that work in a bubble capacity?
Because we’ve been Wellington-based, it was predominantly that first lockdown for us. And the bubble was – me, Clarke, my mum and dad, and Neve. And between Clarke and Mum and Dad, it worked!
What was it like for you, walking to work, in the middle of Level 4 with Wellington completely shut down?
I would work from Premier House – my whole world was the house and the Beehive and I would just walk between the two. And I remember on that first day, walking over the overbridge over the motorway coming into Wellington and it was empty. Having this moment where I thought… within a 48-hour period… the idea that you could say to everyone “Right, everyone, we need to look after each other and so we’re all going home now.” And the fact that everyone said, “Well, okay.” And that’s what they did. I just thought that was remarkable. I just stood and soaked it up for a minute, that it would be easy just to forget how significant that was. But for that moment, it really hit home for me – how amazing everyone was in just doing it. And so fast.
The solidarity shown in moments like that is pretty phenomenal.
Yes, and also not a given. It would be easy to take for granted that everyone did that straightway but not every country has been able to do that. And that’s not to say that everyone in New Zealand is of the same view – there are plenty of people who don’t agree with the restrictions or the strategy, but even then, the way that those people express that is still quite considered.
There’s a lot of chat that comes up about you on Twitter where someone says something positive about you and then someone comments underneath ‘Can we borrow her for a while for our country?’ and then some Kiwi will comment ‘You’ve got plenty of Jacindas in your own country, you just need to elect them––“
And then others will be like “Good riddance!”
I mean, it’s a mix! But a common refrain is still “You’ve got plenty of Jacindas in your own country, you just need to elect them”. For someone who has been at every step of this process, from starting out in politics to now being prime minister, what would you like to see be easier in the process, so that more people – and particularly more women – see themselves entering politics?
A bit of it is on the system… and a bit of it is on us. I think if you asked any person whether they’d want to go into an environment where they’re going to get constantly scrutinised, there’s not much separation between work and life, it’s going to be pretty tough on your family… most people start with a pretty generally negative view of your profession… it doesn’t start off as a particularly appealing environment.
So constantly talking the flipside of that is important – you get to make a difference, it is a place where you can still make positive change… it’s a very fulfilling role. Amplifying that part of it, while at the same time making it a bit easier to be there and making sure those who have carer duties feel like they can still be a parent and do the job. And making that real! Whether or not that’s allowing your family to be with you in your place of work, things like that.
The bit that’s on us is that I never thought that I would be a Member of Parliament, let alone the Prime Minister. And so, the only way I’ve ended up in those roles is because at some point someone asked or encouraged me. So, there’s a bit, particularly for women, the confidence barrier, that we have to constantly try and overcome. But I don’t expect – because I didn’t – anyone to magically wake up one day and feel confident enough to do anything. So, instead, my expectation is that people keep asking.
Back when we spoke in 2017 and I asked you about one day becoming prime minister, you said someone with an anxious disposition, that level of scrutiny would be a nightmare. There’s a study that came out a few years that said a lot of wartime or crisis leaders were also anxious thinkers. I would argue that the reason anxious thinkers make good crisis leaders is because they are used to coming up with worst-case scenarios in every single scenario. What do you think?
Yes. [laughs]. Yes. You’ve already anticipated the crisis. There is a belief that sometimes the things that people say are negative traits can actually help us be better at our jobs. It doesn’t make them any easier.
No, but I would imagine that you are very prepared with Plan B, C, Ds.
Yes. I wonder a lot about the analysis of women in these roles.
Well, according to that study – Winston Churchill was one of them.
Really? This is fascinating.
I thought that was a useful thing potentially for women to know, in case that is also another barrier they’ve put there for themselves, when it comes to these high-profile and high-stress jobs. That being hyper-sensitive and hyper-aware could be a good thing.
It is. That can make elements of the job very hard. Because if you’re someone who’s constantly thinking about what might go wrong and preparing for it, in a place like politics, there’s a lot of risk all the time. So, it’s actually a constant. But, at the same time, that you’re often prepared and you’re often thinking about what might happen next. You’re constantly aware of risk.
When we moved into Level 4 and what was, at that stage, a set of globally unprecedented restrictions, you had to have a lot of courage in being able to back yourself to come out with something that was a world first. Going hard, going early. I wanted to talk to you about the process of being so sure in that decision – what was that process like?
I think I’d spend enough time speaking to scientists and experts in the lead up, thinking about our plans and our strategies, that actually I didn’t doubt the decision. Instinct isn’t the right word, because that implies that it wasn’t based on evidence or information – it was – but it did mean that I didn’t doubt it. I knew it was what we needed to do.
And that really helps when you have that level of confidence in that decision, because there will be people who question it or doubt it. And I didn’t have that – I felt very confident and clear in my own mind about what we needed to do. I’ve always based my decisions on the best information and advice I have. And what more can we do? There’s no manual – we’re all reading each other’s manuals to get a few ideas.
How do you not lose hope as a human or as a leader, in such difficult times? It’s just not who I am. I can’t think of anything that would ever make me lose my hope. And I say that post a terrorist attack, a volcanic eruption and during a global pandemic. I see no greater example of that than outside the courtroom, on the day that the offender behind the largest and worst terror attack in New Zealand’s history, and the people who felt the brunt of that, stood outside that court and said ‘the best decision I ever made in my life was to live in New Zealand.’ How can I lose hope when someone talks like that? That got me.