Over the weekend I attended a conference in Canberra called the National Student Leadership Forum.
Going in I was afraid it would just be a series of lectures, or even one of those kumbaya type sharing-round-a-campfire events I had been to as a kid (seriously though we made tie-dye shirts and talked about how vegetables were people too). It didn't help that the age category was 18-26 which meant I could be dealing with undergraduates, students who were 5 years younger than me.
Needless to say I went in with quite a lot of scepticism and very little knowledge of what the program would be like. All I knew was I was going to attend the forum, take 4 days of my research and hopefully learn a little bit about leadership.
At 8 am, 3 hours after a painfully early wakeup call, my partner and I arrived in Canberra. We were to be staying at the Hyatt, a 5 star hotel near Capitol Hill. 5 star, as in bathrooms that are about the same size as my college dorm, as in Jacuzzi and sauna facilities in the pool house, as in you probably shouldn’t arrive in jeans, sneakers and a pink lap top bag if you want to be taken seriously.
Luckily (or perhaps not so luckily) we had 3 hours to kill before we could even register for the forum, so I had time to change, re-arrange my luggage, drat some e-mails, and walk around the hotel about 7 times. By the time the forum started I had started to seriously cultivate the idea that the entire event was a little too high brow for me. Most of the people I met were dressed in business attire and had a background in politics, commerce or law. Everyone seemed to have a sense of purpose, whereas I was starting to wonder why I had come. Later on in the weekend I would realise that most of the other students who had been nominated for the forum had been just as nervous and confused as me. However, that was not the way I perceived it at the time.
Suffice it to say that every single one of my assumptions was totally and completely wrong.
Small group sessions turned out to be time spent among an amalgamation of about 9-10 people of which most other students like yourself, discussing the themes brought up during the activities of the day and sharing your story and motivation. I was lucky to be in a group with 8 of the most inspirational, supportive and fun people I have ever had the chance to meet. The way the sessions were planned really forced you to open up and make yourself vulnerable, which, although extremely scary, also helped solidify the group’s sense of comradeship and made us form friendships a lot faster than had we just sat around and discussed leadership.
Similarly with regards to the lectures. I was afraid they would be boring and preachy, and I would end up getting angry and just rant about the immoral political/financial decisions of the various speakers. Surprisingly each and every one of the speakers had an interesting and engaging story to tell. I had always seen these people in their professional roles, treasurer of Australia, leader of the opposition, CEO of a multinational company. Listening to them talk about their motivations however, forced me to see them as individuals each with their own histories and motivations for taking on the positions that they had. Once you start seeing someone as an individual it becomes very difficult to disregard everything they do or say as terrible. You start trying to understand them, and think of ways of working with rather than against them (though that still doesn’t mean you have to go along with or even agree with any of their policies). In my case it also made me feel like quite a mean person for having judged them the way I did.
After an afternoon of serious soul searching, and a complete turnaround in my view of the forum, I finally retired to my room ready for a long night of sleep after having been awake since 5 in the morning. To my surprise, my roommate, though having arrived before me, had left me the ginormous double bed, herself taking the small single bed at the other end of the room. That act of kindness set the tone for the rest of my engagement with the forum.
The next few days besides having lectures and small group sessions, we also had a trip to the war memorial, an afternoon of team-building: playing volleyball and soccer, a community service outing in which my group helped paint furniture at a disabilities centre and helped with animation at a local fayre, and a barn dance. All further solidifying our ties with each other and our confidence in ourselves.
Part of the program also consisted of delegates performing or presenting in front of their peers. One group did the haka, there were a number of people who sang (the music ranging from opera to indie), one guy recited Shakespeare, and another few people showed us Fijian dances. All amazing and great in their own right. However, the presentation that really caught my attention was the Maori prayer shared with us by Levi W. I liked it so much I asked him to send it to me afterwards and he immediately did along with a translation and inspiring commentary.
Whakarongo, whakarongo, whakarongo.
Whakarongo ki te tangi a te manu e karanga nei
Tui, tui tui tuia,
Tuia i runga, Tuia i raro,
Tuia i roto, Tuia i waho,
Tuia i te heretangata.
Ka rongo te po, ka rongo te ao.
Tuia i te kawai whakapapa i heke mai,
I Hawaiki-nui, I Hawaiki-roa, I Hawaiki-pamaomao,
Te hono ki te wairua, Ki te whaiao, Ki te ao marama,
Tihei mauri ora.
Listen, Listen, Listen.
Listen to the cry of the bird that calls
Unite, unite, unite and be one
Unite above, unite below,
Unite within, unite without,
Unite as a people.
Hear this in the dark/night, hear this in the light/night.
Unite in the descent lines from,
Great Hawaiki, Long Hawaiki, Far away Hawaiki,
Joined with the spirit, the glimmering dawn, the world of light,
There is life.
In his view, and I agree with this fully the poem engages with many of the themes of the forum. “It talks about the weaving together of people through meaningful relationships, creating something great with new possibilities and countless new realities, out of two ordinary objects: people. We are joined as people, with the spirit (life force), the glimmering dawn (possibilities and potential) and the world of light (that which is).”
He also shed some light on Maori culture for me. Apparently the Maori hold the understanding that there is life in the breath, so in the sharing of the breath we share our selves and our spirits with each other. That is why the final verse: Tihei Mauri Ora – there is life, is such a strong line. It is about the creation of life through the sharing of breath.
There were a number of other inspiring ideas that came up during the speeches. Jihad Dibb’s assertion that active communication and engagement with others as a way of becoming a better leader, Audette Exel’s belief that the best way to lead is to stay true to yourself and be honest with others, and Joseph Assaf’s description of harmony not as an absence of difference but as the coordination thereof, are all examples of this. But for me all of it came back to this one speech, this one idea of people joining together in meaningful relationships, sharing a spirit and through that creating life, creating a culture, and changing the world. That was the speech that defined my weekend; that was the speech that curbed my cynicism; and that is the message I wish to share.