DEMAND AN END TO POVERTY THIS GENERAL ELECTION
TAKE ACTION
Opinion

Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern - what two shock resignations tell us about good leadership

Both leaders demonstrated a balanced approach that many of their male counterparts would do well to follow, writes Professor Rainbow Murray

Nicola Sturgeon resigns at a press conference on February 15. Image: Scottish government Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Leading two small countries on opposite sides of the planet, Nicola Sturgeon and Jacinda Ardern have both won widespread respect and admiration for their strong, courageous and determined leadership. They are both women who have smashed through glass ceilings to reach the summit.

Sturgeon is the first woman (and longest serving person) to hold the office of first minister of Scotland. Ardern is the first leader of New Zealand (and second in the world, after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto) to give birth while in office. They both defended liberal policies and steered their countries through numerous crises with their calm, visible leadership.

But it is perhaps in their exit from office that the parallels are the most striking. Sturgeon’s resignation speech had many echoes of Ardern’s speech in January announcing her decision to stand down. Both cited the immense personal toll of leadership: long hours, lack of privacy, time away from family, and the human cost. Two women known for their feminism and their candour were willing to acknowledge that it is not possible to fire on all cylinders forever, and that once burnout hits, it is time to let someone else have a turn.

It is a running joke that quitting politics “to spend more time with the family” is a euphemism for being forced out for political reasons. For sure, each has faced her own challenges in recent months – Sturgeon is currently embroiled in the controversy surrounding transgender rights in Scotland, while Ardern was facing declining popularity and the prospect of losing the next general election.

But both still commanded the leadership of their party and the respect of their nation, and neither was under any imminent pressure to call it quits. In Sturgeon’s case, as she herself pointed out, she has weathered many a political storm. The current one is by no means the greatest challenge she has faced in her nine years as first minister. Indeed, in both cases the announcement came as a surprise. Both leaders chose their own moment to exit, and both chose to quit while they were still winning.

The fact that these exits come as such a shock is, in part, because of the stark contrast with recent examples of men who have attempted to cling onto office even after they had been shown the door. The former US president, Donald Trump refused to accept the outcome of a democratic election and stands accused of inciting insurrection in a desperate bid to hold onto power.

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

Boris Johnson faced an unprecedented wave of ministerial resignations while UK prime minister that finally forced him to accept the inevitable. The idea that office is a duty, and that one should serve only as long as it is in the public interest to do so, is a concept lost on too many of our political elites. Seeing two leaders step back as soon as they felt that they were no longer the best person for the job, rather than waiting to be forced out, is a refreshing and inspiring change.

How much of this different approach to politics can be explained by the fact that both Ardern and Sturgeon are women? My research on women leaders reminds us that we must avoid being quick to resort to gender stereotypes. The qualities of humility and duty are often seen as feminine traits, yet they are certainly not shared by all women, nor are they qualities possessed uniquely by women.

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

But we do also know that women in public life tend to be judged more harshly than men. The total commitment and devotion to the job that each leader gave throughout her tenure took its toll, but it is harder for women to survive in public life without excelling at their job. It’s unlikely that Johnson would have got away with as much if he were a woman.

It is also the case that women politicians around the world face violence and intimidation for having the audacity to be powerful and opinionated. Sturgeon hinted at this, referencing the growing “brutality” of life as a politician.

She also spoke about how ideas about her have become fixed in the public mind. While this is likely true of her male counterparts, it is an unusual comment to make when explaining a decision to leave office. Women’s growing presence in politics has been associated with political renewal – the replacement of the “male, stale and pale” with a new generation of politicians. The desire for renewal has now come full circle: we see women leaders seeking to avoid the staleness of their male predecessors by knowing when to quit.

Sturgeon and Ardern have both been trailblazers for women in politics. They have demonstrated that integrity, compassion and openness are traits that are not only possible but desirable in our political leaders. They have also shown that stereotypically “feminine” traits, and the “masculine” traits more traditionally associated with world leaders, do not have to be mutually exclusive.

But while both women have shown the ambition to reach the summit, and the aggression needed to win political battles, neither leader is defined by these qualities. Instead, they have demonstrated a balanced approach to leadership that many of their counterparts would do well to follow.

Rainbow Murray, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Time is running out – the next government needs a proper plan to end reliance on food banks
Queueing for a foodbank
Sabine Goodwin

Time is running out – the next government needs a proper plan to end reliance on food banks

How outdated misconceptions about people with learning disabilities are holding society back
learning disabilities
Ben Tinkler

How outdated misconceptions about people with learning disabilities are holding society back

Why I'm silenced by the fear of being called a bigot
Robin Ince

Why I'm silenced by the fear of being called a bigot

Scotland's promise to care experienced children shows how politics can give us hope
a young child is hugged from behind by a parental figure
Susan Loughlin

Scotland's promise to care experienced children shows how politics can give us hope

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know