Jacinda Ardern announced this week that is resigning as New Zealand PM because she doesn’t have enough left in the tank to continue doing the job.
Like many, I think this is a shame and a big loss not only to New Zealand but to the world. She has demonstrated there is another way to lead, with kindness and grace. She has stood out amongst world leaders (which, frankly, says as much about them as about her) as a beacon of hope for a better way doing politics.
Ardern has led during a particularly challenging period marked not just with COVID but with natural disasters and terrorist attacks. All the time she has had to endure constant attacks on social media and threats to her and her family. She is just worn out and self-aware enough to recognise it. I wonder how many men would reach the same conclusion?
Even in the act of stepping down, she has provided leadership, showing there is another way to be and to act, rather than doggedly clinging to power to the detriment of all. As she put in her own words, “I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind, but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused. And that you can be your own kind of leader – one who knows when it’s time to go.”
The phrase that really resonates with me is ‘that you can be your own kind of leader’. The mistake that many make is to see ‘being a leader’ as something other than being themselves. They adopt behaviours and personae that they think make them a ‘leader’ but are misaligned, and sometimes opposite to, their personality, values and beliefs. This not only makes them ineffective as leaders, it brings them into conflict with themselves and causes them harm.
Jacinda Ardern has shown that you can lead and be true to yourself. I’m not fond of the concept of authenticity in leadership - after all, Trump is ‘authentic’ but not in a good way. However, when we see Jacinda Ardern it’s the word that comes to mind because we know we are seeing something real beneath the image. I think what we see is her soul.
Someone said to me recently that leadership is a divine act. Maybe that’s what they were getting at.
As my friend Sharon Aneja points out, Ardern is resigning because she is burnt out and yet we are not talking about that. It is just accepted that it is a demanding job and so no action is taken to limit those demands. They have escalated hugely in recent years with the growth of rolling news networks, social media and a more VUCA world environment and yet the attitude has been that leaders just have to ‘suck it up’.
She is a very self-aware person surrounded by a strong support network and yet even she has been defeated by the demands. If we continue on this path, that only people that will be able to survive in this environment are psychopaths, sociopaths and those who can isolate themselves from job by dint of their personal wealth and status. Arguably, we already see this is happening.
The same picture is seen in other professions and in business generally. We just accept that jobs burn people out and allow the demands to ratchet up, without any thought for the consequences. It’s not sustainable and it has some very undesirable outcomes.
Gen Z are already voting with their feet and declining to enter into these roles. Half of them have no intention of working in a salaried position, preferring to work for themselves.
We see a slightly different affect amongst millennials, who decline advancement because the trade-offs are too great. In the UK, for example, we see more GPs seeking salaried posts or locum work rather than follow the usual route of becoming a partner in a practice because the demands are no longer justified by the rewards. In fact, they are actually damaging to their health and wellbeing.
As Jeffery Pfeffer pointed out in ‘Dying For A Paycheck’, work is killing us, slowly but surely. Unless this is addressed seriously, more and more people will opt out to some degree. The very structure of organisations, and indeed society itself, is under threat.
Most of us are not leading a country through challenging times, so the causes of the burnout we face are rather more prosaic. They are, however, well known:
Perceived lack of control
Lack of reward and recognition
Lack of fairness
We can identify them and take steps to mitigate them (and people like Sharon can help organisations do this) but the question is why do these conditions arise in the first place?
Burnout is a fairly recent phenomenon, at least on the scale that we see it today. When I entered the workforce some 40 years ago, it was unknown. A few people might ‘flame out’ but they tended to be quite high profile and somewhat extreme personalities. We didn’t see it happening to ordinary people doing ordinary jobs as we do today.
The reason is the system that we operate in, which has changed over that period. The social contract that existed back then has been dismantled over time as the tenets of neoliberalism have taken hold. The economist Richard Murphy summed this up in a fairly recent blog (sadly I can’t find the original as he is so prolific!):
‘If you are working for a FTSE100 company then your bosses want to reduce your wages, minimise investment, reduce profitability and increase borrowing so that they can increase dividends because that will raise the share price which will give them massive bonuses.’
Where these companies lead, others follow as this becomes accepted business practice. The ethos is ingrained that the business is operated to the maximum benefit of those who run it. The result is the increasing incidence of burnout that we see.
Outside of the big companies, the damage may be done unwittingly. The mechanics may be slightly different. A privately-owned company is not seeking to raise share prices but is still seeking to maximise the rewards of the owners at the detriment of the employees.
The value of being aware of how the system operates is two-fold. Firstly, pressure can be applied to change the system, and there is some evidence of this happening (although how much is ‘purpose washing’ and PR rather than actual change is open to debate).
Secondly, awareness of why the pressures are arising makes them easier to manage - and resist. These are not inevitable consequences of business today, they are the result of choices by shareholders, senior managers, politicians and the rest. You also have choices, you can use your agency to protect yourself against burnout, to define and defend your boundaries and prioritise your own wellbeing. We see some evidence of people doing this by, for example, pushing back on ‘Return to Office’ mandates, or withdrawing their discretionary effort and only working as contracted (pejoratively labelled ‘Quiet Quitting’).
We don’t have to be victims of the system we find ourselves in. We have agency. We can decrapify work, maybe not completely but, at the very least, within our sphere of influence .
Fun Boy Three
Here’s an exclusive just for you, dear readers - pre-release access to my new thing, the Work Punks vlog/podcast!
Who are the Work Punks? Me, Ben Simpson and Paul Jansen, who have a mutual interest in all things to do with progressive organisations and the future of work, as well as the music and energy of punk.
The Work Punks vlog is 30 minutes of us having a ‘down the pub’ type conversation where each of us share a topic that has caught our eye and generally sticking the needle in accepted working practices.
Have a look at the first episode and let us know what you think. Subscribe to the YouTube channel to get alerted to future editions (initially, monthly - but if it’s popular, who knows?).
It’s an experiment, it’s fun to do and we are learning lots from the process, so we are practicing what we preach. Even old dogs can learn new tricks!