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Geoff Warne: Reflecting on leadership as a global CEO

February 2016

Geoff Warne: Reflections of Leadership by a global CEO

Reflections are many-faceted. New Zealander Geoff Warne spoke with unusual candour and shed light on various aspects of his leadership experiences over the past ten years as General Director of The Leprosy Mission International (TLMI) based in London.

It was the perfect opportunity, while Geoff was briefly home in February, for NZLI to ask him to share his insights with a wider audience at a special NZLI event.

Over the past ten years NZLI’s leadership research and development programmes have centred on the theoretical perspective that leadership occurs as a practice, rather than residing in the traits or behaviours of particular individuals.

Geoff’s reflections exemplified the shift from traditional assumptions of leadership attributed to an individual in a hierarchical position to a relational leadership practice.

We asked Geoff to address the question:

"What does it take to recognise drivers for change given the diverse political, economic and cultural complexities of a global organisation that spans 32 countries – half in the global North and half in the South?"

Critical driver for change

Firstly, when Geoff became General Director at TLMI, having previously been on the organisation’s International Board, he discovered a facet of the 140 year-old organisation that was previously unknown to him, which became a key driver for change.

Following a period of inquiry and conversations Geoff recognised discontent that was directed at the International Office – it was at the top of the hierarchy and seen as the hub of the problem.

In one hemisphere the country leaders primarily located in the global south, whose role was to implement leprosy programmes, felt disempowered by the organisation’s decision-making structures. In the global north, country leaders whose role was to raise funds for the programmes were frustrated by current regional business models.

Consequently a lengthy change initiative began. By listening, challenging assumptions and the prevailing practices, The Leprosy Mission Fellowship was created, a federal organisation. As Geoff explained, “It was a relational rather than a structural solution.” That meant “the main focus was on how we would work together. The key principal underpinning the solution was that amongst the 32 country entities, whether small, large, weak or strong, all were equally valued,” said Geoff. Decisions were redirected to be made nearer the action by people who knew the situation.

These changes were successfully achieved through a depth of mutual love and trust, retaining the values and essence of what The Leprosy Mission wanted to be. Geoff emphasised, “The change process was strongly supported by a shared understanding of the organisation’s Christian identity, purpose, and the peoples’ sense of calling and concern for those people who are marginalised.”

Ongoing leadership challenges

Now, in 2016 as Geoff is taking a closer look at the organisation, he reflected on the diverse and dynamic leadership challenges from economic, political and cultural frames. He recognises that although changes that have been implemented have had positive effects, there are facets in such a global complex cause-related organisation that require new questions, debate, and ways of thinking and addressing strategic directions.

Economically, although the model was functionally well with a more efficient and cost effective International Office, he is unsure whether or not more revenue is actually being raised than previously. Due to dispersed decisions challenges exist in allocating resources across the countries and programmes.

From the political frame, despite a well-defined and accepted Charter with rules and accountability mechanisms, clearer paths and greater inclusions in decision making—there are challenges in some countries where local governance is still not well developed. Geoff recognised that leadership development has been slow for implementing countries and needs focussed attention.

Across the culturally diverse organisation a global set of core beliefs and shared values, along with greater assertiveness by the programme implementing countries has been achieved. The ongoing challenge is that money still speaks loudest unless this is continually resisted. Geoff has been surprised that despite information and knowledge about cross-cultural differences, there remains a lack of understanding, which causes conflict and manifests in clashes between post-colonialism and a ‘we know best’ mentality.

Geoff’s core leadership practices

However insightful Geoff’s stories were, those present at the event really wanted to know the ‘hows’ of his leadership practice. Not easy in a short timeframe. At NZLI we know that leadership isn’t as easy as a list of action bullet points. And yet, Geoff admirably distilled the essential practices that have guided his leadership, which are:

  • Love the organisation with a fierce loyalty, not just the people, the organisation itself.
  • Listen to everyone, especially the ‘weak signals from the periphery’ where the greatest insights may be. Active listening becomes one of the most important CEO roles.
  • Model yourself as leader of leaders: coach, adviser, servant leader. Be aware that what you say/don’t say, do/don’t do, has at times a surprisingly big effect on people.
  • Believe in and live by the organisation’s values: The Leprosy Mission ‘DNA’ is love, justice, inclusion, integrity, humility. Actively engage in ensuring the right values are adopted and practised.
  • Give up power and decide to trust. Genuinely value people, working on the assumption that they will strive to make good decisions through mutual trust, dialogue, applying the values, all within the agreed accountability frameworks. Giving up power actually increased the willingness of Member countries and decision-making groups to seek CEO’s input, but not on the previously imposed hierarchical terms.
  • Intuition within ambiguity. CEOs must have high tolerance for ambiguity. Intuition has a role to play that comes through knowing when to intervene, when to hold back, or wait and see. To do this well, CEO needs ‘intelligence’, a general awareness of what’s going on everywhere.
  • Be attuned to North-South dynamics and the conflict that can flow from misunderstandings – especially where the Global North acts as if it thinks it has the knowledge as well as the money.

Giving up power

During audience interactions and discussions, Associate Professor Brigid Carroll, NZLI Director of Research, asked Geoff to elaborate on his remarks about giving up power. She asked:

     “If you give up power – then what are you leading?”

That wasn’t an easy question to answer. However, Geoff was clear that when command-and-control is set aside leadership is in creating the space for other forms of leadership to surface. He does this with others in creating agreed systems and process; taking on an ‘interpreter’ role in relationships; ‘bringing the outside in’ of the external-internal interface; and finding ways of freeing people up so they thrive. He was clear that, “People need to see and engage with the CEO.”

NZLI greatly appreciated the opportunity to engage with Geoff and provide the platform for him as a University of Auckland alumnus, to share his reflections and experiences. As Jilnaught Wong, Deputy Dean of the University of Auckland Business School said after Geoff’s talk, “I left thinking: that’s a different kind of leader who has made a massive impact internationally and has not lined his pockets with millions of dollars - he served the international communities in a most worthy cause.