Back to top anchor

Capital City Prayer Breakfast

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 19 September 2000
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

The motto of my old school, Wellington College, is Lumen accipe et imperti, take the light and pass it on. The school crest shows the light as a flaming lamp, the lamp of knowledge and truth. Last Friday it was my privilege to see the Olympic torch carried into the great stadium in Sydney, the focus of the high hopes and the years of training and sacrifice of the athletes and the excited expectations of the crowds. I had actually carried the flame myself, for 400 metres outside Government House. I had been asked to carry it for a kilometre, and had accepted on the basis that I would walk. But when the distance was reduced to 400 metres, and the route was lined by boys from my old school, I ran, and just made it. In Christchurch last week the schools had their own games opening, 12,000 youngsters were there, and the torch was carried by the children and then handed to the great Arthur Lydiard, the coach of so many outstanding athletes, a true leader of men, because he was focussed and he could and did inspire.

I like the connection between today's theme of leadership and the Olympic image that is captured by the words "Carrying the Flame", because that is what leadership is all about, lighting the way, encouraging, challenging, inspiring, passing on the light to those who come after. So I would like to share with you a few thoughts about leadership.

And let me begin with the warning in the Book of Proverbs: "Where there is no vision, the people perish." It's a warning to us all, most especially to those who would be leaders among us.

What do we mean by vision, though, in this context? Not a dazzling light before the eyes, not a picture of real or ethereal beauty, not "all Heaven before my eyes" as Milton wrote, nor the "she looks a real vision in blue" sort of thing, but surely an ideal, an objective to strive for, that will make us a better people, the nation a better place, the world more just. Without that sort of vision, driving its leaders, shared by the people, a nation might muddle along, but slowly it will lose its way and the people will perish: not physically, but morally, creatively, in their minds and their imaginations and their aspirations and their sensitivities. Without vision, we are on a path to failure. But as Field Marshal Montgomery said, leadership is the art of creating the atmosphere of success.

Someone wrote about Christopher Columbus that when he set out he did not know where he was going, when he arrived he didn't know where he was, and when he got back he didn't know where he had been. No doubt he was a very proficient sailor to have achieved what he did, but by that particular description he was an utter failure as a leader, because effective leaders are people who know where they and those they are responsible for are, who know where they want them all to get to, and who are able to carry those others along so that they all do get there.

And so leadership is all about vision. The true leaders are those who catch a vision and inspire it in others. There is a Chinese proverb that those who are narrow of vision cannot be large of heart; and largeness of heart is crucial to leadership.

Of course there are bad leaders as well as good leaders. By bad leaders, I don't mean poor leaders. That's really a contradiction of terms. A poor leader is no leader at all. The bad leaders are the ones who have the capacity to inspire, but whose vision is perverse. Adolf Hitler is the obvious prime example. But we have a few among us, not on the same horrendous scale of course, but bad enough for us. We find them in the gangs, for instance. A while back I spoke to a gathering of young people at a 'New Leaders' Forum', sponsored by a consumer goods company. They were a real mix, and after I had said something rather similar to what I have just said about bad leaders and gangs, I was challenged by a lad who said he belonged to a gang and their leader was a great leader. Perhaps it was a good gang, but more likely its leader was simply charismatic. There is a great danger of confusing charisma with good leadership; just as there is a danger of using charisma for less than worthy ends.

Such as our own personal ends. A leader can exercise considerable power, and we all know how power can corrupt. It is so natural to want to be liked, loved preferably; but corruption sets in when what we do, the way we exercise our powers of leadership, is done primarily to please, whether it be ourselves, or, more likely, those whose good opinion we value, or need. It is nice to be thought well of, to know that we are respected, and there is nothing wrong with that, for after all a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and he who filches from me my good name makes me poor indeed. But if I set out to curry favour, if I go so far as to sacrifice principle for popularity, if my greatest concern is for my own ego's sake, I am being corrupted by the power I have. A true leader is focussed on the common good, not his own. As our Lord Himself said, not my will, but thine be done. The noblest image of leadership is that of the servant king; "whoever would be great among you , let him be your servant."

I like the Maori image of a leader as a great tree, strong, unbending, reaching for the heavens. Certainly not a twig bending in whatever way the wind of popular opinion may blow. I once read what I hope is not a true story, but which I fear may be, about a notable who rang an opinion pollster with an urgent request. It was a time of great turmoil in his man's country, and public opinion was "fluid," to employ one of the customary euphemisms. Our man was eager to find out what the latest public opinion polls revealed about attitudes towards an important issue of the day — what the particular issue was doesn't really matter — the important fact is that the eminent man wanted to know what everybody else was thinking. The pollster said that he didn't have the answers that his caller was demanding, at which the caller exclaimed, "What do you mean, you don't know? Find out! I have to know what's going on, which way people are headed. I'm their leader, for goodness' sake. I have to follow them."

