As Mayor, it’s always great to welcome people to a special place that offers the opportunity to reflect on the world of possibility that our challenging times can offer– particularly with the two themes – today being a day of personal growth and reflection and tomorrow, a day for collaborative growth.
Time for reflection and the role of collaboration are both important aspects of leadership.
I remember asking my mother, a long time ago, what a normal school was – with seven kids she had always been involved in education – PTAs and the like – so she explained the connection between normal schools and the then Teachers’ Colleges and the special role you hold in supporting our teachers on their journey to be teachers. It was later that I learned of model schools. I have only ever had one in my electorate Ouruhia Model School – and I acknowledge Mark Ashmore-Smith.
When Mark first wrote to me earlier this year, he said that schools in Canterbury have undoubtedly been through challenging times in the past 12 years, and nationwide schools are facing previously unheard of challenges. He said that while NAMSA schools are uniquely positioned and focused on working with universities to produce the best teachers we can, schools were also facing other huge challenges (social, economic and health).
This was to give me context to the request to speak about leadership through challenging times.
I guess what he was reflecting was that schools, being the heart of the communities from where they draw their students, are having to face up to the same pressures that are impacting their whānau.
That means this is a very challenging time for the leadership of your schools right now and I want to acknowledge that.
Leadership does not exist in a vacuum.
Our city has been called on to respond to and recover from the impacts of disasters, over the past 12 years caused both by natural events and man-made.
We have had earthquakes, flood and fire – we have had the devastation of the terrorist attacks of 15 March 2019 - and now we are still reeling from the impacts of the global pandemic.
We have seen leadership emerge from the heart of our communities in response to different events.
I was a Member of Parliament at the time of the earthquakes and also at the time of the shock announcements over the reorganisation of schools that followed in Sept 2012 – something which had a terrible effect on many communities who were still struggling to cope with the damage caused by the earthquakes.
I remember speaking to an ashen faced principal as he came out of the briefing with the then Minister of Education, Hekia Parata. I said how was it?
He said he needed to hold it together for the sake of the kids. He said we had to tell the kids and their families that no matter what, they would make it work and they would be ok.
It was a selfless comment and reflected the compassion that he held for his students and his community. But it also reflected the powerlessness that he felt and that his community would experience opposing the change. I could see in his face the futility he felt about taking on a fight he could not win.
There were school communities that came together and stopped the closures they were facing; others did too, but to no avail. The power imbalance contrasting the outcomes based on socio-economic status was stark.
I left Parliament and was elected the Christchurch Mayor in October 2013 as this was playing out.
My former staff gave me a parting gift – a necklace – it had a pendant with a quote on it, which reads: "The most courageous act still is to think for yourself. Aloud". Coco Chanel.
That quote is really about the importance of having the courage to speak up and stand up for what you believe in.
The three smaller beads had one word each: community, resilience and leadership.
My team knew the significance of these three words to me - words I thought I understood but didn't truly appreciate until after the earthquakes.
Community is not the co-location of houses – that's a suburb. It's the relationship between the people in those houses and their relationship as a group with decision-makers – that's community – and the strength of those relationships – that’s social capital. And, of course, community is not limited to location or place – it also refers to communities of identity and interest.
Resilience is not strength in the face of adversity – that's stoicism; something we Cantabrians have in spades. We have learned that resilience is so much more than the traditional meaning of bouncing back after something occurs. It includes the capacity to adapt to a new environment or new conditions.
But it is the capacity to co-create a new future when there is no going back to normal - that is the true hallmark of resilience for me.
And leadership is not a position – it is a mark of character.
People often look to the heroic form of leadership after a disaster - strong, decisive, authoritative, inspiring, and responsible - it can be comforting to have someone else taking charge, knowing what to do. And you should never underestimate the importance of reassurance. When people are shocked – like they were with the earthquakes – it is the role of a leader to offer reassurance.
But what we have learned from the post-disaster period or the recovery, is that leadership needs to be much more than that heroic form of leadership – leadership needs to be engaging, respectful, inclusive, empathetic and intuitive.
These are the leaders who are trusted and who in turn entrust others – they look to others for their capabilities and empower them to take the lead.
Facing a crisis also means you don’t always know what you don’t know. So, humility has an important role to play.
Admitting what you don’t know helps build trust. You always have to be careful what you commit to. Expectations set during such times are hard to walk back when they prove unachievable. You simply can’t make promises you may not be able to keep – no matter how much you may want to offer that comfort.
