Excuse, if you will, a post focused entirely NOT on technology for a minute. Last week I was honored to be named as a recipient of a Blake Leader Award. The Sir Peter Blake Trust was set up in memory of Peter Blake, perhaps New Zealand’s finest yachtsman. During his lifetime, Blake won the Round the World yacht race and The Americas Cup. Despite having less funding than his competitors, Blake built a boat, a team and a culture that saw them take on the world. And win.

But sporting prowess wasn’t all that Blake had. To be frank, if he was known only as a sportsperson, I’d be interested in a mild kind of a celebrity-spotting way. But Blake, after his retirement from competitive yachting, decided he wanted to take the profile and skills that he had gained and put them to use building a new generation of kiwi leaders and environmentalists.

It seems that Blake discovered two things on his campaign – the power of leadership and the very real peril that environmental degradation puts the world in. Blake set up Blake Expeditions and sailed around the world talking, educating and advocating for leadership and the environment. It was on one of these trips, to the Amazon in 2001, that Blake was murdered by armed robbers on board his ship. The world lost a great leader but his work would continue.

Which brings us around to the Sir Peter Blake Trust, an organization set up by Blake’s widow, Pippa, and a number of other individuals. The aim of the trust is to inspire and mobilize the next generation of Kiwi leaders, adventurers, and environmentalists. The trust puts on a number of activities including the Young Enviro Leaders Forum, a week-long program for high school students aimed at fostering budding environmental leadership skills. My eldest son was chosen along with 50 or so other students from around the country to attend YELF this year and came back a changed person.

What he didn’t realize was that, coincidentally, I had been nominated earlier in the year and selected by the awards panel to be one of this year’s six recipients of the Sir Peter Blake leaders award. It’s always a balance when talking about an award like this. To be frank, something I seem to have in common with a number of my other recipients is that I’m not completely sure that I’m worthy of the award. Another common sentiment is that notwithstanding our worth or otherwise, the award gives us an opportunity, and an obligation, to put our energy into helping build the next generation of leaders.

Since being advised a few months ago that I was to be an award recipient, I’ve spent time thinking about what leadership means. I’m also, as part of the Trust’s Leadership Week event, going to be speaking at a number of schools and other functions about what leadership means. So, with the proviso that I don’t consider myself anything special but, rather, have been in a position to take some chances and tread an unusual path, here’s what leadership means to me.

I think of leadership in three ways: opportunity, obligation, and legacy.

Opportunity

My parents were refugees to New Zealand arriving after the Holocaust and the Hungarian revolution with nothing but the clothes they wore. What they did have, which proved to be more valuable than material goods, was the wherewithal (or luck, maybe) to chose New Zealand as their future home. Their sacrifice and preparedness to commit to a lifelong sense of dislocation gave my siblings and I the opportunity to grow up in this amazing country with all the opportunities that brings. Exploring the great outdoors, check. Access to a good health system, check. The opportunity to gain a good education (be it formal or otherwise), check. The ability to grow up in an egalitarian society that was the first place in the world to give women the vote, check.

Their sacrifice was our opportunity and created the crucible from which we have all grown and prospered. But opportunity alone isn’t enough. Which takes us on to the next theme.

Obligation

It goes without saying that everyone has an obligation to make the most of the opportunities that have been handed to them. In my case, it probably took 35 years for me to realize that. I was a particularly poor student, wasting the slight talent I had. Rather than the expected path of following my father’s footsteps and studying medicine, I left school early and did an apprenticeship. Not that there is anything wrong with learning a trade – it stood me in good stead – but it didn’t really make the most of the opportunities that I had at my disposal.

It wasn’t until I had children that I really started to think about that obligation. The arrival of progeny certainly sharpens the focus and alongside another external event, it refocused my perspective on what life was about. I charted a different path, got involved in a bunch of different things and generally focused on what, conveniently, is the next theme.

Legacy

Life is short. And as we get older, it feels ever shorter. My perspective on my eventual demise is simple: I want to be remembered for creating something, for fostering something and for leaving the world, albeit likely in a small way, a better place. While a student at Tawa College in the 80’s, I mumbled my way through the school litany every week while never understanding a word of it:

By faithfully using all our skills in whatever we undertake
May we, O Lord, do justly
By lending our strength to weaker friends whenever they need support
May we, O Lord, do justly
By considering well the views of those with whom we cannot agree
May we, O Lord, do justly
And by taking away, when we leave this place, a desire to serve our world
May we, O lord, do justly.

And just to really ram home the theme, written on the back wall of the school hall, for everyone to see on their way out was the command;

“Depart to serve.”

It took 20 years or so (I said I wasn’t a great student), but I finally realized what Eric Flaws, past principal of Tawa College, was getting at when he penned that Litany back in 1966: we all have the ability to serve our world, to leave it in a better state than when we come into it and to create something to be remembered by. It’s a trite saying but money and fame are temporary and illusory and mean nothing when we’re dead and buried. But what we create, and what we help achieve in others, that lives on. As my friend Vaughan said to me when we were discussing creating a legacy recently:

“Just think of the compound effect of enabling others to make change, and then the next generation after that.”

So that is the third theme in my triumvirate about leadership – the chance to create a legacy that goes beyond what we can directly achieve ourselves and lives beyond our lifespan.

I’m not sure what the takeaways are here, and what it all means. There is no hard physical call to action – merely a treatise on what leadership is to me. I feel proud, humbled, and somewhat unworthy to receive this award, but at the same time, I feel a sense of obligation to put it to good use.

What I will do, in closing, is to exhort you all to consider that motto from my high school and reflect upon how you all can “depart to serve.”

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

1 Comment
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  • Hi Ben,

    Thanks for the fantastic post and congratulations to you and to your son! May your children continue to give you naches for years to come. Leadership is everything, and the more time goes on the more I understand that the concept of “management vs leadership” that business schools spend so much talking about is actually really very important. One can’t become a leader by reading books, but learning from others has a role to play, and I have found the book “Leadership” by Rudy Giuliani to be a fascinating blueprint of effective leadership. It can be a bit dry for your son but maybe not.

    Best wishes,
    Andrei Link

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