I spent the early part of this week at the National Aspiring Principal’s Programme hui in Auckland. It was one of the most invigorating and professional challenging times I’ve had in recent years – superb organisation at all levels, engaging around 250 aspiring principals from around NZ in the concept of leadership and what it means in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand.
I had the privilege of being asked to provide a short address prior to the evening meal on Monday night, on the topic “Shaken but not stirred: reflections on lessons for leadership after the CHCH earthquake.” I chose to describe my talk as a ‘rave’, based on a loose comment from some family members who this term to describe my talks. Here’s the summary of my ‘rave’:
R – Resilience
In the weeks since the earthquake the word resiliance has been almost overused as people seek to find superlatives to describe the response of the people in CHCH, not least, our school leaders. I referred to those principals in the city who found themselves having to ‘camp out’ all night in the school grounds with students whose parents failed to be able to come and pick them up until the following day; the teachers who systematically contacted all their students in the day or two after the quake despite having their own homes damaged and families affected, and to teachers and students who have adapted so quickly to new timetables in their shared facilities.
My youngest daughter’s school focuses on resilience as one of the key attributes they seek to develop in their students. At first I was skeptical that primary aged students would understand what this means, but over the years I have seen this done superbly, and the children at the school develop not just their understanding of what resilience is, but also exemplify it in the way they approach things at school. After the events of the past six months, I’d strongly encourage all schools to consider how this might be encouraged.
A – Agility
In times of crisis our ability to respond quickly becomes important. Many of our conventional ways of doing things and the layers of bureaucracy that at other times serve us well become hinderances to providing the timely response required. As leaders we need to be agile in our thinking and our response to people – to quickly assess the situation and make wise but immediate decisions.
In the case of CHCH I illustrated this with the efforts of the GCSN team who had so quickly assembled a range of teaching resources to support teachers who had lost access to theirs in the quake. This was done through crowd-sourcing using social networking, and drew an overwhelming response from teachers around NZ. It also drew a response from international organsiations who have made their online learning materials available to teachers in NZ free of charge.
V – vision
A leadership mentor of mine wrote in his book, “there are three characteristics of a leader, they have vision, they are able to articulate that vision, and they engender the trust of others to pursue that vision.” Nothing could be more true at the moment in CHCH. Amid the turmoil of what is happening on the ground, it is important that there are people who are thinking ahead, and not simply responding to the ‘tyranny of the urgent’. I was reminded by a colleague that the World Bank and the United Nations both came into being within within six months of the end of WWII. Such significant and forward thinking developments could only have been achieved with some people engaged in a visioning process that looked beyond the immediate needs of restoring essential services in the war-ravaged cities and countryside.
E – empathy
In the midst of such upheaval a great deal of inter-personal empathy is required. I described the situation we face as a little like when there’s a death in the family. Not everyone wants to talk about it, and when they do, it may be just to those close to them. Those who are not directly involved will want to be supportive, and are often in a better place to do so – but it requires a great deal of understanding and empathy. The last thing you want to see is large-scale, overbearing interference from well-meaning people who haven’t taken the time to understand the context and the way people are feeling.
I have seen evidence of each of these qualities in abundance in some of our leaders in CHCH, particularly our school leaders. They are to be applauded – and supported, for the responsibility isn’t going to ease of in the near future. Further, for our leaders of the future, these are qualities to aspire to and to work hard to develop, both in ourselves and in those for whom we share a responsibility in their future.