I rate this story one of my best about what it means to be a leader. Written last year, it pierces sharply as Australians contemplate the effective disintegration of one of our major political parties. Never was a word more apt than “disintegration”.
Last week, I had the opportunity to interview one of the leaders of a large charitable organisation whose mission is “enhancing life and increasing hope for disadvantaged, marginalised and oppressed persons, especially women and girls”.
The organisation has existed for more than 150 years, and sprang from the work of an order of nuns whose vision and commitment still animate the organisation today. The leader shared a story with me about how he and the organisation discovered what integrity really meant.
About 15 years ago, the organisation faced a test. The State Government, led by Jeff Kennett, a deeply divisive figure in recent Australian political history, had just overturned the basis on which governments and charities had worked together for decades.
Until that point, charities worked together to assist their clients. They shared information with other organisations, and each organisation looked out for the other. They understood the efforts and successes of one organisation benefited all. At one stroke, however, the government decided that henceforth charities would have to compete against each other for government funding.
Shocked and confronted
Each organisation in the sector was thrown back on itself to contemplate a future in which they would be isolated, competitive and obliged to assume the role of supplicant. It was a time of deep despair and dismay for all organisations. Many doubted whether they would survive, and they feared for the lives and wellbeing of their clients.
At first, this man’s organisation was no different.
Shocked and confronted, the leaders of the organisation gathered together to choose their course of action. And that’s when the spirit of the long-ago nun who founded the order, a woman known as an “innovator, an ambitious person, impatient of authority”, rose again.
The group decided they could not take the government’s money on these conditions and they decided to speak out about it. They considered their long and illustrious history and the impact on the thousands of clients should their organisation not survive, and then they chose to fight anyway.
The eye of the storm
It was the beginning of a very difficult period in the life of this man and his organisation. They were subjected to threats, had to make staff redundant and endured, he said, “many sleepless nights.”
The threat to the organisation’s survival lasted for many months and was only resoundingly decided when the government, against all predictions, lost the 1999 election.
Looking back on that time, the man said while it had been “torrid” and hugely confronting, there had been many unexpected benefits from the organisation’s refusal to participate in the game of competition; its refusal, as he put it, to “sell their soul”. One of them was the impact on writing their next mission statement.
Shortly after it became clear the eye of the storm had passed, it happened to be their business-planning season. This time, he said, writing their mission statement was a whole different exercise. This time everyone was conscious they were choosing words they had to be able to stand by should the situation require it. Everyone had gotten that
it’s one thing to talk about integrity, it’s another to live it.
Image: Girl not alone, 2011, acrylic, gold leaf and coffee filters on canvas, 135 x 240 cm, by the wonderful Ghadah at Pretty Green Bullet