A letter to my friends from Leadership NZ: being the leader I need to be, not want to be

During 2012 I was part of a cohort of community, organisational and business leaders doing monthly blocks with Leadership NZ. From all over the country, we met in different locations throughout Aotearoa New Zealand to learn about, debate and explore the significant issues for the future of our country and the range of leadership styles, abilities and concepts that will make a difference. That all sounds like the blurb you’d have on a pamphlet, but that is also probably the most accurate summary I can give of what we did.

I became close to some amazing leaders. Andrew Sharp came every month from Australia, a loving family man with a sharp, entrepreneural streak; Phil Patston (you may know him from his previous life as a comedian) is a wise listener whose words are weighty and multi-layered in meaning; Bernie Grant is a no-nonsense yet hopeful member of the Ministry of Defence; Lydia Sosene is an active community activator joyously serving in South Auckland; Julian Inch has an insight to the public service, it’s weaknesses and possibilities that our local and central government would do well to tap; Angela Green is a raw, open artist balancing her heart with the desire to run a sustainable theatre business; Anaru Marshall, ko tōku tuakana, ko tōku rangatira, i tiaki mai ki a au i taua tau; Dion Blundell feigns Anglican cynicism, but the faithful joy and commitment keeps breaking through; Mux Makapelu and Zechariah Reuleu have huge smiles and hearts that breaks for injustice in Porirua; Robert Wikaira welcomed my whānau into his home and has always extended hospitality to me; Adam Cooper is an old friend who has retained much of the hope that I struggle to hold onto; Carol Bellette provided clear, strong words throughout that struck at the heart of the issues we were struggling with; Fenella Grey openly shared her life and hopes with us as she transformed herself; Chris Northmore always had a question, an insight and a vulnerability I admired; Murray Wu struck me as the most settled, assured and happy of us (it was a little infectious actually); Sarah Hipkiss was the most disconcertingly caring money person I ever met; Fiona Allan is a happy mother now, and a wonderful advocate for all things sport and equality; Linda Vagana, one of our heroes of the Silver Ferns, is now surrounded with children she has given the gift of books to; Duncan Fletcher is a thoughtful, positive and open man with a mahia te mahi attitude; Tracey Lonergan made bold changes to go where she wanted to be rather than stay with the comfort of the known; Jon Neal is dangerously funny – never turn your back on him, but I’d always trust him to have my back; Mike Playle I think of more for life in Titahi Bay than his employment, so a man with his priorities straight; Fiona Davies was a gentle, welcoming and concerned woman, who listened and more importantly remembered you; Rach Prebble made museums cool again with her laughter and mischieviousness;  Ewen Anderson was for me the heart of our group, willing us to be family to each other; Tony Catton is like a solid foundation, unmoved by life’s storms, reliable in views and ideas; Claire Teal is now another Mum, vulnerable, with a spine of steel for communities and volunteers; Rachel Noble recently won a medal, so is kind of a celebrity, and an internationally recognised advocate and leader; and finally Richard Kibblewhite who is a fisherman who is way too good at what he does and way too honest to ignore.

I could be disingenuous and say I snuck into such talented company; however false humility be damned, I deserved to be there and contributed some thoughts to these friends on their journeys. However, since 2012, I have had very little to do with these people, one of my regrets.

Leadership NZ is intense and strips you down to have a good look at who you are. The basic theory is that leadership is more about how functional and aware you are of yourself than fixing other people and situations. So what did I find out about me that year? I’m my own harshest critic; I can provide a powerful critique; I am a special communicator and an indomitable advocate; but most painful was finding out that the connection between my values and what I was actually doing was tenuous. If I was to sum up the learning from 2012 it was that I striving to be what others wanted in my work and roles instead of being me. That realisation coincided and clarified an existential funk that manifested in depression and anxiety. You see in 2012 I found out that I had started to turn towards building walls against people to defend my shaky health, rather than bridges to connect with people.

In 2013 that realisation culminated in me finishing at the Merivale Community Centre, I welcomed a black dog into my life and I tried to get the black dog to reduce to a more manageable size (a Chihuahua would be about right). In 2013 I asked what I actually wanted for me and then had the desperation to make the decisions to go there. You see, Leadership NZ was part of my life being broken into a whole lot of puzzle pieces that wouldn’t go back together into the same pattern. In 2013 the puzzle finally broke apart; in 2014 I’ve tried to put it back together in a way that actually fits.

The picture that is starting to form is the same one I saw but hazily at the end of 2012. It’s about whānau, marae, activism, gardening and being smaller rather than greater. It’s a leadership with people, not over people. It’s a leadership in relationship with others. The first step was withdrawing, quite considerably. I withdrew because I had lost track of how to be honest in relationships; I was just a mirror image of what people wanted to see in me. I am a more honest me now.

None of that would have been possible without Leadership NZ. But I didn’t know how to tell any of these people what this has all been like for me. For once in my life I was lost for words.

You might wonder why I would write all this in a blog rather than a private email. The instinct to write this privately is the instinct to project a me for public consumption whilst protecting the me that is warts and all. I’m a bit over that. I like the me I’ve described above. This me is a better leader because I’m developing an integrity between my super-ego, ego and id. Amongst others like my wife, I owe that transformation to a whānau I travelled with in 2012 doing Leadership NZ. It really is a leadership course unlike any other. However, buyer beware; it is not for the faint hearted.

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2 thoughts on “A letter to my friends from Leadership NZ: being the leader I need to be, not want to be

  1. thanks for sharing Graham. I firmly believe all leaders need to ‘break down’ in order to lead authentically- the pain levels vary but I am so glad you are on your way to putting yourself back together again. Your values have always been close to your heart and have guided you through this. Yes you are your own worst critic. Turn down the sound of that black dog yapping and see what an amazing leader and guide you are becoming, and are already. xx

  2. Tena koe e te Rangatira. I’m saddened to think you were in such a place without knowing it, and not being able to offer or be available to provide support. I’m so humbled that you can share your journey warts and all with courage, humility and dignity. I for one fear and fail to have such strength and wisdom. Nga mihi kia koe your leadership qualities I aspire to. To you and your whanau ka nui te aroha kia koutou.

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