Be. Leadership May 2016: A Civil Society-- What is it and how does leadership enhance or diminish it's value?

by Jono Heaps

Leadership is not only very important to the community, it also depends on the community.

Our third session of Be. Leadership which expanded on the ideas and principles of a civil society, was held at the amazing Te Papa Tongarewa in windy Wellington. I should say 'sunny Wellington', because the weather was sensational for both session days.

Those of us who stayed at the excellent CQ Hotel were able to enjoy some morning sunshine during the 15-minute walk to Te Papa, which was for me an ideal way to get the day started.Unfortunately our leadership company was only 13 this month. I think we all missed Amy Glassford's valuable input and encouragement this session. Amy, I can only imagine how frustrating it was for you not to be there. I'm glad to hear you're recovering and very much look forward to seeing you again soon!

This month, we were thrilled to welcome Hannah Slade as Programme Manager. Hannah, you did a sterling job organising us all and ensuring that everything was fully accessible and ran smoothly. We're very glad to have someone who sets such a high standard of leadership. Cheers!

The theme of this month's session was a daunting one for me. The question of understanding, much less achieving, a civil society has been at the forefront of humanity for a pretty long while and, after a conversation packed couple of days, I can see it's going to be at the forefront of our leadership journeys this year.

We looked at the nature of civil society through several lenses. Colin James provided a political perspective, drawing on a wealth of knowledge and experience in journalism. We then heard from Dr Justine Cornwall, whose experience with advocacy for New Zealand youth provided questions about how well our young people are represented in our democratic process and overall society.

These two unique perspectives represented two contrasting leadership styles. It was fascinating to witness how these successful leaders differed in their definition and application of leadership.

For me it underlined that in a civil society, there needs to be many kinds of leaders and that it's a mistake to think that certain personal qualities are suitable or unsuitable for leadership.

This idea also came up in our syndicate book review of 'David and Goliath' by Malcolm Gladwell. He asks the reader to challenge popular perceptions and stories that shape our thinking, which I think is a model I'd like to apply to the way leadership is recognised. Margaret Wheatley's 'Perseverance' provoked some strong reaction within the group as well, so that one is definitely on my reading list.

It's always nice to get acquainted with Be. Leadership alumni. We got this opportunity on Friday night when some of the Local programme graduates joined us for dinner at the Southern Cross Restaurant. Be. Social!

Mojo Mathers showed us yet another way a successful leader can have a positive impact on society. Her passion for and commitment to accessibility impressed me greatly, as did her openness about the necessity for both resilience and pragmatism in her work.

Perhaps the most telling message I took away from the hour and a half with Mojo was the importance of generosity in building social capital. Peter Block defines generosity as giving of yourself and expecting nothing in return. I'm not sure I agree unconditionally with this definition, but as both Justine and Mojo demonstrated, successful and generous leadership requires significant personal sacrifice in a lot of cases.

I thought Red Nicholson did a splendid job as host of Mojo's session. His proactive encouragement during the Q&A opened the way for previously unexplored conversations.

This entry wouldn't be complete without mentioning the whirlwind tour of Te Papa hosted by Bruce Roberts on Friday afternoon. What a privilege it was to be instructed and entertained by someone so knowledgeable and passionate about their subject. I never realised how incredibly varied New Zealand's aquatic world is and that there are still so many things yet to be discovered. Ties in well with the general theme of the weekend, doesn't it? As always, I wish there had been more time! I very much look forward to my next visit to the museum.

Some key points from the session:

  • An ideal civil society will promote and encourage many distinct styles of leadership.
  • When striving for a productive and accessible society, both individualistic and holistic principles can be very valuable in one's task.
  • Advocating for social change is a task which requires significant resilience. This resilience can be developed and built up over time, it does not have to be an inherent personality trait.
  • Generosity is a key element of positive leadership and can be expressed in many different ways. Each of us have the capacity for generosity, each of us have unique resources that if given generously can have a positive impact on us as individuals and society as a whole.

And so we look towards the fourth Be. Leadership session in June with anticipation, perhaps a little trepidation and many new questions.

Thanks always to Lesley, Philip and Sam for inspiring and encouraging us. Cheers once again to Bruce for creating a warm and welcoming experience at Te Papa. I'm only beginning to appreciate how much work went into the hosting of this session.

That's all this month. See you again soon!