Leading through COVID-19: David Johnston, Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Kuia Trust


As leaders, the COVID-19 crisis has presented us all with unexpected challenges. Facing these unprecedented circumstances head-on has led to many stories of great leadership across all industries and sectors in Nelson, Tasman, and Marlborough.

Our 'Leading Through COVID-19' interview series is designed to inspire and support a sense of togetherness as our region moves through and beyond this challenge.

In this interview, we hear from David Johnston, General Manager, Te Rūnanga o Ngāti Kuia Trust. David shares their experience as an organisation coping with the impacts of COVID-19, along with some valuable advice as we look ahead towards the recovery phase.

"He waka eke noa" (We are all in this together)

Tēnā rā tātou katoa.

E ngā hau e whā, e ngā maunga me e ngā waka o te rohe nei, tēnei te mihi.

Ki a rātou kua whetūrangitia. Haere, haere atu rā.

Rātou ki a rātou, tatou ki a tatou.

Tihei mauriora.

How has COVID-19 affected your organisation overall?

While COVID-19 continues to pose a challenge both domestically and internationally, the virus has also bought our communities and organisations closer together.

Relationships across Iwi, as businesses, government and the community are perhaps stronger right now, than ever before.

I believe this is a defining point of time for not only our organisation or sector but also for our region, our nation and our world.

COVID-19 required an immediate response from all iwi of Te Tauihu to ensure the safety and security of our whānau. Some of the achievements included:

  • Holding our first virtual tangihanga in Te Tauihu including developing new guidelines.
  • Weekly online karakia hosted by different Iwi.
  • Ensuring our Kaumātua and whānau in greatest need had access to kai packages and medicinal supplies.
  • Developing collective Communication to reinforce key messages.


As we now look forward towards the end of this pandemic and post-COVID, we are planning for the recovery phase.

Most of our mahi thus far, like that of many others, has been completed remotely. This has been supplemented by our communities’ awesome essential workers and volunteers.

Ensuring that our staff are supported during this time has been critical to our success.

Furthermore, the mahi that we are able to work with others for the good of all whānau and our community has been greatly rewarding.

I am deeply grateful for the collaborative work all eight Iwi in the Top of the South have completed thus far, ensuring that all our whānau are supported.

As a leader, what has been key during this time?

Genuineness within leadership and clear communication have been paramount during this time of increased anxiety and uncertainty.

There has been no time for division, wearing of hats, egos or politics. Our focus has been on working with other groups and organisations to help whānau, especially those who are most vulnerable.

We have avoided cluttered communication. Deliberate and targeted use of social media, video, radio and other platforms allowed us to engage and communicate effectively, both internally and externally.

Any learnings or advice you can pass on to other leaders? 

One key learning that’s become even more apparent to me during this period is, “Mahia te mahi nei.” If there is something that needs to be done, we must do it promptly and with the end in mind. For instance, when you are given the opportunity to lead, step forward and take it. Leaders also need to make decisions and base these on what is the right thing to do. This includes delegating and deploying in a timely fashion and keeping the communication channels open and strong.

This is a simple philosophy that I try to follow, and this has definitely been put to the test during these last weeks.

These have been challenging times and emotions have been high. It’s always good to have lighter moments of laughter in between the strong focus as we manage the serious reality of the situation.

Have you been able to identify any opportunities for your organisation as a result? 

“Ka mate kaingā tahi, ka ora kaingā rua.” When one house falls, another shall rise.”

There will be good that arises from this adversity, and when it does, do not be afraid to leave things that do not work as well in the past.

That being said, opportunities of all types are being developed. From placements of new Whānau Navigator roles to help our people, to collective decision making, new job creation/training and new product export growth.

I think that some things will be potentially fast-tracked to help with the recovery. Working collectively with others is required to make a difference, to lessen the impacts and to make the most of the opportunities.

Any thoughts on what will change for your organisation as a result of this disruptor?

We are using technology more than ever and have shown that our Business Continuity Plan (BCP) works. We have also developed new relationships that will be long-lasting and will hopefully provide new partnerships that will help us navigate through the testing times ahead and help us to be stronger for it into the future.

COVID-19 will continue to weigh upon all of us.

To prosper we must remember this: a weight shared is less to bear.

Enjoyed this interview? Read more from our Leading Through COVID-19 interview series here.

Whakatū | Nelson

Te Whanganui-a-Tara | Wellington

Ōtautahi | Christchurch

Waiharakeke | Blenheim

Better people make a better world
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