Last month saw the departure of two influential heavyweights of the political scene from both sides of the globe. Firstly, on 19 January, it was New Zealand’s fortieth prime minister and Labour leader Jacinda Adern, followed four weeks later by the first minister of Scotland, and SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon. It got us thinking once more about women in leadership and the embracement of vulnerability in knowing when it’s time to move aside.
In her acceptance speech on November 19 2014, Nicola Sturgeon opened up with a pledge to the people of Scotland, “I will be the first minister for all of Scotland, regardless of your politics or point of view. My job is to serve you and I promise to do this to the very best of my ability”. Since that date, Sturgeon has gone on to be the longest serving first minister of Scotland.
However, for every supporter that Nicola Sturgeon has, there’s a critic. Indeed, during her resignation speech in Bute House, she pointed out to journalists “I am a human being as well as a politician”, suggesting that with her role put to one side, she has feelings and emotions like any other person.
“Giving absolutely everything of yourself to this job is the only way to do it. The country deserves nothing less. But in truth that can only be done by anyone for so long. For me, it is now in danger of becoming too long.”Nicola Sturgeon
Jacinda Adern became prime minister at the age of 36 in the 2017 General Election, the youngest in New Zealand since 1856. Adern was a ground breaker in politics. The second female world leader to give birth while in office, she went on to make headlines across the globe when she brought her daughter, Neve, to the floor in the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. In doing so, she was quoted as saying that “being more open might create a path for other women”.
During the global coronavirus pandemic, both Adern and Sturgeon were commended for their warm and empathic emotional expression, their openness, vulnerability and clear decision making, in stark contrast to other world leaders, principally Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
Since then, popularity has dwindled for both Sturgeon and Adern. According to Firstpost, “Ardern’s popularity has since waned as she battled declining trust in government, a deteriorating economic situation, and a resurgent conservative Opposition”.
In her resignation speech, Jacinda Adern commented, “I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility – the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple,”. She further went on to say, “I am human, politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time,”
“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,”Jacinda Adern
Four weeks later, Sturgeon took to the podium to deliver her resignation speech explaining that she was “drained by the unrelenting and unforgiving pressures of modern politics…with a 24-hour news cycle, the intensity of social media and modern politics’ focus on personality”.
Ultimately, both Adern and Sturgeon indicated that, for reasons mentioned above, they were no longer the best person for the job because they were unable to give it the commitment, attention and energy required to do it well. People forgetting that they are human, ‘not having enough in the tank’, and a feeling that the role would be better served by someone who would give it 100% were common features of both speeches.
If you’re in a leadership role and wondering if it’s time to refocus and move on, here are some things to consider:
- Are you still motivated to do the role?
- Do you still find personal enrichment from the work you’re doing?
- Is your work environment harmonious and high performing, or is it toxic and unhappy?
- Are you experiencing burn out?
- Do you feel psychologically safe to speak out?
- Are you using your skills and strengths every day?
- Do you feel inspired to lead and to help others to grow?
- Do your organisation’s values reflect your own?
Leadership is a tough gig. Motivating yourself and others is tough. Making (sometimes) unpopular decisions is tough.
Knowing when the right time to move on is also tough and a real skill.