50 Dead - Resilience Reflection #2 - Leadership

by John Fawcett
Dead leaves and beauty


Leadership and resilience are interconnected. This isn’t a new finding, of course. But rarely do we experience examples of how leadership supports, mediates and builds leadership. Seeing this in the full public view is rare.

In Aotearoa New Zealand this past month we have had the privilege of a display of leadership that showcases key aspects of how leadership builds resilience.

Defining identity

In the minutes following the murder of 50 people in Christchurch the whole country wavered on the edge of a precipice. We, all of us, could go any where, and the most likely path was down.

Jacinda Adern, the NZ Prime Minister, began the process with a statement of identity. She said, unequivocally, unapologetically, firmly and with suppressed anger, that the victims of this atrocity were “us”. She said, quite simply, “They are us”. 

"They are us"

She could have said any number of other things. She could have noted the victims were muslims. Or migrants. Or refugees. By defining them as none of these but as ‘us’ she invited all of New Zealand to respond as they would to members of their own family.

They are whanau, which means we receive them as family members and care for them as brothers and sisters.

In a sense, this statement of identity gave us permission to respond and, more importantly, a framework within which to respond.

Defining context

Jacinda Ardern then defined the context of these killings. This was a terrorist action. Not a homicide, or a mistake, or even a mass murder. But an act of terror. 

In doing so the event is accorded the correct size and shape within our culture. New Zealand has had mass murders before, and we have acts of state terror on our shores, but this is something entirely different, entirely new, and entirely shocking.

We have now been given permission to understand that our immediate and ongoing reactions are normal in abnormal circumstances. We are not going crazy. The fact that we are scared, unsettled, disturbed, afraid, angry, bitter, unable to sleep, hyper-sensitive - all of these are hallmarks of normal reactions to abnormal circumstances. 

Defining purpose

Jacinda Adern was immediately supported by the incredible work of the NZ Police in running down and arresting the alleged gunman in less than 30 minutes. He is a white supremacist from Australia. 

In her immediate comments Ms Adern defined the perpetrator as the ‘other’. Quite specifically saying that he is ‘not one of us’. This is a very astute play on meaning. On one hand, being Australian, he is not one of us. But NZ and Australia have a very close relationship and often refer to ourselves as ‘family’. Ms Adern did not refer to this man’s nationality, but to his actions.

These are not, she is telling us, the actions of one who is ‘of us’. Rather, this man is a terrorist who does not belong in our country or culture.

Defining reason

In a few words, Jacinda Adern turned this persons written ‘manifesto’ against him. And for us. This country was chosen by this terrorist not because we are inherently racist, war-mongering, religious fanatics, but expressly because we are not. 

We were chosen to bear this burden because this loser believed he had the best opportunity to inflict the greatest harm precisely because our society is more open, more welcoming and less aggressive than others.

Ms Adern reminds us that we are a proud country. A nation that has stood up to much larger ones in the past on ethical and moral grounds. Not buckling under the pressure of every other huge economy or powerhouse. She reminds us that we are internationally respected for our morality, our strength and our compassion.

Drawing on deep wells of resilience

In doing so Jacinda reminds us that we have very deep wells of resilience on which we can, and will, draw in the days and weeks ahead. 

Defining action

The very first action the Prime Minister takes is to state categorically that gun laws will change. Within a week. And they do. Statement and delivery. Clear, clean and certain.

Because the victims and their families are ‘us’ the government (that is, the rest of us) will provide them with whatever financial and support services they require. Cash will be given. Visas of all kinds will be renewed, refreshed and accepted. Family members from overseas will be welcomed. Immediately.

Ms Adern then gets on a plane to Christchurch and meets the members of the shattered community. Wearing a simple headscarf. Looking like she had been wearing a hijab every day of her life. She made no comment about it, just wore it. 

And women all over New Zealand began wearing hijabs. 

Defining communication

How do we talk about this? What words do we use in such circumstances? Talking with friends and family is one thing, but the enormity of this tragedy means it is possible we will be talking with people we either do not know, or do not agree with. There may be people who may not even view this as a tragedy but a victory, an act of courage and self-sacrifice. How do we respond to those people should we meet?

Jacinda Adern gave us a glimpse of a model, a process, that might work. This involves carefully crafting a message that does not back away from our personal convictions that this was a deeply wrong and deeply destructive. In the face of examples of unrelenting rage we often find ourselves backing down, or moderating our stance, or even avoiding the subject.

Ms Adern did none of these things. When President Trump called the New Zealand Prime Minister to offer condolences he asked her what the United States could provide. She replied, “Sympathy and love for all muslim communities”.

Indeed. Seven words that tell us all we know about the receiver. 

Kia Kaha

Kia Kaha means ‘stand strong’. We can stand strong without casting accusations, hurling abuse or breaking relationships. We can stand strong by responding to others and demonstrating different ways to act. We can stand strong with statements backed up by actions consistent with practice.

Defining compassion

The phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’ is now mocked as if it is an insult, the cry of the lazy, the smallest possible response to an event.

Ms Adern did not use the phrase at all, as far as I recall. She visited the holy sites and prayed with the grieving. She went right up to those in despair and asked if she could hold them. Her respect for culture meant that she was even invited by muslim men to touch and hold. 

Every movement, every look, every glance, told us first about respect for others, second how to ask what might help and, third, doing what was asked. 

Most of us in New Zealand have never had any direct contact with Islam. Peripherally aware, but nothing really to go on.

But we do have a massive well of cross-cultural experience to draw on. A land of many cultures, trying over the past 50 years or so to learn how other cultures live, love and die. Learning new languages, learning ways to respect. We have a very long way to go but the predominant narrative in this country is that we will try, and will try again, until we get it right. 

So, having been participants in differing cultural ways of grief and loss, we instinctively know that muslims will treat loss, grief, death, family, love, community and relationships in ways different to ours.

But the fact that there is difference is not generally scary to us. It is our daily expectation and experience. Not covertly as in many other countries, but overtly, in our faces.

What we needed in this context was an example. How do we behave with respect and love?

Jacinda Adern demonstrated, hour after hour, day after day, that this is how we do it. This is how we respect, comfort and care. Do this. Ask for guidance. Offer love.

And so the phrase “they are us” is now in our lexicon. The name of the terrorist who is not us will be forgotten. We now know there is an invitation to visit the local mosque and share the life of this new community and culture in our land.

Leadership, real leadership, has given us the foundation on which to move ahead. Even if, at some later stage, there is to be intellectual discussion about these issues (and we know there will be, we are, after all, human), for now we have a context, a foundation, an example and a definition of how we can live together for the next few weeks and months as this player out.

In my work, international humanitarian work, I have seen true examples of leadership and how this leadership builds and enhances resilience. But, sadly, leadership is significantly lacking across the sector. We have a plethora of managers, many who appear beholden to shareholders, managers who are, for whatever reason, unable to lead with morality, determination, skills and abilities. 

Leadership may be the attribute most absent in the world today. Where leadership is absent resilience is eroded, corroded and washed away.

Te mahi a te rangatira, he whakatira i te iwi | The work of a rangatira (leader) is to unite people 



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