Women in power: How Jacinda Ardern, KK Shailaja are redefining leadership

Being in power does not necessarily mean projecting a towering personality that creates fear. Power is not an opportunity to widen empathy gaps.
Jacinda Ardern and KK Shailaja
Jacinda Ardern and KK Shailaja
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Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, banned guns immediately after the Christchurch mosque killings, the biggest terror attack in the country’s modern history. Rarely have we seen a leader alter the gun laws of a country to restrict the possession of firearms by citizens as a response to a terror attack that took 51 lives. When asked about what led to this decision in an interview by the Guardian, Jacinda Ardern replied, “Very little of what I have done has been deliberate. It’s intuitive. I think it’s just the nature of an event like this. There is very little time to sit and think in those terms. You just do what feels right.”

Throughout history, world leaders have seldom felt that the right thing to do in the face of targeted violence is to avoid starting a bloody war. But Jacinda felt otherwise. Time magazine featured her on its cover and described her approach to leadership as “a new kind of soft power.”

When we think of power, we imagine hierarchy, stature and the capacity to coerce people into doing what the person in power wants. We imagine something that is inherently evil. Can power also be soft? Or, do women use power differently?

KK Shailaja, a tangible example

Being a Malayali woman residing in Kerala during the COVID-19 events, there has been an unprecedented, significant shift in how I perceive the notion of power, thanks to our Minister for Health and Social Welfare, KK Shailaja. When I watch her speak, I see a woman in power who subverts my perception of power being a tool for suppression.

Shailaja is a tangible example for me as well as many women across the state, for the positive, compassionate, nuanced exercise of power.

She had been widely appreciated for her efficient interventions during the Nipah outbreak in the state, which facilitated fast diagnosis and effective containment of the deadly virus. However, owing to the prolonged nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is only now that we have gotten the opportunity to hear her address the citizens more frequently. She comes across as objective and assertive without being dictatorial or one-sided. Even her criticism is factual and lacks the self-importance that most of her male counterparts often exhibit. This language of power is distinct from what we have been used to.

What makes KK Shailaja’s exercise of power positive is her understanding of the fundamental purpose of the power invested in her. People in power often fail to recognise the essential ‘why’ of power. In a democracy, power rests with the people. It is the people who transfer their power to those they elect. Therefore, the power that rests with our representatives is transferred by us, it is in essence the power of us, the people. Then why is it that our politicians succeed at making us feel powerless?

Revenge, control, conquest: The masculine narrative

While investigating the negative exercise of power, it is relevant to note that important positions of power have historically, almost always been invested in men. Be it in families, societies or countries, it is men who have continuously held the power to make decisions. Men have set the tone and context for the execution of power through their prolonged disposal of it. Therefore, the inherent suppressive nature of power as we perceive it, is largely a male narrative that has been normalised by constant use.

The patriarchal idea that revenge, control and conquest are the defining traits of masculinity is yet another tangent of the problem. Men often feel pressured to be violent and arrogant in order to reinforce their power. For them, it becomes more about feeling powerful, than exercising the power vested in them.

This personalisation of power is highly destructive and counterproductive.

Popular culture has also only reiterated the chest-thumping, alpha male prototype of male identity and nationalism. The popular idea that a leader becomes worthy of respect only if he hangs an enemy’s head on a spike, no matter how many lives it costs is a thriving narrative spanning from the epics to Baahubali.

In politics, if a leader decides that feeling powerful is more important than disposing his power for the welfare of his people, the very purpose of power is corrupted. This could perhaps explain the apathy, mockery and occasional irreverence in the US President Donald Trump’s responses to the pandemic and why he stands in stark contrast to Jacinda Ardern with respect to gun laws despite extensive violence in the country.

While most men turn the exercise of power into a personal game of self-importance, women are able to use power in more discerning ways. The society does not expect a woman in power to be as effective or successful as a man. Her failure is eagerly anticipated. Therefore, women have a space to try and err without self-defeat, which they can use to create their own interpretations of power. Jacinda Ardern and KK Shailaja are able to give power a personality of their own because they recognise these stereotypes and consciously refuse to let their conduct be defined or limited by such boundaries.

Power, like every other idea, has nuance. We are taught to believe that power has to be authoritarian. Even when we speak of powerful women, one of the first examples that comes up is Indira Gandhi. Indira’s use of power also followed the masculine narrative of it. She is perhaps accepted as a powerful personality by our society because she was authoritarian, ‘like a man’, so to say.

KK Shailaja on the other hand, asks the Kerala Legislative Assembly what the problem is with a woman being in power in response to an MLA’s observation that the state of West Bengal is doing well “even though a woman holds the office of Chief Minister.” Her question is loaded. She does not only ask what the problem is for a particular sex to be in power, but also why a woman cannot exercise power in her own ways, sans the constant burden of having to be ‘good enough’ as a man in power. She recognises the importance of political nuance. She is fiercely aware of the misogyny that surrounds her, and she seems determined to engage with it.

This is not to discount or take away from the contributions and struggles of women like Indira Gandhi, Jayalalithaa, Mayawati and others who have been in power, but to point out that most of them have had to always pander to the male version of it to be accepted, without perhaps realising it. Shailaja makes a significant shift in conduct.

KK Shailaja asks important questions and lives their answers. For a woman like me, who grew up embracing popular masculine standards of power, Shailaja is a formidable example, an accessible game changer. She does not feel threatened to acknowledge the contributions of her team in taking forward the tasks helmed by her, an expression of personal security few male leaders showcase. She humanises her power position by admitting to slips of tongue during interviews and acknowledging factual errors when she commits them, even while being heavily trolled by an army of online haters, predominantly men.

Women like Jacinda Ardern and KK Shailaja are helping me unlearn the inherent moral negativity of power. They teach me and the world that being in power does not necessarily mean projecting a towering personality that creates fear. Power is not an opportunity to widen empathy gaps. We must not let our masculine perceptions of power succeed in narrowing its possibilities, or inhibiting its respectful and objective exercise.

Leadership is about understanding the fundamental purpose of the use of power, of truly embracing its end goal – welfare, without making it personal or gendered for acceptance. That is exactly what these women do, lead by example and teach us our lessons in unlearning.

Sukanya is a freelance writer, poet and lawyer based in Kochi. Click here for her Instagram handle.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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