Successful leadership begins with whānau

As we celebrate Sir Peter Blake Leadership Week we talk to Global Women member and CEO of Waikato-Tainui, Parekawhia McLean, about what makes a great leader and her own personal leadership journey…

Parekawhia was appointed CEO of Waikato-Tainui Te Kauhanganui Inc in 2010, after spending over 20 years in public policy and public sector management, with five years as strategic advisor to three Prime Ministers – Bolger, Shipley and Clark. She has also served on the Boards of Mighty River Power, Te Mangai Paho and Te Waananga o Aotearoa.

Walking the talk

Growing up, Parekawhia’s parents and grandparents were her role models, from humble circumstances they worked hard to create a better future for her and her eight siblings and she says they instilled in her the core values that have made her the leader she is today – hard work, loyalty, resilience, a drive to succeed, and humility.

“Because they didn’t have the opportunities others had, they ensured that we would be educated and would succeed. They saw education as the key to opportunity.”

She says she feels blessed to come from a whanau that supported her throughout her life and she shares that same thinking with her two daughters, firmly instilling in them the belief they can be and do anything.

She strongly believes successful leaders should be positive role models for others and always lead by example – and she certainly walks the talk.

“Being healthy and well (hauora) is important to me. I don’t smoke, I exercise daily and try to eat healthily because that is what I aspire for my children, grandchildren and others. I want them to be healthy and well.”

Building a great leader

Parekawhia believes great leaders are directly influenced by the environment, circumstances and challenges that surround them, and how they choose to overcome these. She refers to the late, great Nelson Mandela, who after spending twenty seven years in jail possessed no bitterness, instead he was resolutely focused on reconciliation and building a better future for South Africa.

When asked what traits make a great leader like Mandela, Parekawhia is clear.

“Commitment and passion, a focus on building a better future for others, fearlessness, courage, resilience, a hardworking ethic, and selflessness. A person who epitomizes the belief that actions speak louder than words.”

Someone who possessed all these traits, and who stands out in her mind as one of Aotearoa’s greatest leaders, is Te Puea Herangi of Waikato-Tainui. Born in 1883, she was the granddaughter of the second Maori King, Kiingi Taawhiao. She rose to prominence at a time when Waikato was at its lowest, dedicating her life to pulling her people out of poverty and loss. An astute businesswoman with successful farming, sawmilling and entertainment interests (all aimed solely at raising funds to benefit her people) she was responsible for building Turangawaewae Marae in Ngaruawahia, and for mobilizing communities in the Waikato. If that wasn’t enough, she also raised more than 100 orphans on whom she doted, pouring all her aroha and wisdom on.

Upfront and personal

Parekawhia cites the value of relationships to successful leadership, especially in her current role as she builds the prosperity of Waikato-Tanui, and relies on strong partnerships with others. Until she became CEO of Waikato-Tainui, she had always worked in mainstream organisations, the biggest difference now is that she’s surrounded on a daily basis by her governors, staff, and tribal members – who are passionate, committed and want to contribute to change.

“It’s upfront and personal and I wouldn’t want it any other way. When I was in the Public Service, you could maintain some ‘distance’. You can’t in Waikato-Tainui, as the decisions you make impact directly on your iwi.”

She says over the past five and half years she’s adapted and become better at balancing her iwi responsibilities with her whanau, and also at taking time out for herself. Exercising every morning is her time to reflect and think.

When asked which of her many achievements she is most proud of she has no hesitation – her two daughters. She says both girls epitomize the upbringing she had and as young women they exemplify the belief that girls can do anything. A belief Parekawhia herself has certainly lived by.

Sir Peter Blake Leadership Week runs from 1 July to 8 July, with over 1,000 leadership events happening around the country. The week finishes with red socks day on Friday 8 July.