Something remarkable has been seen to happen in the world of management and leadership. It’s called New Zealand. I’m biased – I’m also a Kiwi. That said I can, I think, look at NZ in a dispassionate way not having lived or worked there since the 1990s. Much of my time has been spent in the northern hemisphere where things are done quite differently and more recently in Australia, where on the face of its things are similar, but on deeper scrutiny aren’t really.
In the wake of the terrible Christchurch mosque killings we have seen wave after wave of leadership on the big and small scale. Prime Minister Ardern’s role as leader and comforter to the nation is vital and how well she has stepped up to the plate. The three main NZ telcos (Spark, Vodafone and 2Degrees) open letter to the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google is another fine example. Then there are the smaller, but in some ways more poignant, demonstrations of leadership within the community where schools have broken into a spontaneous hakas. The all-conquering Crusaders, the undisputed most successful franchise in Super Rugby history have decided to review their brand name. The list goes on.
Adversity often brings out the best in people, but this tends to be at the level of compassion. This event appears to be bringing forth both the right amount of compassion AND great leadership. Why then has such great leadership bubbled to the surface? What is it about the green unspoiled environment of NZ that seems to provide such clarity of thinking in times when clear leadership is necessary? Why does, Aotearoa, the ‘land of the long white cloud’ produce great leaders?
Not convinced that they do? In recent days President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has demonstrated his own style of poor Leadership with his inflammatory comments about sending NZ’ers and Australians back in a box from the ANZAC ceremonies in the Dardanelles. Not surprisingly, given there are important elections due in Turkey, he is playing to his base with his hyperventilated comments. Because he didn’t limit his comments to one country, we get a rare opportunity to see how two world leaders respond to a common jibe.
Bigger brother, Australia, through Prime Minister Scott Morrison issues a robust rebuke indicating that without a withdrawal and apology for the outrageous comments then there would be further consequences. The suggestion is a recall of ambassadors and asking the Ambassador of Turkey to leave. Good chest pumping stuff at a diplomatic level! Just what Erdogan wants. He’d love that so he could say “look they killed Muslims and now they kick Turkey’s ambassador out”. As he has a tight grip on media in Turkey it’s a message he can pretty much control for his own people.
NZ a much smaller brother, or should we say sister, has sent its Foreign Minister Winston Peters directly to Istanbul for face to face talks. Erdogan would respect that; two bull-headed men plainly talking behind closed doors. The difference is in touch and diplomacy. Such differences stem from a different perspective on leadership. While NZ arguably has a more genuine case for being upset at the Erdogan comments, because the bloodshed of the Mosque attack happened on their shores, they have nevertheless taken a less sabre-rattling approach. Better leadership all round.
So, having made the case what might be the reason for this surfeit of leadership skills? While it’s tempting to say it’s the crystal-clear rivers and lakes and un-spoilt wilderness, clearly this isn’t the underlying cause. I think it’s because NZ as a small country has had long-term exposure to a number of really inspiring leaders and this role-modelling has rubbed off on the population at large. Given sporting heroes are an easily accessible role model for sports-crazy young men and women, its fortunate that Kiwis have had such a great run of those that have excelled and done so with a real humility and dignity over the years.
Reflecting on leadership I often think of the example of Edmund Hillary. He was the first to scale Everest but never revealed who got there first – him or his sherpa, Tenzing Norgay. He even refused to have his photo taken on the summit! That’s a story that every NZ’er of my generation, and probably since, has imprinted in their marrow. He then went on to other feats of daring-do and spent a lifetime helping the people of Nepal. Humility – a cornerstone of good leadership.
I also recall John Walker, the athlete who won a 1500m gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and broke the world mile and 1500m records on a number of occasions. He kept running for years, even when his age meant he could no longer win. He just ran for the pure love of it. Perseverance – a cornerstone of good leadership.
Peter Blake was a world-renowned yachtie and someone who inspired the nation through his round the world maxi races and America’s Cup leadership. He inspired a generation of sports persons through the removal of hierarchy and the ability to instill a single sense of focus. He was tragically killed defending his crew when pirates boarded his yacht off the coast of Brazil in 2001. Selflessness – a cornerstone of leadership.
Richie McCaw, possibly the greatest All Black to play the game (which means the best player ever) continues to inspire those who follow in his footsteps. He played through pain from injuries and battled the emotional ‘scars’ of losing a World Cup final. His preparation was meticulous and his ability to inspire without compare. Leading by example – a cornerstone of good leadership.
So Jacinda is an inheritor of a fine leadership tradition. She has the strong leadership gene that is engrained in NZ’ers, especially Maori. There is a word in Maori called ‘mana’ that has no easy English translation. As a Kiwi when you see someone with ‘mana’ you just know it. Mana to me is ‘leadership in motion’ and Jacinda Ardern has it in abundance. Now it’s time for young NZ’ers to learn from her example as the baton shifts to the next generation. Given we live in this age of the 24 hour news cycle, assisted by the connectedness of the internet, the whole world now gets to see an emerging great leader in motion, inspiring well beyond the shores of the shaky isles!