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My Year in Leadership

Written by Nick Ruane, 2014 Leadership NZ Alumni and Research Analyst at Ministry of Social Development

When I recall the first day of my 2014 Leadership NZ year I remember Sir Bob Harvey speaking about being naked in your leadership. I sat there listening to him and was deeply unsure what he meant. 

Reflecting back I am certain that I was privileged to hear Sir Bob speak those words and to have the whole Leadership NZ experience. Without the full support of my board at Hutt Valley Disabled Resources Trust and the support of Leadership NZ, in the form of the scholarship I sought and was awarded, there is no doubt in my mind this amazing journey would have been out of reach to be.

When I got to the retreats I was inwardly angry, hostile and grumpy, and at the time I couldn’t understand why. Even to the point that later in the year a trusted Leadership NZ participant said to me: “Nick, why are you such an angry person?”

When I spent time with my Leadership NZ cohort I compared myself to them, I rated myself against them, my lack of progress relative to others grated me. I told myself I should have equaled or bettered my colleagues, and it made me angry and grumpy.

I know this is a narrative that many disabled people in this country will identify with and I accept that it is a narrative that many non-disabled people will find hard to understand, or will probably not have experienced at all.

Grievance is a coat that I shouldered like a big old winter jacket, but it burdened me all year round, all day every day.

For me, It began when I was bullied at school for being different from the other kids. Then after university, trying to get work, I was questioned on my disability rather than my qualifications. When I was qualifying to be a primary teacher, a teacher said to me that I was unsuitable to teach because I couldn’t tie the children’s shoe laces.

Grievance for me has been long-standing, real and legitimate. But here is the interesting thing about grievance for me. I could easily have allowed it to consume my life, because, it is legitimate and I have a right to be angry at the things that have happened to me. Others I know, have taken that path.

This is where I think directly about my Programme year and about the most powerful interactions I had on that year. I sat in those rooms with those leaders and my thoughts were, with all that power, would I choose to take that path, as they had done? My answer was, no.

I was in a position of having no institutional power; disabled people have very limited institutional power in New Zealand. I contrast that conversation with that of Dr Huhana Hickey who spoke in Waitakere late in the year. She spoke about preparing food parcels for homeless people in Auckland and her advocacy for disabled people. Her message to me was that power must align to values, all the power in the world is wasted if it cannot align to personal and societal values.

What has my year in leadership has taught me? It has taught me that we have leaders who have enormous institutional power but whose decisions sit uncomfortably with me personally. At the same time, we have people in this country who serve their communities, almost unrecognised, who work for the benefit of those communities, and we need to celebrate the leadership in their work too.

It has taken me at least 12 months to get to the point where I am willing and able to take off the coat of grievance. There are many people not just in my community but many others in our country who are also in grievance. For those who are in legitimate grievance, we need to recognise and acknowledge that grievance in order for them to move forward to become productive members of our society.

I have been very fortunate to be a part of Leadership NZ. This experience has given me the skills to navigate my way through a truly challenging life experience. I am open to the next step in my leadership journey, wherever that will take me.