18 June 2024

Highly respected leader John Henderson has led and served New Zealanders through some of our biggest natural disasters and tragedies. This month he retires after 46 years of public service.

Throughout his career, John Henderson has been a staunch advocate for helping people into work, ending family violence and supporting young people to achieve their aspirations.

John has worked across most of the Ministry of Social Development including StudyLink before taking up the role of MSD Regional Commissioner Canterbury in 2002 and subsequently a number of secondments including 3 years at the former Child Youth and Family.

It was in his role as MSD’s Canterbury-based senior leader that John supported New Zealanders through some of our biggest natural disasters and tragedies. He led the MSD response and recovery following the Canterbury earthquakes in September 2010 and February 2011. He made sure people got the services they needed after the Pike River tragedy in 2010 and the Kaikōura earthquake in 2016 and he supported victims and their families in the aftermath of the Ashburton shootings in 2014 and Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019.

John’s people-centred leadership and commitment to doing the best for New Zealanders was formally recognised in 2005 when he was awarded the Inaugural Public Service Award for Regional leadership and again in 2019 when he received a Public Service Medal for his dedicated service to the people of New Zealand.

Described by his colleagues as ‘one of the best’, John has always shown commitment to putting people and their needs first. 

Dame Margaret Bazley, John Henderson and Peter Hughes in 2019

Here John shares his insights and reflections on his time in the Public Service.

What does being a public servant mean to you?

Simply put. Service to New Zealand and New Zealanders. Achieving the outcomes sought by the communities we serve and the Government of the day.

What achievements are you most proud of?

In 46 years have been fortunate to be involved in a lot of positive work that I am proud to have been connected to or led. 

The way Team Canterbury responded to the critical and sad events that have happened in the region jump out. 

It certainly was a privilege to walk alongside the wonderful staff from our Ashburton site in our recovery after two of our colleagues were murdered. The A-team, I call them, are an example of recovery beyond expectations. 

The Canterbury earthquake sequence and Mosque attack tested leadership across the public services and NGOs. It was an honour to be part of the teams in and beyond Canterbury that showed the Spirit of service.

However, I am equally proud of the BAU [business as usual] results achieved and the constant challenge of the status quo to improve outcomes for the citizens we serve. 

What are the biggest challenges you have faced?

Ensuring the significant complexities that happen after a tragedy are well understood with stakeholders and management of expectations locally and nationally. 

In the pressure and context of incidents, preserving the importance to lead with compassion, dignity, and sustain personal wellbeing and energy.

In BAU I have been challenged to articulate the immense value of systems thinking. What it is and how to shift ‘systems’.

What is the greatest lesson you have learned?

The power of empathy and curiosity which feeds the desire to continually learn to achieve better results. 

The significant part of my learning has been through folk I have been fortunate to ‘sit’ with. An example is the wāhine who shared their stories of a life in violence grew my understanding and collaborative leadership to contribute to supporting a safer New Zealand. 

The leaders who shared their wisdom. Likewise, the leaders that did not do a good job also gift insights. Have a growth mindset! Seek to understand.

What advice would you give to future Public Service leaders? 

Enjoy the ride. It is honourable mahi. Focus on leadership learning and within that your self-awareness. If you think you have it sussed you missed leadership 101. A kaumatua mentor once said, ‘always best as a leader to leave your ego in the back seat and let your soul drive’.