I used to have a colleague whose personal moral perspective was well summed up by one of his favourite sayings: "if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." Pete did a good job of ensuring the decisions we made were seen through that lens, and he brought a valuable dose of fibre, of the moral rather than the dietary variety, to our organisation.
I was thinking about Pete the other day as I heard an interview on Radio New Zealand's Morning Report. On the programme, interviewer Corin Dann was grilling Auckland Mayor Phil Goff on the announcement of service cuts and related redundancies following on from forced cost-cutting that the coronavirus pandemic has made necessary.
I'll not comment on the service cuts, other than to say that what Goff said about his organisation being constrained in terms of the debt it can take on in the face of reduced income, certainly rings true. But something else that Goff said resonated with me. As he was detailing the cost-cutting, and defending the council's decision to cut jobs, Goff highlighted the fact that all councillors around the table, including himself as mayor, have taken a pay cut. In addition, all senior managers have also voluntarily reduced their salaries in order to do their bit at this time of need.
Now I'm not going to make any blanket statements - the fact is that some organisations aren't yet suffering greatly through Covid and, for those organisations, there is no need for the board or executive team to make cuts. But it strikes me that any organisation that is facing reduced revenue and having to cut staff or service levels to compensate, has a bit of a duty to at least engage in a conversation about salary sacrifice for the top table.
It was, coincidentally, a conversation we had around the residents association I'm involved with up my way. This residents association, like countless similar ones around the country, busies itself ensuring our little village has footpaths and streetlights and doing its bit to improve our communal facilities. It's full of salt of the earth folks doing the simple but important stuff to keep the community going.
At a meeting we had (virtually, of course) around the middle of the lockdown, we determined to write a letter to our local council, humbly suggesting that they make moves such as those made by the Auckland Council and reduce salaries for councillors and management. Our committee isn't one in which we see too many suits, and I'd wager that there's not an MBA diploma on any of the members' walls - we're just ratepayers who think that, in times of difficulty, when our district faces a huge revenue drop, that a principled stand from our leaders would be appropriate.
Bear in mind that our little district is one that has significant tourism going on. Add to that the fact that the district council owns one of the biggest tourism drawcards here, and you can see that our council very much fits into the category of "facing reduced revenue due to Covid-19".
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Anyway, after sending our letter, we received a reply from the CEO that was interesting to say the least - it went into great detail about the formal process that happens to set remuneration for elected and appointed roles within local government. There were facts and figures aplenty, but little comment on the thrust of our request which was, at its heart, one of taking a principled stand and leading by example.
I'd not offer any judgment on said CEO, at least not in this public forum. It does, however, strike me that there was a perfect opportunity for individuals to show empathy and actively build solidarity with their community. Alas, that chance wasn't taken and there's a few tree-trimmers, garden weeders and hall painters in our committee a little disappointed by that.
As Pete often remarked, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. Leadership, in my view, is about making that stand, even when it takes a personal toll.
Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based professional director and businessman. He's not averse to trimming trees in his local domain and is committed to never standing for public office.