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Freyberg Lecture

Issue date: 
Thursday, 1 August 2013
Lt Gen The Rt Hon Sir Jerry Mateparae, GNZM, QSO

E te Tumuaki – Roger Moses, e ngā Kaiako, me nga tama o te Kareti o Whanganui-a-Tara , e huihui nei, tēnei aku mihi māhana ki a koutou, kia ora tātou katoa.  Mr Moses, Principal of Wellington College; and teachers and young men of Wellington College, warm greetings to you all.  Thank you for inviting me to give the fourth biennial Freyberg Lecture. 

I’ll freely admit that I was a little apprehensive by the prospect of giving this lecture.  When I received Mr Moses’ letter, he mentioned the topics that had been covered previously, and the names of the previous speakers.  Gerald Hensley, who gave the last lecture on the relationship between General Freyberg and Prime Minister Peter Fraser during the Second World War, is a distinguished expert in his field, and a hard act to follow.

But challenges are opportunities playing hard to get!  So, in the spirit of the motto of this College: “Lumen accipe et impenti – receive the light and pass it on!” I will take this opportunity to pass on some remarks from my experiences.  Initially, I’ll speak about the relationship between Government House and Wellington College.  Then, I’ll say something about leadership.  I’ll draw on a few stories both from my life and career and anecdotes about my current role and Government House. 

Wellington College and Government House have been neighbours for 103 years.  And from the beginning there has been a strong relationship between the College and Government House.  Three of New Zealand’s Governors-General have been educated here; Sir Bernard Freyberg, Sir Paul Reeves and Sir Michael Hardie Boys. 

When the College moved to this site in 1874, its neighbour was the Mt View Lunatic Asylum, which had opened the year before.  Government House was built on its current site after Parliament was burned down in 1907 and the then Government House, which was on the site where the Beehive stands today, was commandeered for Parliament.  The new home for the Sovereign’s representative saw the Asylum demolished and Government House built from 1908, opening in 1910.  I’m not sure who was more relieved about the Asylum closing down – the young men of the College or the Mt View patients!

I was reminded of the relationship by a comment in Mr Moses’ letter when he said that he hoped the 1600 youths next door were not proving too intrusive.  Mr Moses’ comment brought to mind a story from the late 1960s. 

The story goes that three boys jumped the fence to share a sly cigarette, and stumbled upon an older man doing some gardening.  The man, who introduced himself simply as Arthur, noticed there was only one cigarette between the three boys, and so he pulled out a packet, passed it round and then enjoyed a “ciggie” and a chat with them. 

It wasn’t long before the boys realised who “Arthur” really was.  They hastily made their farewells and spent the rest of the day worrying about what might happen next.  What happened next was that the College received a note from Government House saying that Sir Arthur Porritt had enjoyed talking to three boys and that he had found, soon after they left, the cricket ball – included with the note – that they had been looking for! 

You can rest assured that any students I run into on the grounds of Government House won’t be given any cigarettes by me!  I’ve always been a non-smoker.  Also, I’m unlikely to be doing any gardening either!  The professional gardeners would have a heart attack if I started meddling with their plant beds.  But we might manage a quick chat!

That story about youthful hijinks, however, provides a good point to change track and move to the heart of my remarks - leadership.  Leadership is one of those topics everyone seems to have an opinion about; and whether someone is a good leader or a bad leader and the qualities that define them. 

As Year 12 and Year 13 students, your time at this school is drawing to a close.  Over the next couple of years, some of you may travel or work.  Some may take up an apprenticeship or go on to further study at university or a polytechnic.  Given the history of this place, and the character and opportunities you will take from your time at Wellington College some of you young men will undoubtedly go on to leadership opportunities outside the College.

As someone who left school more than 40 years ago, I don’t claim to be an expert on life for young people in the 21st century.  However, as a father of five children, two of whom are still teenagers and with one still at secondary school, I like to think I’ve still got a reasonable grasp of some of the issues teenagers and certainly their parents face.  Well, that’s what I think – I’m sure our teenage-boys would disagree!

Things have changed over the past 40 years – now there’s a blinding statement of the obvious!  One thing I am conscious of is that technological change has accelerated social change.  This has meant, for example, that the relationship between parents and their children has changed.  When I was growing up it was reasonable for an adult to say “follow my example”, asserting “do as I do because you are too young to understand”. 

However, the speed of technological developments has changed that social paradigm, and now it is quite rational for a young person to assert that older people are “too old to know”!  Imagine the social and psychological impact that is having on my generation – once “too young to understand” and now “too old to know”.  It may well explain why many of my generation seem lost!  And yet technology is pervasive across generations.  Where once my wife Janine and I would pull our teenagers up for “monitoring” their cell phones at the dinner table, now the boys have to remind their mother to put the smartphone away and join our conversations!

So, I am the first to acknowledge changing times, and even with leadership.  No event, no situation and no group is exactly alike another.  Nonetheless, there are some constants that I have found, and it is these that I want to talk about.