Sharing information in an open and transparent way and engaging with the community – in your case your school community – are also factors in building trust. And trust is something you can’t do without when we are talking about leadership.
And in that context, I wanted to briefly reflect on the terrorist attack on our city mosques – you never know what challenge you will be called on to face – this was where empathetic leadership set the scene for what was an extraordinary response.
Even the simple image of our Prime Minister wearing a headscarf – hugging members of the Muslim community – her pain and her compassion visible to all – captured the essence of empathy.
She offered comfort and hope from a position of integrity.
Empathy is an intangible quality, which is however, by its meaning, authentic.
Those most deeply affected by what had occurred knew that their Prime Minister was there for them, and that she knew exactly how they felt.
Members of the Muslim community felt understood and affirmed.
This set the stage for a unified call for compassion, which will always define our collective response as a city and a nation. The Muslim community led the way in the call for unity, peace, love and compassion, and the call for forgiveness. And we were inspired by their leadership to respond in kind.
It was at this time that I became aware of the influence that social media was having on members of the community. I was aware of the phrase going viral – but not the dark places that have been fostering hatred of those who are not like them. I have been shocked by what I have learned.
It makes me think your challenges as leaders will be greater than ever as we seek to right the wrongs of the past. The impact of the internet is only now becoming apparent, especially as young people seek to explore their world without the judgement that life experience brings.
Another point to make is that there is no more important a time than in the immediate aftermath of a crisis to stand back and take a helicopter view that engages a wide range of perspectives before making irreversible decisions.
This is why a recovery leader may be different from the person who takes the leadership role in responding to the immediacy of the crisis. And that’s why relationships are so important.
You are talking about collaboration tomorrow and I used the word co-creation when referring to resilience earlier.
Co-creation brings with it the sense that we are in this together; a recognition that whatever has happened is not someone else’s problem to solve, but one that we work on together.
I remember Sir Peter Gluckman, the then Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser, prepared a report for the government three months after the February earthquake. He said the potential exists for the emotional effects of disaster to cause as great a degree of suffering as do the physical effects such as injury and loss of property or income.
"The earthquake was a disempowering event – an event that individuals had no control over and leaves them essentially with no control over how they live.
The need to regain some sense of control over one's life is central to the recovery process. Disempowerment essentially reinforces the initial trauma."
Restoring a sense of agency to a community, empowering them to make decisions, and helping them see it through, that’s what will help them build resilience.
I remember someone sending me JK Rowling's speech on the occasion of Harvard University's 357th Commencement. She talked about failure – not to glamorise the experience of finding herself at the end of a broken marriage as a solo parent with a Classics degree and not much else.
In fact, there was nothing glamorous about her experience of poverty and despair. But she said this:
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
I have highlighted some of the words – stripping away the inessential; I might never have found the determination to succeed; my greatest fear had been realised and I was still alive. And rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. She goes on to say:
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.
And that is one of the most important things I have learned, and that is that when you hold a leadership role, you need to be well-supported, and you need to have established very strong relationships.
I have invested a lot of time and energy into building relationships in my role.
However, Covid has hit hard when we are not yet fully recovered from the events that have gone before – people are tired – and the internet has opened a Pandoras Box of toxicity that is in many respects more damaging than the pandemic itself.
And the challenges we are going to have to confront are only going to get greater – both natural hazards and the man-made disasters.
This makes the role you play more vital than ever.
I read this back this morning and felt the ending was a bit bleak.
So, I thought I would add a reflection I gave on the life of Nelson Mandela, whose life has been one of inspirational leadership.
"As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison."
One of the legacies that Nelson Mandela left his country was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up by the Government of National Unity to help deal with what happened under apartheid.
The interim constitution described it as providing an historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterized by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex.
The promotion of this approach took great courage and true leadership. It would not have been possible from someone who was still trapped in prison – physically or metaphorically.
It was a nation's chance for restorative justice – the chance to speak the truth, acknowledge what had been done, own up and take responsibility for personal actions, whether directed or otherwise, and to express sorrow – a genuine apology for the wrongs that have been committed against others.
Recording the history – laying down the truth - and apologising for wrongdoing is at the heart of our Treaty settlement process here in Aotearoa.
Reconciliation cannot come without truth, because it requires forgiveness. And that cannot be offered to someone who denies the truth.
This knowledge should guide all in leadership positions as it did Nelson Mandela, who understood that so completely.
We have a history as a nation ourselves, which we must reconcile.
And the history curriculum gives me real hope for our future.
And an important part of that future is in the hands of your kaiako – those who teach and those who learn – and your leadership.
No reira tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa.