We began Retreat Two of The NZ Leadership Programme the day before the attack by a white supremacist terrorist on the mosques in Christchurch; we ended it the day after. It’s impossible to reflect on this Retreat without reflecting on the shocking news we received that day.
Everyone from Christchurch was on their way to soak in the local hot pools when the news began to filter in. I didn’t have my phone on me. I had to borrow someone else’s to try and contact my mother. On the way back to rejoin the rest of our cohort after our soak, the bus driver turned up the radio as the Prime Minister gave her first press conference about the attack. We all listened in solemn silence. I knew it was a moment I would always remember where I was, like when the Challenger exploded, Princess Diana died, 9/11.
This image that is burnt on my brain forever: the colleague opposite me on the bus, in tears, as Jacinda calmly and compassionately made it clear: “they are us.”
As we rejoined everyone else, we prepared to launch into the pre-planned session. Only I wasn’t present. Mentally I was in Christchurch, with my mother.
Ultimately, the pre-planned session was forgotten. Instead, Louise Marra invited those of us from Christchurch, along with our lone Muslim sister, to stand in the middle of the room. We wrapped our arms around each other as the rest of the cohort wrapped around us in a circle and sang to our pain. Tears ran down my eyes. I was not the only one.
By organically following the mood of the group and throwing the Programme out the window, Louise allowed us to have a collective moment and let what had happened begin to land inside us, emotionally. It was entirely necessary. Because by doing that, it allowed us all to be present for the following and final activity for the day, an activity that was very much about working together and service to others. Despite the horrific day, the activity was a lot of fun because life goes on.
As I write this reflection from Sydney, I’m still processing what happened in Christchurch. But one thing I know for certain is that I’m grateful that I was able to put some of the tools I learned on the most recent retreat into practice at a board meeting in Christchurch shortly afterwards.
I suggested we start with a prayer or a something rather than just launching into our agenda, as usual. I asked that we really start to connect as a board on a deeper level as we collectively tried to figure out a way to move forward; and I kept re-directing the conversation back to race because if there the one thing our Muslim sister said to me that could help is to keep the conversation going and not let it wither away once the last bouquet of flowers has been laid and the last vigil has been held.
Had I not been on The NZ Leadership Programme, I’m not sure I would have spoken up at the board meeting about the prayer or the need for connection or indeed, the necessity to keep talking about race; I’m not sure I would have, as Louise has said, consciously slowed everything down.
Our nation is living through history right now. The end of the story is far from uncertain. But, what is clear is that those of us on this Programme have (I was about to use the word opportunity, but the word I really need to use is obligation) to lead change – both collectively and individually within our respective organisations.
Daring leadership is the theme for this year’s course: a theme that could not be more timely.