The Last Word: Sir Ray Avery


Leadership is, according to Sir Ray Avery, about “trying to tick all the boxes”. He does not rate individuals who succeed at some specific endeavour – such as business, politics or sport – particularly when they accomplish these things to the exclusion of their family or society in general. “If you single-mindedly focus on something and disregard other aspects of your life, there is no question you can be successful,” he says. “A leader is more rounded than that. It is someone who encapsulates what society believes at the time.”

Our cultural obsession with the search for good leaders is, he says, an entirely understandable human condition. “It is part of our society. We look for leaders and almost revere them. We look for them constantly and in every field of endeavour. But leaders, true leaders, are hard to come by,” he says.

Leaders must have certain common core characteristics, Avery contends. “They must be ambitious, fearless and intelligent. And they are generally charismatic. The other ubiquitous leadership characteristic is that they have no respect for the status quo. Nothing satisfies them. They are always searching for the new whatever.

“I spend much of my time seeking things that no one else has thought of doing. In my case, I have acute observation skills. I think that is born out of my dyslexia and the inadequate education system I was exposed to. But without my observation skills I would never have been able to transcend some of my inventions into reality,” he adds.

His own experiences suggest to him that leaders are probably more often than not good observers of the world around them. “I suspect they pick up on social and cultural changes, which makes them intelligent. They see things others don’t.”

For all that, Avery is reluctant to either see or call himself leader. “For much of my working life I was happy to be the second in command. I liked being in the background because I did not really enjoy the politics of being the leader. I was happy leading research teams to discover things.”

His world is different now. He thinks of himself as “figurehead” rather than leader. “The stuff I do requires the efforts of whole lot of people with technical skills and other capabilities. I am focusing mechanism for those people. If they were honest with themselves, most leaders would agree that they are simply someone who helps others do great things,” he says.

What encourages people to follow him is, he thinks, his ability to communicate with them. “I am good communicator. And I know how to empower people to do the things they want to do and know they can do, if encouraged. I am the enzyme that makes it all work.

“Leaders are also ferociously resilient. They do not give in, no matter how difficult things get. My job is to encourage people to become more resilient and to take any difficulties encountered along the way in their stride.”

Perhaps the greatest difficulty facing the advocates of true leadership is, he says, the growing disparity in wealth created by excessive remuneration policies adopted by large organisations. “We need this game change perhaps more than any other. The race for money and respect based on wealth alone is fools’ gold.

“Many people see the moneyed lifestyle as an aspiration. We need to change the goals. We should aspire to be respected, loved, revered … Those leadership aspirations can happen at any level and in any activity. We need to promote leadership and the values-based qualities that go with it.”

• From an interview with Reg Birchfield in the July issue of NZ Management.




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