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How to be a modern leader

Rob Campbell spoke to the NZ Leadership Programme’s graduation ceremony earlier this month about what makes a good leader, including daring to challenge the status quo and toughing out the opposition to change.

The times we live in are turbulent. While that is true and important, it is equally true and important that we do not overstate this, still less use it as an excuse. Other generations and communities have faced wars and depressions, poverty and dislocation, oppression and disaster.

For most human beings, much of the time in our history, turbulence has been more common than the peace and tranquillity of which many of us fantasise.

It was the Chinese leader Mao Tse Tung ( a great leader with great faults) who spoke the phrase “Great disorder. An excellent situation” to stir his revolutionaries. I like to think that we can constructively take a similar view of our times and location. “Great turbulence. An excellent situation” might be our slogan, because within the turbulence of our time and place lies enormous opportunity – a future in which we are freed from many problems by better technology, better understanding of the diversity of humanity and how to get the best out of it, and better ability for personal and cultural expression and respect than any previous time or place has ever had.

I want to be clear that for me leadership is not about maintaining the status quo. It is a foundation stone of my thinking on leadership that there are many things in our society which need to change to meet the goals of a better, fairer life.

To achieve this we will need daring leadership, so I want to talk a bit about what I think this means.

To me leadership is defined not so much by those designated as leaders but by all those who are active in change. Society changes because many of us take actions – that is pretty much the definition of social change, many people acting in different ways. Sometimes those changes are clearly articulated by leaders. Other times they occur, no less rationally and effectively, without such obvious leadership. Karl Marx, the nineteenth century founder of communism, referred to revolutionary change as “that old mole” picking up on a line of Shakespeare, the seventeenth century playwright, who noted in Hamlet “well said, old mole, canst work in the ground so fast” about events being influenced by unseen forces like a mole burrowing away and surfacing unexpectedly. It’s not hard to think of “mole events” in our day like the Arab Spring, Hong Kong Riots,#Me Too and more locally the terrorism attacks of March 15th. Each presented suddenly, even surprisingly, though one can readily see on reflection the conditions and preparations for the shock.

... they will be opposed and quite possibly vilified and attacked by the forces of the old system ... this is certain. I am aware of no structure of influence and power which simply recognised the need to change and stepped down. Some individuals may do that but all those who most benefitted from the old system will not give up without a fight.

This is not to say that individuals do not play a role and that we are at the mercy of unseen forces all the time. To make social change we do need people who stand out, who sense the potential for change, sense the way the winds of change are shifting, who can articulate the possibilities. Those are the leaders who are daring. They may be thought of as like a surfer who can pick the right wave, drive onto it at the right time, and ride it to the end.

The poet and rock star Bob Dylan wrote decades ago that we “don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”. That never meant that we don’t need leaders to sense the shift and new direction, but that such leaders are not outside observers but active participants in the process. Not reporting on the change, but riding with it and encouraging others to do the same. Like the surfer they become part of the wave.

To be this sort of leader one needs to intimately understand the community or society in which one lives. Understand its strengths and limitations, divisions and points of unity, yearnings and anxieties. This leader needs also to be able to see more broadly, to see the big picture, to have good understanding of the forces of the past and the forces of potential adverse futures. Such a leader is well educated in the sense not so much of formal learning, though that may be required in today's world, as educated in the sense of holding the requisite wisdom to identify, frame and articulate in the language of those who must act.

This leader will be daring. Will be brave. Will be resilient. Wisdom and communication will not be enough. That is for two reasons. First, the leader is not only likely to be wrong and make mistakes but is certain to do so. The leader will fail and will need to change direction. They may need to experience rejection. They have to summon the personal strength to carry on. Second, they will be opposed and quite possibly vilified and attacked by the forces of the old system. Again this is certain. I am aware of no structure of influence and power which simply recognised the need to change and stepped down. Some individuals may do that but all those who most benefitted from the old system will not give up without a fight. Social structures are power structures. Social change is a transfer of power. Leaders have to be tough and resilient to see social change out.

This leader will also have to be full of aroha. Of love for those acting in the process of change. There are plenty of examples in history of leaders who were driven by negative emotions and who therefore had to use force not only against the old structure but also to coerce their own people to act. The results of this were never benign either in the process of change or in the aftermath of change. Given that here we are interested in change for the better, for good, we reject this concept of leadership. We need leaders who care about the people before, during and after the process of change.

... our larger businesses do not have great track records and this is very often a failure of leadership. This leadership is pretty much a self- appointed, self-referential and self- reverential elite.

This leader must also have humility. They must respect those who are active in the process of change with them. Often they must respect those who are giving up important things in the change.
Most importantly they must have the ability to recognise when their leadership role is past. Just because you have an important leadership role in one process does not mean that you are the best leader in some other time, place or change. Arrogance can easily arise from a leadership role but it is the enemy of effective leadership. Part of your daring must be daring to stand aside when your job is done.

How do we cultivate people like this ? These qualities are not inherent in everyone. So we do need to identify young people who from their genetic inheritance, social and cultural experience and psychology have the potential to lead. These will not always be the people who look like the leaders within the old social structure – the one that needs to change. They will not always be the people who most strongly promote themselves as leaders as these may often have strong personal ambition rather than  a service-to-others motivation. But given the right exposures and opportunities these leaders, often quietly, will be become apparent to themselves and others. Well meaning older people who are not guardians of the past but enablers of the future will assist. When these young leaders do start to emerge we must encourage, educate and promote them. Processes like this programme are important in this. Our future leaders - those who will sense, define and lead us to the better future – are here in our communities right now.

In my primary world of established business we typically have poor leadership. We have an abundance of people who are innovative and creative and who start new businesses. We have entrepreneurs who can grow businesses capable of competing with the best in the world. Of course we can always do with more of these people and embolden others to have a shot at changing some market or another.

But our larger businesses do not have great track records and this is very often a failure of leadership. This leadership is pretty much a self- appointed, self-referential and self- reverential elite. Like liking like with like effects. It is no surprise that such leadership excessively rewards itself and is reluctant to meet the needs of others, that it is slow to embrace or resistant to the diversity which is increasingly evident in our society, that it favours hierarchical, control structures of operation over devolution and empowerment, that it concerns itself with protection of the leadership over taking commercial risks, and favours posing and self congratulation over positive action where social change becomes unavoidable.

I am part of that world and even I find it frustrating. I can only imagine how it looks and feels from the outside. I strongly suspect that similar problems exist in the established political, administrative and social organisations.

What I can do is to illuminate some of the myriad faults in our business leadership. I can cajole and try to persuade. But these things are of limited effect when the self interest of those involved is so strongly in continuation of the game they are winning. Much more effective will be the voices and actions of a younger generation more aware of the big risks and opportunities, more attuned to the winds of change and courageous enough to challenge.

So tautoko katoa and lagolago atoatoa to your effort in being part of this leadership programme. I look forward to seeing you out there, pushing for change, fulfilling your potential and the potential of our communities. I will try not to get in the way.

Get it early – This article was first published on Newsroom Pro and included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by subscribing now or starting a 28-day free trial.

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