Sir Peter Blake Trust: Lou Sanson

DoC chief with executioner in the family says extensive work in Antarctica is career highlight.

Lou Sanson sees striking a balance between conservation and the economy as vital for the next decade.
Lou Sanson sees striking a balance between conservation and the economy as vital for the next decade.

Lou Sanson is the director-general of the Department of Conservation (DoC) and a member of the Sir Peter Blake Trust Dream Team. Before his DoC appointment, Mr Sanson spent seven years as head of Antarctica New Zealand where he was responsible for managing and executing New Zealand's activities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. He oversaw the deepest multinational sedimentary science drilling project in Antarctica and a significant New Zealand investment in International Polar Year science. Mr Sanson was conservator for Southland Conservancy in charge of Fiordland National Park, Stewart Island and the Sub-Antarctic World Heritage Area before his Antarctica New Zealand role. He also led the establishment of Rakiura National Park and some of the world's largest island eradication projects and helped to establish a network of marine reserves in Fiordland.

What is your first memory of being a leader?

In 1987, when I was 30, I took responsibility for leading 25 staff through the establishment of the Department of Conservation. It was a totally new agency, with no systems in place, so we had to build it from the ground up.

It was incredibly exciting but also very challenging.

Who is the best boss you've ever had and what made them great?

Rob Fenwick, chairman of Antarctica NZ, for his belief in New Zealand, his ability to pull people together for conservation purposes and his complete faith in letting you do your job.

What has been a highlight of your career or leadership journey so far?

Setting up NZARI (the NZ Antarctic Research Institute), which is a public/private partnership focused on Antarctic research. The Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic regions present an amazing opportunity for science and research projects, which are critical for our planet's future wellbeing, as they are regions rich in biodiversity and key indicators of the effects of climate change.

What has been a low moment of your leadership journey?

Putting so much hard work into the establishment of Stewart Island's Rakiura National Park and then having the art sculpture at the entrance shot at by a local on opening day. It was devastating to have all worked so hard and then to look at the sculpture with the bullet holes in it. Now of course we are all just so proud of this wonderful national park.

As a leader, what's the secret to getting people to support and share your vision?

Ask good questions and listen. The good ideas are always more powerful if they come from a team rather than yourself.

What do you think will be a significant business or societal issue in the next decade?

The debate between conservation and the economy: how far can we take the increasing degradation of water and intensification of agriculture and what is the right balance.

What is the biggest risk you've ever taken?

Working with Meridian on the biggest wind farm in Antarctica. It was so difficult to build in that environment - the weather, shipping cost overruns and so forth - but now the turbines are saving twice the amount of fuel anticipated, so it paid off.

Who is a leader you admire?

Julian Robertson for his philanthropy in the areas of science, health, education and conservation in New Zealand. He donated an incredible $5.3 million to NZARI and around the same amount to conservation efforts at Cape Kidnappers.

Tell us something about yourself that might surprise people.The Sanson family were a dynasty in Paris that undertook executions for the Government. The last execution undertaken was by Henri Sanson, who was the executioner of Marie Antoinette in 1793.

Who is a New Zealand leader that you think has the "Blake Factor"?

Grant Dalton. He was inspirational leading Team New Zealand and so calm and measured in defeat.

If you could give your 15-year old self some wise advice, what would it be?

Get out into the amazing natural environment of New Zealand where you will learn so many life skills, such as how to make a campfire and all about survival.

When you look back on your life, for what are you grateful?

Growing up on the West Coast - one of the planet's best natural environments.

What is the best part about being involved with the Sir Peter Blake Trust?

Seeing Antarctica through the eyes of the Antarctic Youth Ambassadors, both while they are on the ice and then seeing how they connect with New Zealand once they return.

- NZ Herald

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