What would you do if you were in the middle of a live television interview and the floor literally began to shake beneath your feet? That may sound like the plot of a disaster movie, but it actually happened on Monday to New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern.
She was about to answer a question from a television interviewer when she interrupted him to say, "We're just having a bit of an earthquake here, Ryan, quite a decent shake here, if you see things moving behind me." She smiled and appeared unconcerned, while noting that the Beehive -- the building that contains the prime minister's office -- "moves a little more than most."
What she was experiencing, with exemplary calm, was a 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck about an hour's drive from the capital. Tens of thousands of New Zealanders were rattled by it, some of them diving for cover. The quake lasted about 30 seconds, long enough for Ardern to mention that it was happening and for her interviewer to ask her if it had stopped. "Yep, it's just stopped," she said.
"And you're feeling safe and well to continue the interview?" he asked.
"We're fine, Ryan," she answered cheerfully, looking around. "I'm not under any hanging lights, I look like I'm in a structurally sound place." And they went on with their conversation.
World's youngest female national leader.
Ardern became prime minister in 2017. She was 37, and at that time the youngest female national leader ever. She has been praised for her calm demeanor and steady leadership in times of crisis. After the Christchurch mosque shootings a year ago, she donned a head scarf and made a heartfelt speech to Parliament and the world, asking people not to glorify or reward the shooter by ever saying his name. She's won worldwide praise for her handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, instituting a tough lockdown and mandatory quarantine for anyone entering the country. The result is that New Zealand has had only 21 deaths and has been able to begin allowing gatherings sooner than many other nations.
The answer to the question of how she managed to remain calm during an earthquake and how she managed to sell a highly aggressive coronavirus response to her nation's five million citizens is pretty much the same. She's a straightforward communicator, always herself, with no pretensions whatsoever.
For example, she's only the second national leader to give birth while in office (Benazir Bhutto was the first). At the time, some critics questioned whether she could care for a baby and run a nation at the same time, so she let New Zealanders watch her do it, with weekly Facebook live updates in which she talks about both policy and when her baby was sleeping.
In a recent such talk about the government's reopening plans, she noticed some comments saying that she looked tired. All things considered, that would be understandable, but instead she blamed the unflattering beige curtains behind her and relocated to a chair elsewhere in the residence, noting, "This is a much better corner, because where I was sitting before was right next to the nappy bucket."
Michelle Obama wrote in Becoming that she would often have to rise two hours earlier than her husband, even though he was president of the United States, to have her hair and makeup professionally done before a public appearance. Every woman in public life had to do the same, she wrote, and near the end of the presidency she even decided against stepping outside to watch some fireworks because she hadn't been done up and wasn't camera ready.
But Ardern may not have gotten the memo. She recently told a comedian who was impersonating her that "you do my makeup better than I do" -- in other words, she does her own makeup. Since the lockdown, she's actually been criticized for having gray roots showing in her hair. And in her most-watched Facebook Live message, telling her country's citizens to hunker down for a few weeks to fight the coronavirus, she's wearing a faded green sweatshirt.
It all comes down to one thing. Ardern doesn't waste any effort at all on trying to look like or seem like or talk like anything other than exactly who she is. That saves her a huge amount of energy that she can pour into being an inspiring world leader while also raising a baby. And because she's always speaking as herself and everything she says seems to come straight from the heart, it's easier for her to respond in the moment to anything that comes along. Even if it's a 5.8-magnitude earthquake.