Time to shake up what it means to be a 'leader'

Leadership Network member Dayeon Lee is busy – she’s one year out from completing a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery at the University of Auckland, yet alongside her studies she’s volunteered time to social justice causes close to her heart.
Dayeon Lee

Dayeon: "I was trying to do good by my culture and my identity, while also trying to fit in my friends and appease my parents.” 

It was with feelings of both grief and guilt that Dayeon Lee reacted to news six Asian women were among those killed in the Atlanta spa shootings in March.

In the past year, reports of anti-Asian hate crimes have increased in Western countries as the pandemic took hold.

Born in Japan, to Korean parents, Dayeon grew up in suburban Auckland and knows about not fitting in.

“Where I grew up it was very homogenous – young white families. That involved me trying to navigate that third culture space, and not always very elegantly.

“I was too white in Korean spaces and too Asian in white spaces. I was trying to do good by my culture and my identity, while also trying to fit in my friends and appease my parents.” 

The 24-year-old says her heritage and identity influences her personal and professional life every day. 

“In the past, it hasn’t always looked the most pretty.” 

Today, she’s reached a point where her sense of self, and her sense of purpose, fit well. 

“I’ve spent the better part of the last half decade thinking about how I can harness the insights provided by this lived experience to amalgamate all these different cultural ways of being and thinking about myself and the world, and consequently the problems to be solved and how I can participate in that problem solving.”

Dayeon speaking in front of an audience at the Women in Health Network

Dayeon speaking to the Women in Health Network

Her decision to publicly condemn the actions of the Atlanta mass shooter and the wave of anti-Asian sentiment he rode was a deliberate one. 

“I knew I wanted to help shed light on the event.

“Racism is both a systemic and interpersonal issue. And as much as my career intentions are to better the health system, we know that overt and covert racism worsens health outcomes. 

“So what I grapple with is how to do my small bit in fighting all these different fights at once.”

Dayeon has an impressive resume of extra-curricular accomplishments: She founded the Women in Health Network, aimed at enabling female health care professionals to have a fair, fulfilling experience in the sector, and was heavily involved in UN Youth New Zealand, which works to engage young rangatahi in local and global citizenship, before taking a step back after seven years of service.

At times, though, she’s found herself so absorbed in working for causes she’s passionate about she has had to carve out space for her studies and self-care, and that’s not always sustainable, she says. 

“It’s hard because my purpose is rooted in this idea of giving back, but you can’t do that at the expense of wringing out all that you have to give.”

Being part of the Leadership Network has given her access to the minds and experience of other high achievers, who have “been there and done that”, and that’s been invaluable, she says.

“All of their stories are almost frighteningly impressive, and I don’t doubt that they’ve all experienced struggles with their personal and leadership identities, from people-pleasing to imposter syndrome to tall poppy.” 

Dayeon says she’s lucky to have experienced plenty of leadership opportunities, but it was a Foundation Rethinking Leadership Hui at the start of the year that provided a timely reset to her leadership journey. 

The hui helped her see the benefit of taking a step back and reflecting on her own leadership commitments, checking in to ensure she’s tailoring it to her own experience, how she wants her impact to look and how she can best execute her purpose.

“Otherwise, it can feel like an endless set of demands and expectations – externally and self-imposed.”

Arina,  and Magdeline and Dayeon by water at the Leadership Network Rethinking Leadership Hui in Tauranga

Dayeon says she is impressed and motivated by her fellow Leadership Network members

At the hui there was plenty of discussion on what leadership looks like, and who has been at the top painting that picture for too long. 

Bottom line: it doesn’t look much like any of the young leaders sitting in that room, she says. 

“Leadership really needs to start being talked about differently and needs to look different. 

“For example, I’m relieved by the increasing valuing of authenticity and vulnerability in leadership over traditionally ‘masculine’, pedestalled traits like dominance and charisma. 

“For a lot of us, that was a really empowering conversation to have.” 

At the end of next year, Dayeon will wrap up a degree in medicine – she’s been a student for seven years and still counting.

Looking forward, she wants to have an impact on improving equity in the New Zealand health system – both when it comes to women healthcare workers at decision-making tables, and marginalised communities and health outcomes.

Her heart has always gone out for the underdog, and she wants her career to centre on equalising the playing field, she says. 

“I think it does go back to my Asian heritage and having grown up struggling a lot in probably most senses of that word, whether that was my identity, whether that was socially, mentally, financially, just as a child of immigrants, and my parents were both artists as well, to give some context. 

“It hasn’t been the easiest growing up and I think that inevitably built a lot of compassion and consideration of others.”

As she ventures forward building a career with purpose, Dayeon wants to continue to model a style of leadership that is authentic and sustainable, well away from any pedestal. 

“I try to be genuine, even if that requires uncomfortable vulnerability, because I trust there’s more benefit to be gained through honesty than romanticising or idealising difficult experiences. We all have them and can use them to better connect to and learn from one another.”