11 September 2008
May I first thank the Commission for the invitation to speak at your conference. May I also take the opportunity to say how much I enjoyed working with the Commission during my time as Minister of Commerce. I think it is fair to say that in recent times the Commission has faced many challenges as it has evolved its role as the protector and promoter of a competitive environment. I long ago accepted that life is full of contradiction. To an outsider the promoters of competitive markets frequently appear to work hard to eliminate their competition and create monopolies. The pursuit of profit often ignores the ideological niceties of the market. All this is very human but is not necessarily in the best interest of the consumer or community as a whole. That is why institutions such as the Commerce Commission are so necessary to ensure markets work the way they should and that competition delivers benefits to consumers; that consumers are not misled and that where competition is not possible, then behaviour is regulated in a way that mimics the outcomes of a competitive market.
The role however is not an easy one and open to constant challenge. It is in such circumstances that the qualities of leadership are so important. I have been asked to speak to the topic of leadership, which is a key focus of the Commission’s Statement of Intent for 2008-2011. I note that the Commission has identified integrity, responsibility, and respect as being the core values and operating principles, with independence, professionalism and transparency being amongst the principles underlying the core values of the Commission. I can only agree with these values and principles underpinning a leadership strategy. I also note the various strategies identified by the Statement in pursuit of a leadership role. While it is not my role today to critique your Statement of Intent, I must comment on the role of communication in a successful strategy.
I am aware there is much criticism of the role of communication in the public sector. I see good communication as essential to an understanding of the role of the Commerce Commission. If education has a role in leadership then communication is essential to that process. We live in a world where unfortunately perception is often taken for, or even worse, becomes reality. Good professional communications ensure an accurate message is conveyed to an audience that can comprehend it. Maybe it is the teacher in me talking here, but leadership is about the ability to communicate. Of course good communication can only work if there is a clearly thought through message, which simply means there is no substitute for knowing what you are talking about. A concentration then on enhancing the capability of the Commission to ensure you have the level of expertise to rival all others is essential to any leadership strategy.
The invitation to talk to you today suggested I might speak on my own experience of leadership. I must observe at the outset that leadership was not a notion I entertained when I was younger. This was not only because women did not have public leadership roles, unless it was to reinforce the ideal of women as wife and mother. It was also because leadership was associated with an institutional role. Those who held public office were automatically accorded a status that was supported by the institution. The churches also provided a leadership in a way that is no longer apparent. Business leaders were identified with an established company or more likely an entrenched lobby group – Federated Farmers, the Employers’ Federation. Leadership in sport was more individualistic unless you captained the All Blacks, when then as now, the well being of the psych of the nation seemed to depend on you. Judges, academics, teachers, doctors were associated with a professional leadership that depended on the status of their profession, though their influence in the community extended beyond their profession.
I was part of that generation that questioned the authority and therefore the status of those institutions. I doubt we really knew what we were doing except we wanted things to change. For many of us it was about gaining opportunities denied to previous generations. The opportunities afforded through education provided a pathway which we took advantage of in large numbers. The leadership given by the established institutions no longer held the same authority. Individualism became a new form of leadership, as the freedom to experiment was given to the post World War II generation.
The changes in technology provided access to many to influence many more. Post modernism questioned the sense in trusting anyone or anything and contributed to the decline of traditional leadership institutions and models. The neo-liberal policies of the 1980s and 1990s further undermined trust in political institutions, and without trust it is difficult to have leadership. It also broke the trust in the market for a generation and impeded New Zealand’s investment growth. Without acknowledged institutions to provide leadership, individuals had to rely on those qualities themselves.
I observed that during the 90s there appeared a renewed interest in leadership, often led by the business schools and their publications. This literature has increased, as have the number of leadership courses and programmes. The vacuum left by the churches, political institutions, and the professions is being filled by what may be termed the democratisation of leadership. The emphasis is now on the qualities of leadership and not on the position or status of leadership. I consider this a positive development. It is positive because hopefully it means more people will understand not only the qualities of leadership but also the responsibilities that accompany the exercise of that leadership. It seemed to me that the Commerce Commission has combined the recognition of leadership qualities at all levels of the organization with the development of a strategy to implement them. This approach recognises that leadership is relevant throughout the organization and does not reside in one person or group.
While I have lived through this changing notion of leadership, I confess I was unaware of it. Leadership was not a role I sought or even considered. The reason is simple. I was still working within the traditional paradigm of leadership, namely, that it existed only within the traditional institutions. It was apparent early in my career that there were few opportunities for women in law or academia. In a way that was liberating because you had little to lose by pursuing your own path. You took risks because there was less to lose.