No, leadership is not a matter of taking up the latest fad, or seeking to please a particular group, or even the opinion of the majority for the time being. For all these change. Leadership must surely be founded on some unchangeables, for it is in those that a common purpose can be found, it is those on which a better society must be built. It has been said that the highest form of leadership is culture building - the ability to define, strengthen, and articulate those enduring values, beliefs and cultural strands that give an institution, a nation, its unique identity.

So the real issue is, what values drive a leadership? You can't discuss leadership without discussing values, the values that underpin and inspire and focus the vision that a worthwhile leader must have.

We have gone through a phase of denying that there are any of these underlying, enduring values, and we have been paying a price for doing so. There were two explorers making their way through the jungle when they realised they were being stalked by a tiger. One panicked. The other put down his pack, took out a pair of running shoes and put them on. His colleague said you don't think you can outrun the tiger, do you? No, was the reply, only you. That's been a fairly widespread attitude, and it's been responsible for many of the social ills that blot our national scene. My well-being is all that concerns me, I decide what is best for me, what rules I live by. It's a culture that has been fed at many levels, from election manifestos down.

I said we have gone through that phase, but that's not quite right; we are not out of it yet. We have not yet fully recognised that the rights we assert so vigorously carry with them equally urgent responsibilities. We are still a pretty hedonistic, consumption-driven society. There are plenty of unpleasant attitudes about. Too often we decry those who seek to make things better, to do good; "do gooders" we call them contemptuously. It has become fashionable for fundamental institutions like marriage and parenthood to be dumbed-down, even undermined.

Yet I find that more and more people are becoming concerned about where we have been heading; there is a growing acceptance that this egocentric philosophy that has been so prevalent is a failure, a disaster even, and that we must get back to basics. I put it like that deliberately because "back to basics" is another expression some among us like to ridicule, yet it speaks of something that is really beyond the reach of ridicule. For is it not true that our humanity is expressed in certain intrinsic values? — intrinsic because they are good whether they suit our interests or not, true whether we think so or not, just whether or not they go counter to what we immediately want, beautiful whether we happen to like them or not, sacred whether we are willing to recognise them or not. They are intrinsic because they are intimately linked with what it means to be a person; they are values such as justice, integrity, honesty, respect, courage, willingness to work and to serve, self discipline, compassion, kindness, responsibility for ourselves and for others.

There is I believe an increasing insistence that these fundamentals be recognised for what they are, that they be taught in our schools and that they be practised in the life of our communities and in our national life.

Governments, mayors, councils, cannot legislate for virtue, they cannot direct people to be good or responsible or compassionate. Their leadership role is one of influence, by affirming the individual and community values that are essential to us. They can show the way. Their role is also one of shaping policies and providing resources that encourage and support, and that seek to maintain the wellbeing of all. They have difficult choices to make, limited resources at hand, and they are subject to the pulls and pressures, and the temptations, that go with public office and the power that public office entrusts to them.

In our prayers, we should pray for our leaders, that they may have wisdom and courage and above all, vision.

But let's remember that in exercising the leadership we have placed in their hands, they will be very much guided by us, the New Zealanders whose servants they are. And so we should pray for ourselves, that we might have not only convictions, but also the courage of our convictions, and that we might take a role ourselves, a role of leadership, individual leadership, in the shaping of opinion and in the formulation of policy, and in our daily encounters with all those we can influence.

It is all too easy to think of leadership as something exercised by a few people of particular ability, but the truth is that we all have the capacity for leadership, and indeed we all act as leaders from time to time, perhaps not in conspicuous ways, perhaps not even consciously, but nonetheless in ways that make a difference. Just by being ourselves, we become role models that others may follow, or we persuade people to do things our way — or not to do them our way. And so one of the responsibilities of good citizenship is to exercise and exercise constantly, responsible leadership ourselves wherever we are — in the workplace; in community organisations; and most importantly of all, because it is the most influential of all, in our own homes.

I would like to leave you with my favourite quote. How you apply it to what I have been saying, I leave to you. They are words of TE Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia. The ladies will have to forgive him his gender bias: he was a man of his time. What he said was this: "All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes to make it possible."

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

Help us improve the Governor-General website

Your feedback is very important in helping us improve the Governor-General website.

1 + 1 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.