Leading through possibility part 2: embodying possibility leadership

In the second part of this series on “Leading through Possibility”, Minnie reveals what possibility leadership looks like by reflecting on ten years of work in social change and working alongside Be. Institute Chair, John Allen.

An image of John Allen, Chair of the Be. Institute, with a yellow, green, and pink icon in the bottom left hand corner, representing the concept of leadership

I have worked with John Allen, the Chair of the Be. Institute – the parent organisation of the Global Centre of Possibility and the Be. Lab – for ten years now and I can say with confidence that he is the embodiment of Possibility Leadership.

We define Possibility Leadership as “the capacity to believe in and create a future of possibility, beyond current limiting paradigms and beyond current concepts of disability and accessibility.”

Here I want to share with you my experiences of working with John that demonstrate what Possibility leadership looks like in practice. These five traits are ones that are available to each and every one of us if we choose to embody them…– I invite you to be part of creating a more equitable future world and to embody Possibility Leadership in your own life.

The capacity to imagine beyond the status quo

Back in 2010, I approached John to head up the board of a very new social change organisation that we were creating called Be. Accessible. Without pausing, he agreed, and in doing so performed his first act of Possibility leadership – in endorsing me and my leadership as a partially blind, female CEO, something that is extremely rare indeed.

At that time, accessibility in Aotearoa like most parts of the world was simply not advancing as quickly as it could for the more than one million New Zealanders with access needs. John immediately understood that perhaps what was needed was a fresh way of approaching this old challenge and put his faith in my ability to lead, to innovate, and to problem solve. He also understood that this leadership could only come from the access community itself, and that it also needed to be a fresh perspective from within that community!

John governs from a place where he understands the precarious nature of life, of organisations, and of social change, so he is able to be highly responsive and adaptable to the changing environments we regularly find ourselves in.

This means that he operates from a place of bravery and rejects the temptation to operate from a place of fear. He is curious about, rather than threatened by, the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, thereby providing the steady governance needed to enable his CEO and team to flourish. He never seeks to blame, point score or shame. As his CEO I in turn respond with openness, trust and huge respect knowing I can talk to him about anything, knowing we will navigate it together.

Deeply valuing our different facets and what makes us unique

John lets me be me, and has never tried to fit me into a box or to stereotype me. He does not operate with any preconceived ideas of how I should be as a CEO or leader other than expect me to be open and honest with him.

Comfortable in his own skin, John delights in getting to know interesting people, ideas and explorations of what is possible – he embraces the unknown as opposed to feeling threatened by it.

The result of this is that as CEO I have always felt incredibly trusted in my own decision making as John never limited me nor made assumptions about my capabilities.

A deep mutual respect (with)

Over the ten years of our working relationship, John has never done “to me” or “for me”, only ever “with me”!

Even though he is one of our country’s top CEOs and Chair of numerous boards, John treats everyone as his equal. No matter who you are he listens, is present and engages with you, without overpowering. This gave me the space needed to lead and flourish.

I am grateful for his respect of my insight into what is needed for the access community, and in return I have a deep respect for his incredible intellect, steadiness and experience of leading organisations through many ups and downs. This has led to a combination of skills and perspectives that is truly unique and new in the world –something that neither of us could have created on our own.

Systems change

The work that we do at both the Centre of Possibility and the Be. Lab is incredibly complex, however John holds this complexity with ease, never trying to simplify something for the sake of comfort.

He recognises that social change involves working within and across multiple systems so is never about a quick fix – it requires deep commitment and long term investment. I do not know many Chairs who have stayed so deeply committed to an organisation after 10 years.


Never known to rest on our laurels, around three years ago at Be. Accessible, we began thinking that we needed to reposition our work in order to better meet the access community’s needs in a rapidly changing, volatile and uncertain future. I approached John with this thinking and he trusted me and my intuition around this.

He backed me and the team as we then very creatively sought ways to run an R&D process that would have frightened off many less courageous Chairs. The value of that process is now evident in this new approach that is totally fit for the VUCA world we find ourselves in. Through this approach, we are reframing away from Disability through Accessibility and into the emergent field of Possibility design, innovation and leadership. This is enabling us to front-foot social change and ensure our community of access citizens and our partners are ready and able to respond in the appropriate way for this time.  

How can we look for, support, and embody Possibility Leadership?

So, as we navigate through these uncertain times, I invite you to recognise and support Possibility leadership around you and embody these qualities yourself.

Relish the search for unknown lands and ways of being in the world that can advance humanity and society. Operate without aggression; instead embody decency and bravery. Seek to nourish and grow the capacity of those around you, and delight in human creativity and imagination.
Be future-focused, appreciate the complexity of working in systems, and work “with” others by deeply valuing difference and embracing complexity. Through this you will be supporting the advancement of accessibility for all!

A future of Possibility

I feel incredibly energised by the work of Possibility ahead of us. The Global Centre of Possibility at AUT will be officially launching later this month and will be a hothouse for Possibility leadership, design and innovation.

It sees the opportunity for Aotearoa to be positioned as the global centre for the design and innovation of access products and services to meet the needs of the more than two billion people worldwide with access needs – a market that is estimated to be in the trillions of dollars.

As we grapple with the economic challenges following the devastating impact of the Covid-19 virus, we believe that the Centre can offer a way forward with innovative thinking, products and services.

Now is the time to take a leaf out of John Allen’s book – take some risks, innovate, look for leadership in all the right places and reimagine what New Zealand can offer to all its people and its new economy into the future? Together we can create a fully accessible future laden with Possibility for all – but only if we choose to!

Perhaps, Aotearoa, this is our time to model Possibility Leadership to the world?

To learn more about John Allen check out his recent interview with Management magazine.

And to learn more about Minnie and the Global Centre of Possibility check out this recent article in the NBR (subscription required).


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