I explored the use of the media to communicate a point of view that was not generally accepted – whether it was on the rights of workers or equal opportunities for women. I learnt there were consequences for disturbing the status quo but because there was so little to lose the opinions and threats of others, while noted, did not deter. I did not consider myself in a leadership role and this was partly because I had little accountability. I had a professional responsibility to express views that were factual and defensible, but I answered to nobody but myself. It was not until I stood for a position on the Labour Party’s policy council that I had a representative role that required a responsibility to report to others, and to reflect their views. In a sense I was undertaking a traditional leadership role. It was not only responsibility for me but for others. I learnt enormously through those Party roles that included Junior Vice President and President. Mostly I learnt the responsibility of leadership. I also learnt that without trust it is impossible to undertake a leadership role effectively. This meant trusting me and trusting others. I learnt an essential element of trust was acting with integrity and expecting others to do the same.
When I was appointed foundation Dean of the Waikato University School of Law, I learnt a different form of leadership. Whereas a political party requires a high level of discipline and accountability to a range of different people within the organization, the university operates differently. There is a greater level of autonomy without the necessary support. Perhaps the best advice I got was that there was no point seeking advice on what was permissible or not, I should just do it and I would be told if I got it wrong. I do not recommend this form of management but am sure it has changed.
I would rate the experience as Dean my most difficult and testing time in a leadership role. When I was hired the University had $10 million to fund the School, and within the first six months I had hired a dozen staff and received applications from over 1000 students seeking one of the 190 places. With the change of government at the end of 1990, the $10 million budget disappeared and it was made clear by the government that the project should not proceed. With the support of the Vice Chancellor at the time, we decided it should proceed. The demand was there and while it would be hard without the capital fund, we still had an income stream so decided to continue on. I would rate that one of my tougher decisions because it would have been so easy to walk away with a redundancy payment. It just did not seem the right thing to do and once we worked out it could still be financially viable, we proceeded and the School is thriving today.
Perhaps an even harder decision during that period was writing the prescription for the degree programme and arguing for its approval by the Council of Legal Education, on which sat all the School’s competitors. Unfortunately there was no Commerce Commission to appeal to at that time, though I recall threatening such an action at one point. What I learnt through that process however was to rely on the leadership of others who supported the project and skilfully helped me present and argue the case.
It is difficult for me to talk about my experience as a Minister while I have my current role. I can say that it presented many challenges from which I learnt a great deal about others and myself. As a Cabinet Minister you have a collective responsibility, so you have the task of not only exercising leadership qualities in your own areas of responsibility, but also often trying to persuade your colleagues to your point of view. I also learnt that through listening to others it is possible to find a new approach without compromising your principles or policy commitments. In this context, leadership was often exercised through finding a solution to a problem and then making it happen.
The role of Speaker has produced a different set of challenges. It is a role that has all the responsibility but none of the supports other Members of Parliament have access to. Leadership is exercised through one’s own authority and the goodwill of Members. While in leadership terms, the role of Speaker ranks third in terms of constitutional status, its authority and status is dependent on the respect with which the public hold the institution of Parliament. In my time as Speaker I have endeavoured to make the Parliament more accessible through the televising of Parliament, and through ensuring its administrative processes are efficient and transparent. The more people who understand that Parliament is more than question time, the greater awareness will be of how fortunate we are as a people to have such a democratic representative decision making institution. It is easy to take for granted how accountable our Parliament is compared with many others.
In conclusion I would note that I am often asked if there is a difference between male and female leadership. This is a subject that requires more attention than I can give it today. I would observe however that I do not think the qualities for leadership are different but the way leadership is exercised is often different. We are all influenced by our environment and experience. Men and women are seen and are treated differently. This is often unconscious and frequently denied but in my experience is true. It appears to be no longer fashionable to examine seriously gender difference. I think this is a mistake because we need to fully understand and celebrate the difference. In the context of leadership, there is no one form or expression of leadership. Different situations require different leadership. We need to concentrate on what is required for the position, not on whether a man or a woman has the right leadership skills. It is our lack of understanding of the requirements of leadership that inhibits women being able to fully contribute to institutional leadership. In a country of just over 4 million people, we cannot afford to be blinkered to the full participation of women in all roles including leadership.
May I thank you for the opportunity to address you today. May I also wish the Commission all the very best for the future.