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The art of giving back – lessons from leading a community through change

Since relocating back to his native New Zealand in July 2020 to take up the mantle as Principal of Taihape Area School, Craig Dredge has been on quite the journey. Leading his new school and community through a cultural and physical transformation, Craig has gained valuable insights along the way. He shares his learnings on giving back and making a meaningful difference as a leader.

After spending 14 years in Australia, we were considering the move back to New Zealand. In many ways the global situation of 2020 forced our hand. At the same time, I had read about the situation at Taihape Area School and it piqued my interest.

The school was facing a complete rebuild due to many flaws identified with the building such as lack of insulation, inadequate storm water and a failing sewage system. I felt that the school and the community had been wronged and that they deserved better. I got into teaching to make a difference and I knew that I wanted to be part of the solution for the community of Taihape.

Coming back to a place like Taihape, where you’re part of something bigger than yourself has taught me so much. If you’re a leader who is similarly aligned to my value of wanting to make a difference, there are three key lessons I can share from my experience.

Focus on your strengths

When you focus on your strengths, it’s easier to visualise your future. You can use your strengths as the building blocks for what you want to achieve.

Moving countries is a leadership lesson in itself. It actually forces you to look at your own strengths and weaknesses. My strength lies in being relational. Living in a small community of less than 2000 people, relationship building and getting to know the people, environment and culture of the town was really important.

Focusing on your own strengths also helps you to identify and nurture strengths in others. When you do this, your whole organisation or team is built on strength. Remember that failure is not a weakness. I celebrate failure and always encourage people to fail as the biggest learning comes through failing forward – not in letting it be the stopping point.

Craig Dredge
Craig Dredge CMgr FIML

Bring others along on the journey

In order for me to make a difference to the community with the physical rebuild of our school, I first needed to embark on a foundational rebuild of our culture.

I like to see leadership as being like a conductor in an orchestra. First, you have to get to know the music so everyone is playing from the same song sheet. We’re surrounded by mountains here with a school demographic of 60% Māori students. The culture, the mountains, the water and the people are what make our song. My job is to bring all those elements together in a cohesive way.

For me, the biggest success is when people actually understand the vision and they’re on board with it. Giving the teachers, students, parents and community that clarity is what has started to drive the change we need.

Roll up your sleeves

If you want to make a difference and contribute to something bigger, you need to roll up your sleeves and get alongside it. Keep it simple. Listen to what people are saying, identify the need and work out a plan from there.

You can’t manage your way into leadership. It’s about people not tasks and there is so much value in the concept of servant leadership, particularly when it comes to making a difference. Servant leadership is about walking the walk and getting your hands dirty to show your team that you’re all in it together.

At the end of the day, you can learn a lot about yourself through this process. Ultimately, I do what I do for the kids, not myself or my own gain. I love leading, not managing. Tasks are things that need to get done but that’s not my core business.

Our rebuild is a long term plan, only now in its infancy. We have a long way to go but we have laid the foundations we need to get us there.

Craig Dredge is an experienced leader with a demonstrated history of working in the primary/secondary education industry. 

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