Our Only Line of Defence and Our Only Hope of Progress

Jim's Phone 145Capture

It was a huge honour to deliver a graduant speech on behalf of my Leadership New Zealand 2014 class. Here is what I had to say to after the most amazing year with the most amazing people!

I am sitting in an antique styled hotel room in Boulder, Colorado. The walls are papered in delicate roses that seem to grow out of the carpet. As my eye follows them they are cut by the ceiling, boxed in; contained they can climb no further. The curtains are a covered with big bombastic blooms that frame the window. I sit here nestled in the middle of a strange bouquet contemplating writing a leadership speech.

I have the book ‘Confucius -Three Keys to Successful Leadership’ sitting on the replica 1800s night stand as a handy crutch should I get stuck. As I lift it I hesitate, an uneasy truth rises, that to be a replica or to borrow Confucius is an easy out. The raw reality is that the only unique thing I can offer this speech and in fact the world is me.

Self-knowledge is a hallmark of great leadership, and yet it would seem that the hardest person to really know is me. Two mirrors hang amongst the flowers on the wall – one small ornate wooden one beautifully carved and another full length plain sheet of reflective glass. I start to think…. what do I let others see? Do I reflect from the small, well presented, beautifully carved mirror or from the bare, full length, reality – me in my imperfect wholeness?

The LNZ year has been a good long look in the full length mirror. My conclusion is that inside and out we are all made up of ‘superpowers and kryptonite’ and it is incredible how blind we can be to both. I sense this is where we really need each other. There are some wonderful people in our class and in my life who are unaware of their ‘superpowers’ – oh, how I wish they could see themselves through my eyes!

So, a question I have been asking this year is, why is it so hard to ‘see and be our whole selves’? Do we worry like superman that if people know about our kryptonite they will use it to cause us harm? Perhaps, because unlike this room, life is not all roses? Dignity is the idea that a being has an innate right to be valued and to receive ethical treatment, and yet, as we have seen this year, we have social constructs, norms and bias [from the individual to the societal level] that impede our ability to create a life of dignity for all New Zealanders.

In order to survive we construct our own reality, coping mechanisms, and we filter the world into a carefully crafted box of values, judgements, experiences, comfort and security – like this room we can become small, decorative and functional – an imitation of who we really are. We can see the roses but we can’t smell them, delight in them nor watch them grow.

It is only when we know ourselves that we can start to leave the safety of this room. We venture outside, no longer so burdened by fear, self-doubt, ego or constraint. We find ourselves amongst the diversity of a huge garden where we can let our superpowers loose and can be truthful about the kryptonite we carry. We begin to understand that every type of plant, bug and flower is important, that they all have a role and place and that they are connected. It is a great responsibility knowing that we lead others to the place where we ourselves reside – is it to be the little room or the garden?

We have learnt that we must shift from the ‘me generation’ to the ‘us generation’ because social responsibility has morphed into social and environmental necessity. It is a strange paradox that as a leader to get to a collaborative ‘us’ paradigm we first need to understand and get over the ‘me’. Our vision of what leadership looks like is also changing – the ‘super man’ vision of leadership is our past and the ‘diverse super team’ is our future.

The LNZ experience has been a ‘warp speed’ journey to destination ‘me and us’ – me as an individual and us as a group and as a nation. At times I have wanted to close my eyes [especially at the ‘kryptonite bits’], at times I have wanted to jump off – but I have felt myself moving from the room to the garden – alive and aware. We have grown in our humanity, the very condition of being human, our stories have made us cry, laugh and gasp – each of us has a narrative of triumph and disaster – none of us arrive to the place we are today unscathed. We very rarely tell our backstory, but each of us drops clues like breadcrumbs and as leaders we can pick up these insights as a guide to understand a perspective outside our own.

To conclude, I offer the world both super powers and kryptonite – there is no ‘perfect leader’, but as LNZ has taught us, together we can create the ‘perfect leadership storm’, a confluence of talents, diversity, and characteristics to form a wave of change of unusual strength and magnitude. In our increasingly complex and risk prone world this is our superpower – our only line of defence and our only hope of progress.

Leadership New Zealand and the class of 2014 – I applaud and thank you!

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