John Hood: Engineering Possibility: How Did a New Zealand Engineer Get to Head What Are Arguably the Most Hallowed Halls of British Academia? Vicki Jayne Talks to John Hood, Vice Chancellor of Oxford University and, in Stephen Tindall's Words, the Embodiment of "All That Is World Class" in Leadership

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For a man who's just been dubbed supreme award winner out of the impressive lineup of talent that was being celebrated at last month's World Class New Zealand Leaders awards, John Hood seems almost bashful talking about the career which prompted this accolade.

He may run one of the world's most illustrious academic institutions, but Hood is not someone who presumes to have all the answers. Even when it comes to talking about his own leadership style.

"I find it extraordinarily difficult to stand outside myself and look in. I think other people are better to do that.

"But one of the things I learned early in my career at Fletcher Challenge is the power of the devolved, decentralised organisation. That means ensuring that every decision is pushed to the level at which the maximum knowledge for the decision rests. The arrogance of assuming you can make better decisions at the centre of an organisation is just that--sheer arrogance."

Nor-when asked what advice he might give aspiring young Kiwi leaders--does he presume to have the right offering.

"Well, this is not going to satisfy you as an answer--but I believe it's a fallacy to think that one person who had the life they had can provide a relevant piece of wisdom to another younger person. However, I am a fan for the idea of mentorship where two people think this can be a valuable relationship.

"What you find in those, is that there is not one piece of advice that stands out--it's part of an ongoing process. It's about trying to give someone confidence given the circumstances you find them in or trying to provide them with alternative views they might think about."

The respectful exchange of ideas is something Hood learned about at an early age.

Born in Napier to teacher parents, he first attended school at Papakura Normal before moving to Helensville Primary for what would now be termed his intermediate years. There he was held back to do Form 2 again--though the repeat year didn't fit any conventional educational criteria.

"I'd been 'jumped' earlier so I was barely 12 and my father who was headmaster at the time judged me too young to go on to high school. So he taught me by the Socratic method, one-on-one for a year. And that was probably a formative period in my life. That year helped me in all sorts of ways."

With education authority approval, his father taught him across the subject spectrum from physics and chemistry to history and English.

"A lot of it was self-directed, where I had to do the work then go discuss it with him. He took me through English literature from Beowulf to modern writers. I worked in the journal room, played sport with the rest of the kids--was joined by a couple of others for some classes. It was terrific."

Certainly a spirit of enquiry seems very much part of Hood's makeup. It's what took him to Oxford in the first place--as a Rhodes Scholar to do a Master of Philosophy in management studies.

At that stage, he'd already earned his engineering degree from the University of Auckland.

"I'd been uncertain what I would study at university but in the final year of school went to a lecture at what was then the Auckland Institute of Technology put on by the Institute of Professional Engineers which explained what the different engineering disciplines do. I was captivated by one part of that presentation which showed what civil/construction engineers did in terms of designing complex bridges and high rise buildings and thought that was a good way to combine my interest in aesthetics with that in physics and maths."

At the time there was a lot of interest in finding better techniques for analysing complex bridge structures--driven by some high profile failures--and that became the focus for Hood's PhD. Meanwhile, because he'd been awarded a cadetship with Fletcher Construction, he spent all his undergraduate vacations working on major construction sites around New Zealand. …