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Six Foe - Seasons

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

1 February, 2023

Interview by Stella Huggins, adapted by Georgi Stirling

Listen to the full interview

Image from Wayne Brown's official 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 to Aucklanders prompted complaints. By Friday night it was clear that the public were less than unimpressed with his response to the disaster.

Speaking to Stella Huggins on The Wire, Dr Suze Wilson, a senior lecturer at Massey University with expertise in leadership and management, gave some insight into how his overall manner and behaviour at these critical press conferences have culminated into such a negative reaction from the public. Dr Wilson explained that it was “his silence on Friday night, the lack of communication during kind of the peak period, where people were literally being rescued and swimming out ot their homes” and, “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 just this general 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 the role. This revealed a weakness in the skills required by the leadership side of the role.

Wilson clarifies the difference between management and leadership, and why the disparity between Brown’s capacity for one over the other was so crucial in this time of crisis. In the university courses she teaches to students they emphasise that “management and leadership are not one in the same.” Wilson also pointed out that in terms of crisis leadership, things such as communication, working with others and connecting with human issues were all characteristic 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 be any indication of his future performance as mayor, Wilson cites the literature that “does generally say the best way to predict someone’s future behaviour is to look at their past behaviour”. 

This does not bode well for Mr 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, “learning and growing the kinds of behaviours he is not engaging in, like not being able to empathetically sense what is going on, learning that is actually very difficult.” 

Wilson advised that should Mr 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, concluding “if he has got really strong support and he 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 by New Zealand On Air