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'Silence from the centre': Leadership expert weighs in on Auckland Mayor's flooding response

1 February, 2023

Interview by Stella Huggins, adapted by Georgi Stirling

Listen to the full interview

Photo: Wayne Brown for Mayor Facebook page.

Following the devastating floods that quickly battered Tāmaki Makaurau last Friday, Wayne Brown’s competency as a leader has come into question. 

His failure to call a state of emergency in a timely manner and an overall lack of communication with Aucklanders prompted complaints. 

By Friday night, it was clear that the public was less than unimpressed with his response to the disaster.

Dr Suze Wilson, a senior lecturer at Massey University with expertise in leadership and management, told Stella Huggins on The Wire that his overall manner and behaviour at critical press conferences provoked a negative reaction from the public. 

Dr Wilson highlighted “his silence on Friday night and lack of communication during the peak period when people were literally being rescued and swimming out to their homes."

"You could sense an increasing tone of concern about the silence from the centre or from headquarters if you like.”

In regards to his defensive response to the press on Saturday, Wilson added, “there was this sense he was digging an even deeper hole for himself by failing to understand the nature of what people’s concerns were.” 

She also noted that his insistence on focusing on the technical procedures required to call a state of emergency demonstrated his inclination to direct all of his attention to the management aspect of his role. 

Wilson clarified the difference between management and leadership and why the disparity between Brown’s capability in one over the other was so crucial in this time of crisis. 

Wilson pointed out that in terms of crisis leadership, things such as communication, working with others, and connecting with human issues were all characteristics of an effective leader. 

She summed up the difference by quoting American scholar Warren Bennis, “management is about doing things right, but leadership is about doing the right thing.” 

When asked if Wayne Brown’s past behaviour and performance in his various roles on public boards could indicate his future performance as mayor, Wilson cited that literature “generally says the best way to predict someone’s future behaviour is to look at their past behaviour”. 

This does not bode well for Brown, who was asked to be removed from the Auckland District Health Board in 2022 by the union of senior medical doctors, who felt that Brown had created a “crisis of confidence.” 

Wilson did acknowledge that people do have the capacity to learn and grow. However, she said that learning and growing are behaviours he is not engaging in.

Not being able to empathetically sense what is going on, learning that is actually very difficult.” 

Wilson advised that should Brown want to improve as a leader, he would need to surround himself with people who can guide him in taking an equally strategic and empathetic approach to leadership during an emergency such as this one.

"If he has really strong support and is willing to listen to it, maybe he can, frankly, keep his foot out of his mouth more than he has been.” 

Public interest journalism funded though NZ On Air