Opinion Leaders: The Great Leadership Debate

After reading about my “proselytising” on the subject of leadership in Reg Birchfield’s Backup column last month, I rushed to the dictionary. To proselytise, it said, is “to convert from one opinion, creed or party to another”. This implied that the current general creed around leadership in New Zealand is one from which one is required to convert. Is it conversion that is required: or more gentle transformation?

There is universal call in New Zealand for good leadership. Those who succeed in business, sport and more rarely in the public and non-profit sectors are publicly recognised as leaders: these are the people who rise above our critical and demanding culture and are admired. Leadership and success are seen as synonymous and we are intolerant of failure. So, when appointed leaders fail in some way or their organisation, team or party falters, the perception of them as good leaders quickly dissipates. The All Black coach or captain, the CEO or the party leader are quickly dispatched and another “leader” appointed to deliver. Our approach to leadership is transactional: power is given and we demand instant delivery of “success”, which is often narrowly defined.

Take some risks
An organisation or team which can succeed over long period and “last”, is one that can constantly change and react to outside pressures. It will take some risks and sometimes fail. Such organisations require an enduring culture of leadership that transforms. Such leadership recognises that lasting change and growing achievements entail the collective commitment of people to common vision and the unleashing of individual’s innovation and skills to achieve the vision.

These outcomes occur when there is total commitment to developing and supporting people. It requires servant leadership: the leader who recognises that leadership is essentially the art of engaging others; searching, listening, empathising and forever seeking better way. The servant leader builds community, has sense of stewardship and looks to leave something better behind. This is leadership of humility rather than ego; leadership model that generally sits well in the New Zealand environment in which we prefer team rather than individual approach, and in which we tend to cut down tall poppies.

But such leaders do not work alone. Our organisations and communities need multitude of good leaders at all levels to really succeed. Success has thousand leaders. Those who want to lead alone fall short of true leadership.

If we accept that success and good leadership are intertwined, then how do we create more good leaders within our organisations? Extend the same premise to the nation as whole, and we must ask what we are doing to create strong visionary communities that have clear common direction, can work together and can create sustainable futures?

These issues require good leadership to resolve: leadership that can transcend the boundaries between the private, public and non profit sectors, and recognise that strong community is one in which there is mutual respect and understanding. Business needs the support and respect of such communities if it is to exceed its expectations: increasingly, business must be seen as “good citizen”. Strong communities are integrated communities; and they in turn support good leadership.

So what must be done to nurture transformational leaders with strong community relationships?

We must recognise that good transformational leaders are essential throughout our organisations and within our community. We should recognise that communities require common and understandable values. We need programmes to develop young leaders in all walks of life, recognising that leadership development should take an even greater importance than the development of technical skills.

Talk leadership
And we need to talk leadership: to understand what works and what doesn’t: to raise the conversation to higher level. Then we will have better understanding of what good leadership is and what it looks like. We can then make more intelligent decisions and appoint better managers and CEOs, coaches and captains and, in the election of our politicians, have more lasting outcomes as result. On reflection, gentle transformation is not enough: we must make some more dramatic changes.

For those who consider this to be the soft stuff, join the debate: it is time that we collectively developed vision for the development of leadership in New Zealand. But it requires the commitment and the conversation. Some of us are currently establishing an inclusive leadership forum to meet regularly to encourage the leadership debate. And we are looking to establish an associated trust to support community leadership programme for younger leaders from all sectors, together with leadership programme for schools. Contact me if you would like to play part. Become proselyte.

Jo Brosnahan is CEO of Auckland Regional Council.
Email: [email protected]

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