It is time empathy, such as was shown by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, is given its proper place by those in authority.

Earlier this year, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern demonstrated extraordinary empathy in response to the nation’s worst mass shooting in modern history. At a time of chaos and tragedy, her ability to act decisively and with compassion shone a light on the true power of empathy that unites and inspires and earned her international praise from people like Oprah Winfrey, who told guests at the Women in the World Summit 2019 to channel their ‘inner Jacindas’.

Speaking to Leader, Melbourne Business School Professorial Fellow Amanda Sinclair said we could all learn something from Ms Ardern’s approach to leadership.

“Jacinda is deeply empathetic and someone prepared to do politics very differently,” she said. “She is a well-rounded and inspiring political leader who is authentic and acts with dignity, rather than getting involved in political bunfights.”

Prepared to cross traditional ideological divides, Ms Sinclair is an author, researcher, teacher and consultant in the areas of leadership, change, gender and diversity. She has written many articles and books on leadership and continues to learn new lessons in the field.

Ms Sinclair believes people who are empathetic are skilled at embracing their own emotions.

“Look at the reaction from Jacinda Ardern in response to the shootings,” she said.

“She just stepped up to a nation that was grieving and was ready to talk about her own emotions and the public’s.

“Her ability to lead is something we need in politics and in organisations more generally.”

With a long-term interest in emotional intelligence, Ms Sinclair said stoic leaders who suppressed their emotions were very uninspiring.

“In many ways, the template of leadership needs to change,” she said.

“It’s counterproductive to follow the somewhat traditional model of leadership that keeps people’s emotions bottled-up.

“Empathy demonstrates a sensitivity to the emotions of others. Being able to read the language of your own and other people’s emotions has become part of the territory in leadership.”

The leadership guru identified her colleague and friend, former Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon, as an influential leader who inspired her.

From February 2009 to September 2010, Dr Nixon was the Chair of the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction and Recovery Authority, which oversaw the largest recovery and rebuilding operation Victoria has ever undertaken as the state recovered from the Black Saturday Bushfires.

“Christine was the person in charge of the reconstruction after the Victorian bushfires, where a lot of people died,” Ms Sinclair said.

“She was prepared to show empathy and hear people’s experiences while understanding her own emotions – this was critical to her role.

“Her genuine ability to connect to people on a real level helped her walk with them during a period of grief and really be there for them.”

The ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes is a skill that requires people to be present and recognise their surrounds, emotions and other people, according to Ms Sinclair.

“Being present is a powerful leadership tool,” she said. “I work with a lot of different groups on this topic to discuss different strategies to help people become present.”

Whether you are in a meeting or someone simply requires a bit of your time, Ms Sinclair encourages people to park the work they are doing and take a moment to be present.

“For times when you know the work is important, get fully immersed in the moment,” she said. “It can be a momentary thing and doesn’t need to take long at all. People sometimes think it is about getting into a meditative state – it’s not that at all.”

Ms Sinclair said your body could be your ally.

“Sometimes people just need to sit up more squarely in their chair, take a deep breath and let their shoulders drop down a bit,” she said. “Noticing the sounds outside or taking a moment to see what kind of day it is can also help people become more present.

“All of this will help signal the importance of the moment and get you out of the fast and furious thinking mode. Not only will this be good for you, but it is good for the person at the other end of it.”


Amanda Sinclair

  • Roles Professorial Fellow at University of Melbourne Business School; author, pioneer in diversity and women in leadership.
  • Studied University of Melbourne.
  • Worked as a consultant in multidisciplinary teams.

Penelope Thomas is a Journalist at Seven West and is a writer for 'Leader', AIM WA's magazine for members.