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Challenging leadership rules

KARINA ABADIA
Last updated 05:00 11/01/2013
Lester Levy
OFFICIAL RECOGNITION: Mission Bay resident Dr Lester Levy is honoured to have been made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to health and education.

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Everyone has a passion. Lester Levy's is challenging traditional views of leadership.

When he heard in December he had been selected as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to health and education he was "surprised, humbled and excited".

"I've made a pretty determined effort over the years to put a lot of my time into public service because that's where you can make more of a difference and help more people."

The Mission Bay resident oversees three of Auckland's major public service organisations.

He is the chairman of the Auckland and Waitemata district health boards and was appointed chairman of Auckland Transport in November.

He started his career as a doctor in his native South Africa shortly before relocating to New Zealand in 1978.

He lived in Gisborne and then Auckland where he specialised in pathology. He went on to do clinical research for the pharmaceutical industry, moving into management from there.

Dr Levy undertook a master of business administration in the mid-1980s and says it surprised him that during the three-year degree no-one mentioned the word leadership.

Since then, research into this topic has become his obsession. He published the book Leadership and the Whirlpool Effect in 1998 and become chief executive of the New Zealand Leadership Institute in 2003, where he is now co-director.

In 2003 he became a professor adjunct at the University of Auckland Business School where he teaches leadership, governance and ethics.

His goal is to get people thinking about the difference between management and leadership, he says.

"The key difference is management is when you apply present solutions to known problems.

"Leadership is grappling with new problems and finding a way to solve them. It's not about personality, it's more about authenticity.

"It's developing a collective will in an organisation. I always say management; you have to see it to believe it. Leadership; you have to believe it to see it."

There is still a long way to go to shift what he calls the "strong management paradigm in our organisations".

Juggling so many roles has its challenges but it is possible because as a chairman he operates almost exclusively at a governance level.

His is a user-focused approach. In health he considers the patient's perspective and in transport the needs of the passenger - above all else.

There have been many career highlights but he is most proud of the improvements made at the Waitemata District Health Board over the last three years.

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"It was the most underperforming district health board. It's now performing amongst the top few. It's phenomenal, although there is a lot of work still be done," he says.

As for his role at Auckland Transport it is still early days, he says. But he is excited about the potential for improvements in the sector.

Dr Levy is so passionate about his career path that he would happily go back to any of the positions he has held over the years.

"I haven't had a single job that I wouldn't want to do again. I've loved them all . . ."

The 58-year-old has no plans to slow down.

"I am totally focused on serving people in health and transport and I'll never give up on trying to convince people of the merits of leadership over management," he says.

- East And Bays Courier

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