These last few weeks have been a disturbing and turbulent time here in Aotearoa New Zealand, and yet amongst all of the grief and horror, the leadership of our government, and of prime minister Jacinda Ardern in particular has provided a shining light of hope in a time of darkness. Her leadership and compassion have helped to bring order to chaos, to comfort those grieving for lost loved ones, and set a course that helped millions navigate their way through uncertainty and helplessness.
Her readiness to rightly describe the attack as a terrorist act and to condemn white supremacy in all of its forms served to highlight just how reluctant other leaders have historically been in this area. Her insistence, early on, that our gun laws will have to change, and that this type of hate has no place here, was in stark contrast to the dithering, self-serving politicians in much of the western world. Are these uniquely female characteristics? Of course not, but Jacinda’s ability to blend definitive, decisive action with quiet, gentle humility and empathy is what sets her apart on the world stage. That ability is rooted in, if not defined by, a noticeable lack of some of the more toxic characteristics of masculinity. There is no alpha-male points-scoring happening here. No testosterone fuelled confrontation on display and no fragile ego or reputation to protect.
All of these are reasons why Jacinda is often heralded as a valuable role model for young girls here in Aotearoa, and while that is undoubtedly true, I would go one further and suggest that she is an excellent role model for all of us. Not just for young girls, but for young boys, teenagers and adults of all genders and political leanings. In fact, if my own experience is anything to go by, men and boys could benefit from strong female role models like her just as much (maybe even more so) than girls.
I am fortunate to have had more than a few incredible women in my life over the years, both professionally and personally, from colleagues, peers and bosses, to friends, family, my partner and my step daughter. I consider all of them role models. Each and every one of them have made me genuinely better. A better boyfriend, a better parent, a better designer, a better team member, a better man and a better human.
From a professional viewpoint alone, my last three full-time roles have all been working with and for some truly inspirational women. Up until now I hadn’t given that much thought, or if I had, I’d assumed that was just a lucky coincidence, but in hindsight, I’d be willing to bet that my first experience of working in a female-led creative environment was so positive that I have almost certainly been subconsciously searching out similar environments ever since. The environment, atmosphere and culture at that first advertising agency was more collaborative and supportive than anywhere I had worked previously. Anyone could pitch ideas, people discussed things on a level playing field and we worked constructively together, rather than in competition with each other, to achieve amazing results for our clients and punch above our weight as a creative agency. At the time, I didn’t make the connection between The female Managing Director and the distinct differences in culture compared to other studios, but looking back now, with the supporting evidence from more recent experiences, I believe that they were almost definitely linked.
Arriving in Aotearoa and accepting a role at Spark NZ only strengthened that link. The design team and upper management there included some of the most fiercely passionate and creative women I have ever met. The depth and breadth of amazing women amongst my design team peers alone was notable, but in addition to that, the three levels directly above me were all female; My direct report, the Interaction Design Manager, her boss, the GM of UX and Design, all the way up to the Chief Digital Officer. At all of these levels of management the presence of these strong female leaders helped to diversify the leadership teams in a huge range of very positive ways.
Fast forward to my current role here at Alphero, and our Design Director and CEO are both women, as well as over half of the design team, and again the differences between this company and the majority of others I have worked at are massive. All of the things that made my previous companies positive, productive places to work are also as true, if not more true of Alphero.
All of these women are incredible role models, and like Jacinda, they all balance strong, decisive leadership with compassion, understanding and humility that seems somewhat lacking in traditional male-dominated leadership structures. In my experience, these types of strong female leaders create some of the most creative, productive and positive work environments. These are places where people feel supported and encouraged — truly collaborative spaces where people can challenge themselves, grow and take risks without fear of failure. Environments and cultures like these have become idolised and revered as the ideal for creative teams of all types, and it cannot be simply coincidence that of the many places I have worked over the years, the three that have come the closest to truly embodying these core values just happened to be the same three that featured strong women as leaders and role models.
I’d like to finish by saying that in no way do I believe that female leaders or role models are better or more valuable than their male counterparts, but that in order for us to thrive we need both. In a world where the vast majority of our leaders and role models are still currently men, that means making a conscious effort to actively seek out, listen to and learn from strong female role models, and celebrating those women who serve as an example of how all of us can be better.