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Ex-Crossrail boss: Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style is what major infrastructure projects need

31 January 2023

The days of the ego-led ‘hero’ leader are over, says Mark Wild.

Ex-Crossrail boss: Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style is what major infrastructure projects need
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand's Prime Minister, is stepping down in February 2023. Image credit: Shutterstock

Like many others, I was disappointed to hear that Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, is to step down.

There are certainly contributory local political dynamics and reasons for her decision that I would not pretend to understand.

But I feel the thing we will miss most about her leadership on a global stage is the tone and manner of her leadership.

The changing world needs a certain leadership style

The modern world that we live and work in is increasingly interconnected and complex, with great uncertainty.

These conditions are unlikely to get simpler or more straightforward anytime soon.

The pace of change we all face and the growing threat to our safety and prosperity needs a certain leadership style.

One where all the talents can contribute to the challenge, where all views are considered equally, and coalitions of the willing can form and thrive.

Without this diversity of thought and experience I believe our prospects of success will be significantly diminished.

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The modern successful leader: inclusive and empathetic

Jacinda Ardern had a singular inclusive and empathetic leadership style. One that had at its heart basic humanity.

I really believe that this is the style of the modern successful leader. To be able to create the conditions where people can purposefully come together.

The thing that really confirms Ardern as an outstanding leader is that she combined this empathetic, engaging, style of leadership with a steely grip on the detail, and noteworthy decisiveness.

I think she has shown us traits and characteristics we can all learn from.

What leadership traits can we learn from Jacinda Ardern?

How do we move to this engaging style of leadership?

For me, the most important element is to become conscious of the central role of a leader to convene and align a coalition to achieve the extraordinary.

This means a leader who can actively listen to all views, a leader that understands that the whole will always be greater than the sum of the parts.

Intrinsic in this style is leadership that forms and maintains commitments among the many, rather than through singular, ego-led direction from the top.

In an age of great uncertainty, she seems to have inspired confidence in others’ self-belief, through a visible humanity and empathy in her leadership practice.

I know former colleagues in New Zealand who have directly experienced her common touch and ability to be a normal caring person. Taking the time to speak to everyone, regardless of seniority.

I am sure all infrastructure leaders can take something from this approach.

The days of the ‘hero’ leader are over

Our world is increasingly complex and challenging.

The days of the singular "hero" leader are over, if that style ever did work, to be honest.

Jacinda Ardern showed us a modern contemporary leadership style that seems ideally suited to the successful delivery of major infrastructure.

Another reflection I have is that in her resignation speech she spoke of how she had "nothing left in the tank" and how she clearly gave everything she had.

I really hope we see her back in a significant leadership role when she has recharged her batteries.

We need leaders like Jacinda Ardern.

Mark Wild is the former CEO of Crossrail who led the major rail project to completion and oversaw the opening of the Elizabeth Line. He is now CEO of gas distribution network company SGN.

Systems Approach to Infrastructure Delivery 2

Mark Wild's view echoes the findings of the ICE's Systems Approach to Infrastructure Delivery (SAID) 2 report published last year.

After analysing some major infrastructure projects, the report found that "construction's traditional, 'heroic' style of leadership is not fit for purpose for modern infrastructure projects".

  • Mark Wild, CEO at SGN