The Leadership Lab: Helen Clark

In this Leadership Lab episode, Susanna Kempe hosts Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, discussing her diverse leadership journey from rural roots to global influence.
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In the latest episode of the Leadership Lab series, host Susanna Kempe, CEO of the Laidlaw Foundation, sits down with Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, to explore her distinguished career and the impact her leadership has had on both national and global stages.

From her early days growing up on a rural farm to becoming a key figure in international leadership, including her role as Chair for the World Health Organization’s COVID inquiry, Clark's journey is marked by a series of significant transformations and achievements.

“I was quite happy as a university lecturer, but I don’t think I would have ever forgiven myself if I didn’t have a go at a political career—because, intrinsically, I was more interested in doing things and being part of decision making than writing about it and lecturing about it,” Clark reflects, discussing the surprising turn her career took.

The conversation between Susanna and Helen offers a deep dive into Helen's role in pioneering ecological sustainability in New Zealand, an initiative that wasn't initially on the political agenda when she first entered politics. "That took a while to develop because of the context of the times...the subject of climate change wasn't even on the agenda in 1975 when I first ran for local government elections. This wasn't even thought about."

Clark's tenure as Prime Minister and her experiences on the global stage offer invaluable lessons and inspiration for current and future leaders. Her journey reflects not just the changing landscape of global politics but also the resilience and adaptability required to lead effectively in such a dynamic environment.


Timecodes: 

00:28 | We often talk with our Scholars about leadership being a journey rather than a destination. Could you tell us about where it all started for you?

01:37 | Did you find that leadership came naturally to you?

02:02 | What was the most challenging lesson you encountered during your leadership journey?

02:35 | You grew up on a farm. Does this background often surprise people you meet?

03:37 | Have you ever been able to use the surprise or uniqueness of your background to your advantage?

04:31 | You transitioned from academia to politics. Was this a deliberate choice, or did certain events influence this shift?

05:36 | Upon becoming Prime Minister, you aimed to make New Zealand the first ecologically sustainable nation. Was this a goal you had in mind before taking office, or did it develop once you were in power?

08:10 | Why do you think the climate crisis remains a polarising issue across political parties?

09:36 | You've often led coalition governments, and you said before this meant making deals. Do you believe leadership frequently involves compromise?

11:16 | François Ortalo-Magné mentioned feeling like he's often making the 'least bad' decision. Does this perspective resonate with you?

12:25 | Academia and politics seem to have a higher proportion of women in leadership roles than the corporate sector. Why do you think these fields have progressed faster toward gender equality in leadership?

16:26 | What drives some people to actively effect change, while others choose to remain on the sidelines, often criticising from afar?

17:46 | You served as Deputy Prime Minister and challenged Mike Moore after Labour's narrow election defeat. What did you learn from both experiences?

19:30 | What motivated you to take on the challenging role of Chair for the World Health Organization’s COVID inquiry?

21:55 | Throughout your career, you've made brave decisions despite potential backlash. What gave you the courage to make these controversial choices?

25:00 | In light of COVID, we've seen a decrease in resilience among students. Having faced significant challenges yourself, what's been key to maintaining your resilience?

27:21 | Looking back, what was the most difficult situation you had to handle?

28:13 | Of all your accomplishments, is there one you are particularly proud of?

29:28 | The idea of 'disagreeing agreeably,' as discussed on the 'The Rest is Politics' podcast, presents a more civilised approach to political debate. Do you see this gaining wider traction?

31:50 | What advice would you give to our young Scholars embarking on their leadership journeys, aiming to lead ethically and with integrity?

33:54 | Having met various global leaders, is there anyone whom you particularly admire?

37:40 | What brings you joy in your life and career?

39:48 | Looking back, is there something you wish you had known at the age of 30 which would enable you to be a better leader?

40:53 | What question would you like to pose to the next leader featured in this series?

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Go to the profile of Susanna Kempe
4 months ago

I have long admired Helen and when I heard her interviewed by Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart on The Rest is Politics, I was even keener to persuade her to join our Leadership Lab series and share her wisdom.  Helen is now Chair of GLF, who as many of you know are great supporters of Laidlaw Scholars, so thanks again to the wonderful @Robert Fulton, she agreed.

Helen is frank, forthright and fabulously authentic. She talks about the many steps in her leadership journey beginning with being the older sister and including serving fifteen years as party leader; and, why ultimately great leadership is all about teams.

We discuss environmental activism, and that whilst no-one seriously argues about net-zero as an objective, how getting there is way more complex.

We explore the impact of the omnipresence of social media and content platforms, and how misinformation and outright misrepresentation breeds mistrust. 

I loved Helen’s clarity of thinking and purpose. Perhaps my favourite moment is when she doesn’t hold back discussing how the business world is still pretty pathetic in terms of the number of women in the most senior leadership roles and what can be done about it. 

If you are thinking about entering politics or just wonder what it takes to be a leader on a massive scale, do take a listen.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed recording it.