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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gives a hug at Wellington's Kilbirnie Mosque on Mar. 17, 2019, two days after a massacre at two mosques in Christchurch.Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

Jacinda Ardern’s voice was full of emotion, but not bitterness, when she announced her resignation this week. She has been Prime Minister of New Zealand for more than five years, guiding the little country of five million through some of the toughest episodes in its history.

With an election coming in the fall, she had to ask herself whether she had the energy for another term.

“I believe that leading a country is the most privileged job anyone could ever have, but also one of the more challenging,” she told the nation on Thursday. “You cannot and should not do it unless you have a full tank. … I know what this job takes, and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It is that simple.”

It was vintage Ardern: direct, down-to-earth, class all the way. She took no parting shots and blamed no one for her exit. A lesser figure might have played it differently.

Ms. Ardern has travelled a hard road since becoming Prime Minister at the age of just 37 – the country’s youngest head of government in a century and a half. As she once said, she never really had a chance to simply govern. Instead, she found herself fighting her way through three major crises: the Christchurch mosque attacks, the deadly volcanic eruption on an outlying island and the global pandemic.

She handled each with eloquence and aplomb. She wore a hijab when she went to visit grieving Muslim families after the mosque shootings, which killed 51 people. She said that though many of those affected may have come from abroad, “they have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us.”

Ms. Ardern refused to say the name of the killer and asked others to do the same. She told the country: “We are broken-hearted but we are not broken. We are alive. We are together. We are determined to not let anyone divide us.”

When COVID-19 struck, she moved quickly to close the borders of the island nation and impose strict lockdowns. New Zealand’s “go hard and go early” strategy kept it nearly COVID-free until new variants crept in, as they have almost everywhere.

Her leadership earned her a landslide re-election victory in 2020 and made her a global star, but also put a target on her back. Opponents took aim at her for bringing in tough gun-control laws and talking up the merits of vaccination.

“In its most reactionary and vile manifestations,” wrote Jeff Wallenfeldt of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the backlash “took the form of conspiracy theories and an ever-increasing number of threats against her life, which, according to police, climbed from 18 in 2019 to 32 in 2020 and to 50 in 2021.” Last winter, inspired by Canada’s convoy protest, hundreds of demonstrators set up camp outside Parliament in Wellington to campaign against vaccine mandates.

Of course the trolls are dancing on her grave now, bidding her good-riddance in a stream of crowing posts. Ms. Ardern was well aware of this nasty strain in public life: It is something all modern politicians must face, especially if they are women. She spoke out often about the current plague of misinformation and asked social-media giants to help control it.

“We are living in an increasingly polarized world, a place where more and more people have lost the ability to see one another’s point of view,” she said in her resignation speech.

But Ms. Ardern never got down in the mud with the haters. She never claimed to be a victim. Her position was consistent. Take the high road. Stay united. Hold firm against hate and lies, but don’t see the world as “us against them.”

Leaving as she did lent force to her words. In a world where so many leaders seem to think themselves infallible and indispensable, she had the strength to admit she was human.

At the end of her farewell, Ms. Ardern thanked New Zealanders for giving her the chance to serve them.

“I hope in return I leave behind a belief that you can be kind, but strong. Empathetic, but decisive. Optimistic, but focused. That you can be your own kind of leader – one that knows when it’s time to go.”