I don’t claim to be an expert on leadership, but I’ve got my views!  And, given this is the Freyberg Lecture, it may help to set the scene if I draw some insights from Freyberg.  I do not presume to have the many distinctions Freyberg had.  On the face of it, and although we lived have in different times, we share some similarities.  We both were unsuccessful in our first attempt to get a commission in the New Zealand Army.  Yet we both went on to command New Zealand troops overseas, both became Lieutenant Generals and the Governor-General.  The story about Freyberg’s response to a high-ranking British officer’s complaint that his New Zealand soldiers were lax in offering salutes to superiors when he replied: “Ah, yes, but if you wave to them, they’ll wave back” – resonates with me.  As I intimated, there are some significant differences – he was over 6 feet tall, clearly I am not!  But we probably would share some insights on leadership – perhaps!

If you read my “CV” it might seem extraordinary, and some of it is.  However, behind each one of the things I’ve done has been hard work, looking at challenges as opportunities and I’ve made some mistakes.  With life and leadership, hard work and experience involves making mistakes.  As I’ve grown older there have been fewer mistakes, but still a lot of hard work.  In his book, Bounce, British table-tennis Olympian Matthew Sayed wrote: “the paradox of excellence is that it is built upon the foundations of necessary failure”.

When I think back to when I left High School in the early 1970s, I recall the testimonial my principal wrote.  His assessment was plainly-written, honest and accurate.  He wrote that I had “not found it as easy as some to establish my independence without showing some resentment for the establishment and a certain wilfulness at times”.  He wrote that while I’d done well academically, I hadn’t made the most of my abilities or opportunities.  He added that my future prospects would “depend on his [my] goals in life and his [my] choice of friends”.

As soon as I read it I knew that it was accurate – we know ourselves better than most.  On reflection, what it taught me was that we should always seek to know ourselves well.  And I’ve found that a good way of doing that it is to take on hard-to-do challenges.  Being a member of the New Zealand SAS was one of those hard challenges. 

What it’s also taught me is that life is about having options so you have choices to make.  You want to make choices for yourself and not have others do that for you!  It’s the same with friends.  Good friends will always be good friends whatever their background.  Truly good friends, however, accept you for what you are and what you want and can be.  Good friends give you space, they don’t crowd-out your options and choices.

When I enlisted as a soldier in 1972, I had no idea that I would end up as the Governor-General, let alone Chief of the Army or Chief of the Defence Force.  I have often wondered what my principal thought when I joined the army, and then as I rose through the ranks to command it.  Although he’d noted me as a wilful non-conformist, he had said that this might prove to be a very worthwhile strength of character!  Perhaps it has been.

An insight I can offer is that you shouldn’t necessarily expect your career or life to be firmly mapped out when you’re 18 – life just doesn’t work like that.  It’s unfair to expect that someone will know at 18 what and how they’ll be doing at 28, let alone at 48 or 58. 

The days of a single career for life are mostly long gone.  Indeed, it’s possible you’ll finish your working lives in careers that don’t even exist when you leave school.  When I left school, there was no such thing as an iPhone or iPad, or the industry that supports their creation, marketing and administration.  The IT industry now employs thousands, if not millions of people, worldwide.

To those who demand from you a life plan at 18, what you can say is that whatever you do and wherever life takes you that you want to do your best, to keep your options open, to take opportunities when they come along and to enjoy life.  Having a passion for what you do helps.  If you look at what Freyberg did throughout his life, it’s clear he followed his passions – to Mexico, to Britain and back to New Zealand.  Life and leadership are about the enthusiasm you have for the choices you make along the way.

I’ve been privileged with opportunities to command and lead New Zealanders in places such as Bougainville, southern Lebanon, Timor-Leste and Afghanistan.  From these opportunities have come options around courses in Britain, Singapore and Australia and military postings overseas.  I’ve done some very interesting things.  Some may characterise my career options as luck – well you make your luck, it doesn’t just happen.

Turning to look at leadership more specifically, when I consider the different leadership roles I’ve had there are some clear differences.  In the New Zealand Defence Force, as Chief of the Army and Chief of the Defence Force I had at my disposal the authority to apply military power – to order the people under my command to use deadly force against other human beings.

Becoming Governor-General was a complete change.  With the four streams to my role – constitutional, ceremonial, community, and international – all present opportunities.  My constitutional powers, while seemingly significant, are, by convention, limited.  I act on the advice of democratically-elected Ministers.  My ceremonial and international roles are similarly constrained by protocol.

However, my community leadership role – which makes up the overwhelming majority of my job – is as wide as I want to make it.  There is no handbook or manual and each Governor-General has undertaken the community leadership role in their own way.  Today I’m speaking here, a month ago Lady Janine and I were on a four-day visit to Hamilton, and a month from now I’ll be investing people who were honoured in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

As Governor-General, I employ no staff, and what I do is very public.  The 28 staff at Government House that support my work are employed by my Official Secretary.  It’s a far cry from commanding, leading and being accountable for almost 15,000 people!  So from Chief of Defence Force - where I had significant powers, and limited jurisdiction - I have moved to a role where I have measured powers and an almost unlimited jurisdiction. 

