A speech I gave last night at The Women’s Leadership Network

July 6, 2011

The room kept getting more and more full, so I gripped my glass of wine a little tighter. I was glad that I wore my korowai, a present from a group of women with whom I share deep bonds of love.

I was third in line, after Diane Crossen (current Retirement Commissioner) and Viv Maidaborne (outgoing CEO of CCS). Before Jackie Edmond (CEO of Family Planning New Zealand) and Anne Fitzpatrick (Director of Lead to Success). Mary O’Reagan (first CEO of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs) was our MC.

I was clearly in distinguised company. So naturally I flubbed my intro.

Thank you for the invitation to speak.

I’ve taken a personal approach to this talk. I’m just going to tell you what worked for me and why I think it worked. I’ll start by telling you about myself and experiences.

I have a multi-national background (Born in South Africa, grew up in a small town Swiss village and did my university training in the States.) I’m a social worker by trade, became an educator and then a manager.

When I came to New Zealand I started working at Te Wananga o Aotearoa and it really opened my eyes to leadership concepts like mana. The leaders in that community were not those of highest rank/pay, they were based on whakapapa and kawa. There the women who were leaders were those who could karanga the best.

I then when to the Social Services ITO, which involved industry leadership. That was interesting. It required a lot of listening and facilitation.

I then went to Global Focus Aotearoa. When I arrived we had a brand new core-funding agreement with the Government and a shiny new brand, but six months after I arrived the Govt cut our funding. We shrunk from an organisation with the equivalent of 18 people to the equivalent of 4.5. (That’s a whole other talk about organisational resilience.)

In my other life I have I’ve been on the Wellington Rape Crisis Governing group four years and am the current chair. But collectivism is a central value of how we do things there so this has been a journey of leadership in a flat structure.

So what is leadership?

I can tell you a few things that leadership is not.

It’s not management – Management at its most basic form is glorified administration. At its most evolved level management is the management of systems. Which allows enables people to get on with their jobs.

But a leader is more than that. A leader includes people in those systems, which then means it is really better conceptualised as an organism, which is a living concept. I’ll come back to that.

It’s not authority – A title doesn’t make you a leader. It just means you have some power to do some stuff.

Some of the best leaders I’ve known haven’t had titles. But instead they’ve had charisma, vision and the ability to form meaningful relationships with a wide range of people. They inspire and motivate groups towards a common purpose.

Leaders don’t say ‘ that’s not my job’. Sure you have to know how and when to delegate but when you get hands on experience with what it’s really like to manage a kitchen trying to feed 50 people, you learn a lot about leadership.


How did I become a leader?

In essence I have always been a leader but I’m only realising that now. I’ve always been an organiser-of-people you see.

Organising obstacle courses in my back yard at, trips to the lake at 14, camping trips at 18, student clubs and residential life responsibilities at university, later it was zine production and Rape Crisis work and that’s completely separate from my professional life.

At first I ended up in leadership positions because no-one else would do it. I believed something needed to be done (no, I knew something needed to be done) so I just did it. I never could sit on my hands for long. That then gave me confidence in my ability to assess, plan and get things done. Instead of shying away from opportunities (that ‘it’s not my job’ approach) I sought them out and grew more and more.

I’m rambling a bit I suspect.

If you remember three things from my talk tonight it’s these.

*Be human

I try to keep the human element at the forefront of the way I work with people.  Why? Mainly because that is how I would like to be treated. I have two small kids and they are a massive influence in my life. The last thing I want to do is come to work and pretend they don’t exist, that I’m not tired, that I’m not elated, that I wasn’t up half the night cleaning up vomit. So why would I expect the people I work with to leave their humanity at the door? It’s an impossibility. Worse, it would also be a lie.

Your team can’t achieve if secretly one of the women is fearful because she is being stalked, or if someone is distracted because their parent’s health is deteriorating, or if someone is going through a nasty separation, and if you require them to pretend this isn’t happening.

So I practice a form of integrity (and I say practice because it’s an ongoing challenge). I try to be myself fully at work and I invite the staff to do the same.

As a result my team feels validated and appreciated and that get’s you a loyalty you can’t pay for.

Make no mistake, this is a hard thing to do. It requires honesty but more importantly trust and vulnerability. But one of the best things I ever did was cry in front of my management team. It was the greatest gift I could give them, showing them that I trusted them enough to blubber.

*So be human, be fully present and invite others to do the same.


*Accept and invite complexity in to your life.

We live in a very complex world where we are all influenced by factors both apparent and invisible to our perception and awareness. If we close off our senses and pretend we understand and have sussed out all the meaningful factors we might miss something incredibly important.

We often conceptualise development and progress as a linear process which repeats. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes I am so impressed that, considering how complex people and processes really are, that we achieve anything at all. But often what seems like chaos is really a complex organic system (an organism if you will).  It takes time, but if you work with that intrinsic order that is already there, even if it’s hidden, I reckon you’ll have more success then if you plonk your own version of control on that chaos.

But we live in an organic world. Thing change. Things end. A good leader shows the same integrity during hard times as well as the good times.

Which brings me to my last point.


*Kia kaha, kia maia, kia manawanui – Loosely translated to: Be strong, be brave and be stout of heart. [Hand to fist]

It’s dead easy to be the leader when you’ve got steady income, loads of resources and high functioning staff. As I have learned, it’s a lot harder when the funding gets cut, you’re making staff redundant and your future is uncertain.

One of my favourite quotes is from the movie The Contender. The female character was nominated for Vice-Presidency of the USA and every attempt is made to discredit her. When asked why she didn’t retaliate, she says: ‘Principles are only worth something if you stick to them when they are inconvenient’. Sticking to your principles in times of growth and glory is easy. Maintaining that integrity in times of challenge, when things are in decline is hard, hard, hard.

So that’s my brand of leadership

–        Be human and invite others to do the same

–        Invite complexity in to your life

–        And be brave

Good luck


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