New Zealand PM Ardern Draws Largest Virtual Crowd in JFK Jr. Forum History


New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda K. L. Ardern shared her vision for leadership before a record-breaking audience of thousands at a virtual John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Tuesday — the largest since the event series moved online in March.

Ardern recently accepted the 2020 Gleitsman International Activist Award, joining the company of Malala Yousafzai and Nelson R. Mandela in receiving the honor, which is given annually in recognition of leadership in social activism.

Ardern and moderator Wendy R. Sherman, a Kennedy School professor who directs the school’s Center for Public Leadership, discussed topics ranging from pandemic response to being a woman in politics. University President Lawrence S. Bacow concluded the forum with a brief speech comparing the prime minister to the late U.S. Representative John R. Lewis.

Ardern opened her remarks with personal reflections on how she became a leader. She admitted that, growing up, she never thought she would become a member of Parliament. Her classmates joked that she would be, however; she was even awarded “Most Likely to be Prime Minister” in her school yearbook.


“I haven't always been the best at self-promotion,” she said with a laugh.

Though she didn’t initially aspire to them, Ardern landed in positions of leadership and eventually rose to the position of Prime Minister in 2017. However, she said she did not have her sights set specifically on landing the role and instead found herself as an executive after choosing to be herself and saying “yes” to opportunities.

Sherman said in an interview following the forum that she was particularly impressed with Ardern’s candor and humility.

“I was so inspired and so taken by her transparency, her accessibility, her humanity,” said Sherman. “She told stories about herself that make people feel like — certainly made me feel like — I was really hearing her. That she was telling me the story about herself, not just as a prime minister, but as a human being.”

Ardern spoke about the values at the foundation of her leadership style. She said she wants to impart such qualities to her daughter, including empathy, thoughtfulness and generosity — ideals she believes citizens must expect more from adults in power.

Ardern said she hopes these traits — and not traditional gender norms — will shape young people’s leadership ambitions.

“We still have young people, especially young women, who don't necessarily see themselves in the leadership traits of our politicians,” she said. “And that's something I want to change.”

For Ardern, leadership isn’t about personal ambition or being the “loudest person in the room.”

“You can believe in consensus more than you believe in conflict. You can be human. You can feel and show emotion. You can be kind, empathetic and strong,” Ardern said. “You can and indeed, you must, be your own kind of leader.”

—Staff writer Alexandra N. Wilson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @alex_wilson2023.