Backup: On Bacon Eggs and Leadership

What’s in word? word as simple as ‘backup’ for instance, can have many connotations, nuances and meanings. Reverse, pause and rethink, support, be behind, assent, endorse – take your pick really. That’s pretty much what we had in mind for this new column, piece of reportage which tosses in ideas, opinions and actions that give rise to rethink, endorse an existing approach or simply provide morsel of content to consider. It’s column about leadership because that’s what Management magazine is all about and there isn’t any more important issue facing enterprise and society today. Then of course it’s column that appears at the back of magazine that begins with ‘Upfront’. What more compelling reasons can there be for name? But, of course, it won’t be the name of this column that really matters….

Isn’t serendipity wonderful? I’d been mulling over the kick-off to this column when, just before Christmas, I was invited to somewhat hastily arranged breakfast in downtown, high rise Auckland. On the menu, along with the low calorie fruit and cereal and more substantial eggs and bacon, was tantalising invitation to “the birth of leadership forum”.

An eclectic group of generally more senior (in both senses of the word) citizens had responded to call from Auckland Regional Council chief executive Jo Brosnahan. This first breakfast of leadership disciples had gathered in response to an email that pointed out the obvious “leadership is the essential ingredient in successful organisations and communities” and then the even more obvious “here in New Zealand we do not have culture of leadership: it is frequently talked about but little understood”. “Hallelujah” to all that, I thought.

Now Brosnahan, it must be understood, has been preaching the leadership cause ever since her conversion during Harkness Fellowship to the United States in the mid 1990s. She is personally committed to the doctrine of the servant-as-leader and seldom refrains from proselytising on the topic. Attached to the email was an eight-page discussion and ideas paper. Here was leadership in action, I thought. Here was an individual with some pretty clear views about importance and need, an ability and willingness to articulate them and driving desire to get team to work on creating vision for New Zealand.

About the time the invitation arrived, clutch of media stories on the tactics of our political leaders, who furtively enhanced their personal well-being by sliding last minute perks and allowances legislation through parliament in the dying days of the session, graphically underlined the sort of example-setting issues ‘leadership forum’ might in time address. I might have been convinced that PR consultancy Porter Novelli orchestrated the whole episode if it hadn’t been for Speaker Jonathan Hunt’s inept and intemperate explanation of events. Spin doctors would surely have schooled him better.

Back to the point of the Brosnahan breakfast. She wants leadership forum and supporting leadership trust to promote and actively assist in the identification, nurturing, teaching, development and celebration of leaders in our community, “particularly emerging leaders”.

“We do not always know how to identify and appoint good leaders,” she wrote. We tend to “choose the outspoken, the opinionated, the ‘strong’; those who are prepared to make decisions on our behalf”. She called the latter “transactional leaders” and suggested they often “operate aggressively, dividing and conquering” and generally fail to deliver. Ironically, when they do fail they tend to be replaced by others of similar ilk. Those of you with the longevity to facilitate it, might like to reflect on political leadership that extended from 1975 to 1984. I confess to holding the tenure of former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon as responsible for many of the polarising ills that currently infect our society.

Unfortunately he is still the role model politicians benchmark themselves against because his leadership style delivered personal power.

Anyhow, the breakfast broke up with an enthusiasm for the concept and an agreement to meet again for day in January, an offer by Waitakere mayor Bob Harvey, to host the gathering, and resolve to thrash out an action plan for the future. I rode the elevator down 20-something floors personally packed full of bacon, eggs, coffee and hope that this little band of believers might just turn into something big. After all, the underlying issues are universal and have been around lot longer than 2000 years. M

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