New Zealand’s Prime Minister: Accountable Leadership after the Unthinkable

Two of the critical commitments accountable leaders make are “It’s all of us” and “We stand together when all hell breaks loose.”  Accountability is born in those commitments. After the horrific massacres last week at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 50 people lost their lives, the world got a chance to see accountability in action.

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, sent both messages. She quickly responded to the terrorist violence with explicit words of support for the victims. Her message was clear: The nation stood as one in grieving for the victims of the attack — because the nation itself was the victim of the attack. “Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting,” she told reporters, “may be migrants to New Zealand, they may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not.”  That’s what “It’s all of us” sounds like in a time of tragedy.

Her phrasing was worth noticing, because it explicitly included immigrants to New Zealand, regardless of their legal status, as part of “us,” at a time when anti-immigrant sentiments are on the rise in many countries. Not every world leader mirrored the prime minister’s approach on this point.

Ardern then made an appearance at the Canterbury Refugee Centre wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf, or hijab, while offering her condolences to members of the New Zealand  Muslim community mourning victims of the massacre. This led to a wave of powerful visuals of the non-Muslim politician proving that she meant exactly what she said when she said, of Muslim victims of the attack, “they are us.”  Ardern also wore the hijab when she visited members of the Muslim community at the Phillipstown Community Hub in Christchurch, as well as at other venues, in a clear, continuous, and conscious sign of respect to the grieving community.

Those memorable public appearances, when coupled with Ardern’s successful efforts to secure government funding for funerals for all of the victims, her clearly heartfelt expressions of personal empathy with mourners, and her refusal to speak the name of the accused attacker, set New Zealand’s prime minister apart. She walked her talk. She ignored the haters. She stood by the families of the victims of a truly horrific attack when all hell broke loose.

And, in the process, she showed us all what accountable leadership during a crisis looks like.


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