Jacinda Ardern and the power of values-driven leadership
CEO of Settlement Services International (SSI), Telstra Australian Business Woman of the Year and UTS alumna Violet Roumeliotis delivered an inspiring speech on the power of values-driven leadership to our graduating business students. Read her full speech below:
Thank you for that kind introduction and for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this important rite of passage.
A month ago, I watched New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern address a memorial for victims of the Christchurch terrorist attack.
As her nation grieved, Prime Minister Ardern did something that is very scary for a leader, but also very powerful.
She admitted she didn’t have all the answers.
Prime Minister Ardern committed to doing everything within her power to ensure New Zealanders live free from violence.
But she also acknowledged that this is not something government can achieve in isolation.
She called on all New Zealanders to take responsibility for creating that reality ― to take a zero-tolerance approach to actions and rhetoric that allow violence, racism and extremism to flourish.
US President Donald Trump was faced with a similar crisis last year, when a gunman killed 11 people during a Shabbat service in a Pittsburgh Synagogue.
In his remarks following the attack, President Trump called for a broader application of the death penalty and lamented the lack of armed guards within the temple ― echoing a repeated push he has made to arm teachers as a prevention mechanism for school shootings.
I share these two examples today to show you what role your values can play in shaping your future as an emerging business leader.
Here, we have two world leaders faced with acts of violence against innocent citizens who were simply engaging in prayer and contemplation.
One went straight to ‘fire and brimstone’: urging more violence to counteract violence, furthering his personal agenda.
The other considered what was in the interest of the whole community ― harmony and inclusion ― and used compassion and connection to achieve that outcome.
I want to focus my remarks today on the importance of values in business, and the role empathy and compassion can play as you navigate the waters ahead.
Whether you’re at the beginning of your career, or starting a new phase in it, this is a time to consider what you believe in ― to think about what you stand for, what your principles are, and the values that will serve you in the years to come.
For me, one of my core values is social justice.
This was born from watching my parents arrive in a new country from post-World War II Greece and try to rebuild their lives.
At that time, Australia did not have organisations like SSI to help newcomers.
There was no support to learn English, to connect to the wider Australian community, to pursue study or employment goals.
Nonetheless, my parents rose above those challenges to carve out a life here for themselves.
It wasn’t the life they’d envisaged upon leaving Greece. My father, for example, ran a corner shop here, rather than pursuing higher education.
But it was a life that was happy and prosperous.
My parents’ experience instilled in me a deep belief that every person should have the right to achieve their full potential ― a right to live the life they choose and to be treated fairly and with dignity.
My career to date has taught me that not only can you succeed as a leader without compromising your values ― but that it is in fact imperative for leaders to maintain strong values and keep them at the heart of their decision making.
In 2012, when I joined SSI, we had one main source of funding and 68 staff members.
I realised that without diversification, we wouldn’t have a future; we simply weren’t sustainable.
But that didn’t mean I was going to play hardball and go after new funding sources with no thought to my values or the cost to others.
It meant finding new ways to safeguard SSI’s funding that would also increase our social impact and strengthen our sector.
One way we did this was by forming consortiums with other community organisations and tendering for work. We engaged in non-predatory growth whereby we grew the pie of available funding for our peers, as well as ourselves.
We also established income-generating social enterprises, such as Humble Creatives, which sells candles and home crafts, while also offering work experience opportunities to people experiencing unemployment.
Before embarking on that growth program, SSI was a Sydney-based organisation with 70 staff and revenue of $9.4 million.
Today, our operations span the entire east coast of Australia. We have a workforce of 1,000 and revenue of $115 million.
I share this example with you today to demonstrate that values-driven leadership can go hand-in-hand with a commercial, growth-oriented business mindset.
It’s simply not true that you have to compromise your values to succeed as business leaders.
They say that economists are people who are too smart for their own good and not smart enough for anyone else's.
But did you also know that in 2006 an economist was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?
The man I’m talking about is Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and economist.
In his early career, he began dabbling in microfinancing in a nearby village, where he lent small amounts of money to women to establish their own businesses.
He was betting on the entrepreneurialism of women who were often excluded from the traditional jobs market and who were not attractive borrowers to traditional lenders.
After the success of his initial experiment, he went on to found the Grameen Bank, which now has nine million borrowers globally.
As an economist, Muhammad Yunus realised the role microfinancing could play in helping families ― and ultimately whole communities ― in breaking the cycle of poverty.
We in civil society do not have a monopoly on a values-driven approach to work and leadership.
This example highlights the power that each of you in this room have. Your actions have a ripple effect and you can create real change just by incorporating your values in your daily work life.
The Edelman Trust Barometer shows that increasingly, people are looking to businesses and CEOs to take a position on important social matters ― far more these days than politicians.
You only have to look at the plethora of corporate leaders who came out in support of marriage equality to see how powerful this can be.
As tomorrow’s business leaders, you are moving into areas of work where there is an expectation ― and in fact an obligation ― for you to remember that you are living within a society and not an economy.
Social impact is our shared right ― and responsibility. Whether you’re in government, civil society or business, we all have a role to play.
To revisit the words of Jacinda Ardern: “Our challenge now is to make the very best of us a daily reality”.
As you embark on this next stage of your lives, it is your right and privilege to use your beliefs, principles and values to carve out the legacy you wish to leave in this world.
I wish you all the best in your endeavour.