However, it is wrong to confuse leadership with the power to make people do things.  Most powers of leaders are limited rather than absolute.  Just because you’re a leader and can give subordinates “orders”, whether you’re an Army officer or a chief executive or a headmaster with many staff reporting to you, it doesn’t follow that people will do as you order.  People will do things for you – willingly – because they respect you.  Leadership is based on respect; and respect is earned, not given as of right.

As I indicated at the start, we may all know good or bad leaders, but defining what makes for a good or bad leader has perplexed great minds.  My view is that leadership is about using common-sense.  Leaders and leadership is about the way people act towards one another.  In any group there are followers and there are leaders.  And, success comes from leaders and followers working together with a common purpose. 

All of us reflect the society we come from.  In New Zealand we have a caring, compassionate and dynamic society.  Last month, as Patron of the Royal Humane Society of New Zealand, I hosted a ceremony at Government House where the bravery of three people was recognised.  Two had rescued people from a car that was on fire and electrically alive, while another tried to save a young man who was trapped under a waterfall.  In April this year, I awarded the Anzac of the Year award to two 12-year old boys from Waihi, who went into heavy surf and saved a man from drowning.  An example of extraordinary commitment can be seen in the activities of the 2012 Anzac of Year winner, the Student Volunteer Army in Christchurch.  Led by Sam Johnson, the SVA showed how ordinary people working together can achieve extraordinary results.

What their collective experiences highlight is that there will be, and indeed must be, times when we all need to step forward and show courage and leadership.  Here in New Zealand we reflect a society that has an egalitarian ethos, and everyone is expected to get stuck in.  As Freyberg observed about his New Zealand Division during the Second World War: “I attribute the high morale of the New Zealand Division largely to the fact that we are a national army with great esprit de corps, and also to our early life and education in New Zealand” 

With leadership, like all relationships between people, things do not occur within a void.  Leadership and life need to be built on fundamental values.  Both professionally and personally, I’ve found the values that the New Zealand Defence Force promotes – courage, comradeship, commitment and integrity – act as an anchor for me because they reflect a set of behaviours that I can identify with – they reflect behaviours required in the most challenging of circumstances. 

Values are personal, sometimes situation specific and they need to suit your personality or the organisation or group you’re with.  For example, at Government House being public-spirited, accessible, courageous and compassionate reflect the character of my role, and our organisation, as I see it.  And at this school honesty, integrity, fairness, responsible leadership, mutual respect and tolerance define what it is that Wellington College seeks to instil in you young men now and for the future.  The point is that without values, leadership becomes inherently weak, where a single-minded pursuit of ends plays little heed to the methods being used. 

As you might guess, I think that courage and integrity are universal values for a leader.  Courage puts a context around integrity.  It is the courage of your convictions and the integrity of your actions that define an individual as much an organisation.  Someone who professes to be courageous yet lacks integrity also lacks the commitment, the compassion and the respect for responsible leadership.

To that end, leaders need to do more than just speak of their values.  They need to show their commitment to them in their dealings with others.  Leaders are not judged by what they say, but by what they do.  Leaders are always being watched.  So when you err, you need to be accountable.  We all make mistakes, and mistakes are an important part of learning, but not the same mistake twice – that’s just dumb!  However, if you do make a mistake: own it, fix it, learn from it and move on.  Also, when things are happening, I find it better to say “I was wrong” and “we were right” and when doing things, it’s “we can” and “I do” and in sharing responsibility, it’s “I lost” and “we won.”

In conclusion, in my experience and from what I’ve read about Freyberg, with leadership there is no simple explanation.  What works for me might not work for you – but we should celebrate difference.  However, if you aspire to be a leader you do need to be both competent and confident.  You need to be competent in what you do because people rely on you and they notice if you are not.  Being competent gives you the insights to know where and how far you can push boundaries.  You also need to have confidence in your own abilities, and be confident working with ambiguity.  Confidence is not arrogance.  Confidence and competence build respect. 

Leaders and their leadership are based on respect.  Respect entails knowing your people, and also being honest to yourself and demonstrating that to others.  Following a set of fundamental values – the things that you represent – is in my view compelling. 

To close, I want to quote from the address given by an American officer, a Major Bach, to army officers who were graduating to lead US soldiers in the First World War:
“And lastly, if you aspire to leadership, I would urge you to study people.  Get under their skins and find out what is inside.  Some are quite different from what they appear to be on the surface.  Determine the workings of their minds.  And then, know your people, know your business, know yourself.” 

Again, thank you for this opportunity to deliver a Freyberg Lecture, and all the best for your studies and your examinations later this year; and the opportunities ahead of you.  Kia ora huihui tātou katoa.

Last updated: 
Thursday, 1 August 2013

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