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Leadership Lessons from the Courage of Jacinda Ardern and Nicola Sturgeon

February 17, 2023 Jennifer McCollum

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jacinda Ardern, the former prime minister of New Zealand, who boldly admitted she had “no more in the tank” and announced she was resigning. Ardern was one of the youngest holders of public office on the international stage, and she had long served as an example for how to integrate work with personal life. Last month, she officially stepped down from the role she held for five years.

One of the most notable images during Ardern’s leadership was the photo of her holding her infant daughter while addressing the UN General Assembly. As a mother of a young child, she showed up in a highly visible way for parents who were looking for a new approach to modern parenthood.

When she announced that she was stepping down from her role, at the height of her career and her influence, she cited the need to recharge her energy and refocus on new priorities. My immediate feeling was disappointment, followed by understanding and then admiration.

Her story—and the challenges, headwinds and increased expectations she faced—is something that we can all relate to.

I recently reflected with some of the leaders on my team, many of whom are feeling the pressure of an important year full of great promise and expectation.

Most leaders, but especially women leaders, tend to take on more to “prove our value” in our careers, all while trying to hold it together with our “second shifts” at home.

At the end of each day, many women leaders feel they simply do not have an ounce more to give. Our tanks are empty, as Ardern put it so eloquently in her resignation statement.

Most recently, on February 15, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that she is resigning as leader of Scotland’s government. Similar to Ardern, in her resignation statement, Sturgeon voiced feelings of burnout and the courageous acknowledgment of not being able to continually give her absolute best to what the role requires: “But if the question is can I give this job everything it demands and deserves for another year, let alone for the remainder of this parliamentary term—give it every ounce of energy that it needs, in the way that I have strived to do every day for the past eight years—the answer, honestly, is different.”

In those days, or weeks, or months that we can’t see our way out of the overwhelm, it takes great courage to identify a bold pathway forward for ourselves.

And what is clear to me is that the bold pathway forward is different for every woman leader. For Ardern and Sturgeon taking a step back—literally pushing pause—was the healthy and correct answer.

Many will question this choice and point to it as an example of women failing to “have it all.” That’s simply not the case. What is true is that this was the path that these women chose for themselves, and that makes it a valid decision.

Women leaders are scanning the horizon and identifying the opportunities available to them. For some women, that could involve an opt-down or a shift away from their traditional role. For other women, their journey could bring them toward a higher position or a new area of expertise.

Most importantly, women leaders owe themselves the time for self-reflection and should identify the resources, people and places they can turn to when they need support.

Here are three areas women leaders can focus on now to empower themselves on their unique journeys:

    Women leaders: If there is nothing left in your tank, where do you go to fill it? As a passionate champion for women leaders, I understand the power that your support network lends you during times of uncertainty and chaos. Close friendships, mentors and coaches, and formal executive sponsors fill important roles in your life. Every woman leader needs this support network around them.
    What is possible, and how will you accomplish it in 2023? As you kick off a new year, consider the expectations that you and your organization have set and the pathway necessary to achieving them. Can you right-size these expectations to your capabilities and resourcing? If not, can you advocate for the resourcing and support you need?
    We excel at understanding how our environment and expectations impact others, but we also need to be as understanding—and gentle—with ourselves.

Follow Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage, on LinkedIn for more in-the-moment updates like this one.

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A 4-day immersive learning experience designed to equip women leaders with actionable strategies to overcome the hurdles women often face in the workplace.

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