The path from anarchist student to awakened leader has been ripe with invaluable learnings for prominent Auckland businessman ROB CAMPBELL. He shares these lessons with Alistair Kwun.
What did you learn from your time running an anarchist bookshop in 1960s Wellington?
New Zealand in the late 1960s was a time of burgeoning radicalism. Students at that time, including myself, felt a strong sense of community, experimented with ideas and fought for positive social and political change. We were particularly influenced by British left-wing political writing, and it was from this climate of change and collective spirit that Resistance Bookshop was born. Business lessons were far and few, but it was a lot of fun!
How was your leadership style in those days?
My concept of leadership during my tertiary years was highly collective and romantic. Because I didn’t exercise any form of leadership, I preferred to admire, listen and learn from prominent speechmakers, protesters and change makers. In my early professional career, this shifted to a “command and control” style – the most in vogue at the time. Back then, I don’t believe I understood how to enable the best in others.
What value did you add to your early and mid-career roles?
After a short teaching stint at Massey University, I became involved with the union movement, mainly as a research adviser. Unions were under attack during the Muldoon reign, and leadership within unions was unstable. So I decided to step up and offer them my advocacy, education and media relations skills – a unique blend at that time. My ability to structure compelling arguments and present a sophisticated, thought leadership perspective was coveted and respected, as most officials in that world didn’t possess those skillsets.
What is awakened leadership? In what ways have you awakened those in your professional circles?
I like to open people’s minds to reading or listening to something once a month that they don’t agree with, something that challenges their ingrained perspectives. I also deliberately seek out things that are beyond my comfort zone. For example, I’m not conversant in te reo despite having lived my whole life in New Zealand. It was easier to avoid this when I was growing up. I see how ignorant I was back then. So now it’s about making a concerted effort to build capacity and tackle the ignorance.
Decision makers are appointed to roles because they possess some form of professional excellence, expertise and enthusiasm. At the same time, these decision makers tend to think they know everything. I coax them to focus on upgrading these skills and develop a passion for learning - not only about themselves, but especially from others. I also work hard to encourage people to see beyond the present, the mediocre and their individual constraints. Inertia is our worst enemy, and it’s crucial to understand that things don’t have be the way that they are. In fact they are more than they appear to be.
I believe that our purpose in life is to overcome problems and thinking that hinder our success. Buddha was once asked: “What are you? Are you a man? Are you a God? Are you a King?” Buddha said: “I am none of those things. I am awake.” By helping people to be better leaders also helps me to be a better leader. At any level of management that helps guide one’s actions. To be an “awakened leader” is most apposite today.
As a passionate advocate for diversity on boards, how have you moved the conversation dial with business leaders around this topic?
In the business world, people tend to treat diversity as a “fresh concept”. I have been intent on reframing diversity in conversations from the everyday notion of “creating” it (actually it’s always been there) to “awakening” it. That’s what those in decision making roles should be doing – awakening it.
Real change will occur in the country when existing directors are replaced by younger blood with more flexible, modern mindsets. Diversity is a challenge to existing senior leaders as many of them can’t adapt or don’t want to change, so we fall back on a facile approach to diversity. Renewal therefore becomes essential to meet modern demands. I don’t think we can have senior executives spend too long serving on boards or having them rotate from one company to another. I’m also an advocate of “reverse mentoring” which offers excellent results when an emerging leader is matched with an older one to learn, teach and listen to each other. This belief reinforces my own mantra: “The duty of the old is not to get in the way of the bold.”
What challenges do we need to “awaken” ourselves as New Zealanders - now and in the future?
We’ve become a more separated society than we think. Our Treaty partnership is present in public and educational sectors, but largely absent or treated as token on boards and in business. There is quite a way to go before it is naturally embraced in corporate circles. It is exciting and unique to have the Treaty as the foundation document of our nation. Perhaps we need to focus on firmly embedding it in our minds to give us the confidence to then address multiculturalism.
My fitness trainer is an ex-boxer of Māori and Samoan descent who has helped me improve not only my body performance but also my understanding of issues affecting diverse communities. At the bootcamps around Auckland, I am often the only Pākehā present. That has been a catalyst for me to see, learn and understand others better. What this underpins is the need to break down geographical, social and cultural divisions.
Each generation carries its own zeitgeist. For my parents’ generation, it was a quest for security whereas for mine it was an attempt to understand our identity and place. The present generation is seeking out more authentic ways to live. We live in confusing times where everyone is questioning the vision, values and behaviour of current leaders. People who can build people through awakened leadership are a gem. At the end of the day, the only leader you can rely on is your inner leader.
Rob Campbell is an investor, director and Chairman of SKYCITY Entertainment Group.