Twelve Questions: Lester Levy

Lester Levy left his native South Africa as a young doctor to move to the home of his childhood hero, Sir Edmund Hillary. The chairman of Auckland Transport, Auckland DHB, Waitemata DHB and other private companies, he is also an adjunct professor at the University of Auckland.

Lester Levy says he has no ideology and so has no ambitions to be mayor of Auckland. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Lester Levy says he has no ideology and so has no ambitions to be mayor of Auckland. Photo / Jason Oxenham

1. Are you, as Herald columnist Brian Rudman wrote on Friday, an aspiring mayoral candidate?

The short answer is no. I have no plan or desire to be the mayor of Auckland. I have never had any inclination to be elected to anything. Ideology of any kind really bothers me and it's hard to be in politics if you don't hold an ideology. I grew up in apartheid South Africa and saw how insidious and pervasive ideologies can be. People don't notice if it doesn't affect them. That's why I'm attracted to academia because it's about freedom of expression and protection of ideas. Academia is a good mechanism to prevent totalitarianism.

2. In what ways does being South African make you different?

I grew up in a small, very conservative town close to the township of Sharpeville, where a tragic massacre occurred in 1960. Even though I was only 6 at the time that event and the suffocating cloak of apartheid framed my thinking and approach for the rest of my life.

I regarded apartheid as a completely brutal and sinister ideology and as a result of those early experiences I became wary of authority and distrustful of ideology.

I developed a mindset of not necessarily accepting the status quo and determined to never allow myself to fall victim to complacency and indifference. I do not think it is so much that being South African has made me different, growing up with apartheid has made me different. It's an awful thing to grow up in a country you are not proud of.

3. Has that defined your professional life?

I was a medical student at Baragwanath Hospital in the Soweto riots of 1976. The school kids were protesting over the government trying to make them have their classes (in Afrikaans). It was tragic and so unbelievable. Who knows how many people died but I remember people coming into the hospital that day injured and dead. It was defining for me, man's inhumanity to man. I can't stand unfairness or injustice of any kind.

4. What were you like as a child?

I was a voracious reader. Still am. Every week my parents treated me - instead of icecream or lollies - to a magazine called Finding Out. And even though they were not well off they bought me a set of encyclopedias which I read right through. I had a fun childhood, but never had a great desire to fit in. Wasn't into music or wearing what everyone else was wearing. Never known whether I was in the popular crowd or not, and never cared. That's helped me a lot in what I call confronting reality and asking difficult questions. I don't need to be popular or part of the establishment. I was never attracted to alcohol and still don't drink.

5. Why did you come to New Zealand as a young man?

When I went to the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg to study medicine, my roommate was a Kiwi, the first New Zealander I had ever met. I had always admired Sir Edmund Hillary - two friends and I did a project on him at school which won a national competition. My room-mate educated and intrigued me about New Zealand and I came to see what it was like and fell in love with it. I met Sir Edmund later in his life, he was 80, and I got to know him quite well. What made him a great leader? His determination, his amazing planning but remaining open to opportunity, his discipline. I don't see leadership in the heroic sense. I see it as being engaged, committed, determined, intentional. It's about rolling the sleeves up and doing. Being not the last person to give up, but never giving up.

6. There has been criticism that you, in appointed roles, have so much say in the city's infrastructure through your chairmanship of the DHBs and Auckland Transport: is there validity in that?

It is an interesting question, however, there are also the board members and directors, the chief executives and management as well as close to 20,000 people in these three organisations - all have a collective influence. This question often comes from the perspective that I have been appointed and not elected. The Minister of Health and the Mayor of Auckland, both of whom are democratically elected and to whom I am accountable, have appointed me to my roles. Any influence I have over Auckland's infrastructure has emerged over a period of years. I was asked to be chairman of the Waitemata DHB at a time when North Shore Hospital was in a crisis. Then I was asked to be chairman of the Auckland DHB as well and two years later I was approached about the role as chairman of Auckland Transport. I was asked to do these things. I'm trying to do the best I can and make as much difference and contribution as possible.

7. How do you fit it all in?

I've chosen work and family. Recreation and socialising is not a huge part of what I do. Yes, I'm an introvert, in an extrovert's job. No, it's not difficult. I do what I have to do. I love walking. I was in Pauanui and there was an orthopaedic surgeon there I know. He saw me out walking so much he called me the Forrest Gump of Pauanui.

8. Who, in your opinion, best represents excellent leadership in New Zealand?

Excellent leadership in New Zealand is represented by headmasters in schools, charge nurses in wards, supervisors in factories and parents in families among many other examples. When we think of excellent leadership there is a tendency to always think of high profile leaders, such as political leaders or chief executives of large organisations. But just having a profile doesn't make you a leader.

9. What are you proudest of?

That my father and I never had an argument or a bad word or a disagreement. It's hard to believe but we didn't. No, I don't have a lot of confrontations. I'm direct and up front but I very seldom get into an argument. It's a dissipation of energy. Sadly my father passed away almost two years ago, just 10 days short of 91. My mum is 84 and healthy and active.

10. Where does your confidence stem from?

I am not certain that I think of it as confidence. I think of it more as a deep belief in what is possible, an explorative and adaptive approach, an optimistic view when faced with challenge and adversity and a very strong sense of determination. I believe that when things are difficult, people give up too easily and far too soon. The importance of perseverance and lateral thinking when faced with adversity are greatly underestimated. Do I have doubt? Yes, I do and I welcome it as a healthy check against dogmatism.

11. What kind of father are you?

Available, engaged, supportive of my children following their own ideas and dreams. I guess they would think that I have too high expectations about values and societal responsibility. I am certain that they would tell you that over the years as I have taken on increasingly complex and accountable roles, I have become more serious. I have very high hopes that seriousness is a reversible condition.

12. What is integrity?

For me integrity is knowing the difference between right and wrong and fighting for what is right independent of sacrifice. There is completeness to integrity, in that I do not believe that you can have some or even quite a lot of integrity - you either have integrity or you don't.

- NZ Herald

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