Spotlight on Shelley Huang – Is courage enough for leadership?

NZAL Emerging Leader and Media and Community Relations Manager, IAG, Shelley Huang spoke with NZAL team on what it takes to be courageous, the competitive advantages of being courageous and how to be a brave leader.

Shelley is a former war correspondent who reported from the Israel-Lebanon war zone; the only correspondent to raise a question to Chinese President Hu Jintao, just after NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark announced the closure of the press conference for President Hu’s visit in 2003 and a modern day fighter!

Is courage enough for leadership?


How do you think the word “courage” has applied to your career and personal life?
I don’t have to apply it and it was born in me. My Mum always thinks I am too brave to know my limits. She was angry with me when I agreed to go to the Israel-Lebanon war zone with the TV Station I worked for in 2006.

All NZ journalists were surprised that I dared to raise a question to the Chinese President Hu Jintao, just after NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark announced the closure of the press conference for President Hu’s visit in 2003.

Both events happened because I wanted answers for some important questions, therefore I empowered myself to do so. Yes, it does require extraordinary courage!

What do you think about the difference between having courage and being crazy?
In my view, having courage without reasons, humanality and fair judgement is likely to lead to extreme actions and I would call it being crazy. True courage comes with a clear understanding of who you are as a person and the value you can add to the community you belong to. Both extreme actions and true courage require a braver and risk-taking attitude, but the latter makes inclusive decisions to benefit the majority of the society while the former aims for personal satisfaction.

I was labelled crazy by some people when I was in Israel, and some of them really worried about my safety seeing me running with the camera after booming, and some of them couldn’t understand why risking a wonderful life ahead to be in a battle field.

For me, this is the most proud experience I ever had in my life and I would never have regretted it even if it had cost me my life at the time. The 15 live-cross interviews and 9 video feature stories I filmed, edited and presented in the war zone gave audiences a much broader picture of what happened; that to me is risk-worth-taking.

Is courage enough for leadership?
For me, courage is the first step to leadership. To be an aspiring leader, it surely requires a lot more characteristics than courage, but no leadership will start to evolve without courage. When I joined Destination Rotorua Marketing to reposition its strategy in Asia in order to attract more FIT(Free Independent Travellers) and increase visitors’ expenditure in Rotorua, I faced quite a lot of challenges with the traditional way of doing things and also conventional thinking.

It is understandable that our marketing team applied traditional principles into Asian marketing with the support of translation. I think it is still happening widely within a lot of NZ organisations. But I challenged it because I knew it was culturally inappropriate and commercially not effective.

I have to thank the CEO of Destination Rotorua, Mark Rawson, who empowered me to challenge, to introduce different ways of thinking and to support my courageous leadership! I eventually managed to get 12 major tourism stakeholders to be part of the first tourism campaign targeting domestic Asian in NZ. The resounding result of 20-50% sales increase and a 648% increase of web traffic awakened everyone who underestimated the buying power of NZ Asian and their influence to their families and relatives in Asia.

Looking back, my courage of challenging and not giving up might have been the key to success, but I think having the responsibility and commitment from my courage was the gold to get me through all the frustrations.

Why do you believe in courageous leadership?
I believe the value in courageous leadership. Leaders don’t often make light or popular decisions which could be considered as a gamble, that is why they need courage to break the ground and challenge the tradition.

Working for the largest insurance company in NZ now, this leadership is especially needed. We have a goal of building a high performing organisation that is simple, efficient and agile. Without courage, how can we achieve it? That is why I launched the first official insurance account in NZ on one of the most popular Chinese social media – WeChat for IAG NZ. That was something very new and not familiar to most of sales, marketing and communication professionals in NZ, but it is also a must-have communication tool if any of the NZ organisation wants to capture the growth from the fast-growing New NZers’ market. There was resistance, challenges and even battles to get it done. Without courage from myself and the support from the leadership team, all of it wouldn’t have been possible.

Sometimes I have doubts in my head, “why do you need to do it and go against others” and “why it is so important?” etc. I think deeply in my mind, I have a strong belief that being bold and courageous can create value, creativity and empowerment which are the things close to my heart!

“It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”― Roy Disney, Walt Disney Executive

What is the competitive advantage of being a courageous leader in your lens?
1. Let go of the control desire: being in control to lead is in the past in my view; trusting others’ expertise, respecting others’ contribution and giving others opportunities are courageous leadership.

While I was the VIP Relationship Manager for NZ Pavilion in Shanghai World Expo 2010, I facilitated 300 VIP events for 10,000 VIP guests within 6 months, including 9 Ministerial visits, 6 Regional visits and Prime Minister John Key’s visit on National Day. If I wasn’t courageous enough, I wouldn’t have trusted everyone in our team to deliver world-class services.

2. Always learning: we always have something new to learn no matter how old we are, so have the courage to learn more and not afraid to ask questions.

When I produced the first NZ-made travel series about the indigenous Chinese culture – ‘China: Off the Beaten Track’, which was screened by Maori TV and used as teaching material by University of Auckland, I led a team of 10 TV crew from New Zealand, Australia, UK, US, Canada and China.

There was a lot of wisdom in the team cross-culturally. I had a lot of questions for the team and I was also challenged by lots of people from different cultures. I did have to be much braver in such a cross-cultural environment, value everyone’s opinion and integrate them into production.

It was easier said than done and sometimes that process was very painful, but I am glad that we all learnt something great from each other and produced something amazing and meaningful.

3. Admit mistakes: having the courage to admit it and learn from it has always been my key to success.

When I was producing that show as mentioned above, I made a mistake by using university students as TV crews to help with expenditure. I thought I provided students opportunities to learn and also they could add value to the project. I was wrong as this production requires mental strength as we were filming in the remote Chinese villages, sometimes without power and showers, it was a big challenge to many university students who grew up in very comfortable city homes. It cost me a lot but I learnt from this mistake. I discussed this with my production manager and we finally made a brave and expensive decision by replacing all the crew with professions in the industry.

By sharing your stories with us, what do you hope to leave with the readers?
I learnt a valuable lesson from my manager in IAG, Craig Dowling. He taught me that the whole team wins when everyone in the team comes to work with more courage, so he demonstrates an inclusive leadership everyday and I am really grateful for that.

For me, courage is innate, by sharing my experience, I hope to make people realise that everyone has the capacity to be courageous, and it is not exclusive to someone.

Once you have the courage, you will be braver to take difficult tasks, deal with complex issues and empower others to be courageous.