The Israel-Gaza war shows why the world needs more Jacinda Arderns

Too few leaders are willing to show empathy, afraid that it will be seen as a sign of weakness

In this image made from video, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, center, hugs and consoles a woman as she visited Kilbirnie Mosque to lay flowers among tributes to Christchurch attack victims, in Wellington, Sunday, March 17, 2019. (TVNZ via AP)
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McEwan Hall is one of the most impressive buildings in Edinburgh. In the 1890s, it was presented as a gift to the people of the Scottish capital by a philanthropist called William McEwan, to be used – among other things – as the graduation hall of the University of Edinburgh.

I chaired a discussion about the future of leadership there, as part of an ambitious university initiative to consider what kind of leaders would improve our lives in the 21st century. Leadership failures and challenges around the world mean our discussion could not have come at a better time.

Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf, for example, was engaged in his Scottish National Party conference, and at the same time making urgent calls to try to ensure the safety of his wife’s parents who are currently in Gaza.

The audience in McEwan Hall was about 900 people of diverse ages and backgrounds – students, academics, business people, public servants, retirees. The panel was equally diverse. One was from Edinburgh; another was one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, joining us from Atlanta, Georgia. A third, a German academic based in Potsdam. The fourth panellist was a British-Turkish writer who lives in London.

Obviously, to anyone following the news, this is a moment when there have rarely been more questions about leaders and leadership.

Blessed are the peacemakers, but they are not always loved

Beyond the horrific events in Israel and Gaza – which we will get to in a moment – the US and the UK are preparing for major elections in 2024. The Ukraine war has raised profound questions about leadership across the EU, and of course in Russia and Ukraine.

Some scholars talk of a “democratic recession”, with democracies worldwide in retreat and a demand for “strongmen”.

Two things struck me most about the discussion. The first was that the audience was hugely engaged with questions to the panel suggesting an anxiety to find leaders who solve problems rather than create them.

Second, there was agreement that leaders rarely show empathy the way ordinary citizens do. The all-women panel discussed whether showing empathy is political suicide and whether the fact that most leaders around the world historically were – and are – male means that an inability to show feelings is regarded as a sign of strength.

Could a leader cry publicly and still retain the degree of command necessary to run a country? Do women leaders have to conform to male stereotypes?

Some referenced – with admiration – the empathy and humanity shown by former New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern. She won worldwide plaudits for steering New Zealand through the aftermath of the attack by a gunman in Christchurch that killed 51 Muslim worshippers.

When Ms Ardern resigned, she said: “You can be anxious, sensitive, kind, and wear your heart on your sleeve. You can be … a nerd, a crier, a hugger, you can be all of these things and not only can you be here, you can lead just like me.”

I’d like to believe Ms Ardern is correct, but sadly I don’t.

Perhaps she is an exception, but I can’t think of many – any? – world political leaders who publicly appear anxious, sensitive and kind and wear their hearts on their sleeve right now. They may, privately, be all or some of these things but they hide these normal human attributes for fear of being attacked for weakness.

And that, inevitably, brings us back to the horrific events that continue to act as a threat to peace and stability across the Middle East and beyond.

What is striking about the reaction to the Hamas murders of Israelis and the Israeli attack on Gaza is how all the divisions, old wounds and arguments that have never gone away have been reopened with the same lack of empathy and hatred from the past – and not just among leaders.

The Holocaust, the Nakba, the legitimate fears among Palestinians and Israelis about their safety and security, are at times discussed as if it is fine to forget that other innocent human beings are suffering and frightened because it is “Them” and not “Us” and “They” hate “Us”.

But the Other – the Enemy, the people you (or I) don’t know or don’t like or feel threatened by – love their children too. We all want to live free from fearing to worship (or not) as we please.

There are leaders who solve problems. A hero of mine is former US senator George Mitchell who spent months trying to bring peace to Northern Ireland.

He told me his technique was to listen and listen and listen to endless grievances, and when the various combatants finally stopped talking, he would say: “So what do we do now to stop this?”

Blessed are the peacemakers, but they are not always loved. Mahatma Gandhi, a pacifist, is believed to have said that “an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind”. On the evening of January 30, 1948, he was shot dead by a far-right Hindu nationalist as he emerged from a prayer meeting in Delhi.

But Mr Mitchell asked the right question. What do we do now to stop this?

Published: October 18, 2023, 7:00 AM