Former minister Lianne Dalziel says reaching out to help those around us helps us replenish our own tanks – and our own sense of humanity

Opinion: Much will be written about our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and what left her without fuel in her tank to sustain her through another term in office.

I want to acknowledge her leadership.

Leadership, as I have often said, is not a position – it is a mark of character.

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In times of crises – and there have been many over the past few years – people often look for the heroic form of leadership – strong, decisive, authoritative, and responsible. It can be comforting to have someone else taking charge; someone who knows what to do. When people are in a state of shock, it is the role of a leader to offer reassurance.

But what we have learned from our experience of crisis and the recovery period that follows, is that we need much more than that heroic form of leadership – we need leaders who can be trusted, leaders who are engaging, respectful, inclusive, empathetic, intuitive and kind.

Humility has an important role to play as well. Servant leaders do not put themselves above others.

And in that context, I wanted to reflect on the terrorist attack on Christchurch’s mosques on March 15, 2019.

As a Prime Minister, you can never know what challenge you will be called on to face. However, this was where Jacinda Ardern’s empathetic leadership set the scene for what was an extraordinary response.

The simple image of our Prime Minister wearing a headscarf, hugging members of the Muslim community – her pain and compassion visible to all – captured the essence of empathy.

She offered comfort and hope from a position of complete integrity.

I stood with her when she first met the families of those who had been shot in the mosques.

Empathy is an intangible quality, which is however, by its very meaning, authentic. That was her.

Those most deeply affected by what had occurred knew that Jacinda was their Prime Minister, that she was there for them, and that she knew exactly what they needed and how they felt.

Members of the city’s Muslim community felt understood and affirmed.

This set the stage for a unified call for love and compassion, which to me will always define our collective response as a city and a nation.

In what could have led to a global call for retaliation, we saw the Prime Minister’s image and heard her words ring out across the world with a unifying effect.

This was great leadership, and I will be forever grateful that Jacinda Ardern was our Prime Minister at that time.

This form of leadership is founded in humanity – the very essence of who we are as people.

When we were struck by a global pandemic that was no ordinary crisis, again it called for empathetic leadership: Be kind, stay home, save lives.

It was a simple message and one we responded to.

But as the months have ticked by things have changed.

Conspiracy theories have taken root, and the Pandora’s Box of toxicity that has poured forth from ‘anti-social media’ has in many respects ended up being more damaging than the pandemic itself.

The anonymity that protects people from owning this behaviour enables a stream of threats and abuse to spew forth on a daily basis. It is an intolerable environment for any leader.

Women leaders however are subjected to way more vitriol than their male counterparts, and even if it is not the reason why our Prime Minister is stepping down, maybe this is a wake-up call to remind us of the toll it exacts.

Perhaps I could use the Prime Minister’s metaphor of the lack of fuel in the tank, to remind everyone of another lesson we learned in Christchurch after the earthquakes.

I remember a psychologist who gave a talk where he referenced the expression ‘running on empty’, reminding us of the days when cars used to have a separate reserve tank which contained enough gas to get to a petrol station.

He said that when you filled the main tank, you didn’t automatically fill the reserve tank. That needed separate attention. He warned us that we needed to make sure that we did more than replenish ourselves during the recovery, we needed to ensure that we always had something in reserve if we needed it.

It seems to me that we need to acknowledge that we have been through a lot over the past few years, and we need to think about how we replenish our reserves as well as ourselves. And this is a message for all of us. How we reach out to help those around us, helps us to replenish our own sense of humanity.

And as we farewell and thank our Prime Minister for her extraordinary service in extraordinary times, I would want us all to remember her empathetic leadership and heed her call to always be kind.

Newsroom columnist Lianne Dalziel served 32 years in politics, as Christchurch East MP, Minister of Immigration, ACC and Commerce, and then as Mayor of Christchurch.

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