Leading Change in Northern Ireland
Former Chairman, Northern Ireland Policing Board, Belfast
When Desmond Rea arrived at Berkeley from Belfast in 1966 for a business education still in its infancy in the UK, he found a university emerging from intense campus protests, America battling in Vietnam, and San Francisco in “flower power” bloom. What left an indelible impression on this Queen’s University of Belfast economics graduate was how Berkeley’s business school “just got on with its work” amid turmoil.
An intense work ethic and learning to compete were two Berkeley lessons that Rea credits for positioning him for a “privileged,” diverse career of nearly 50 years. Rea has held numerous roles as an academic, businessman, and public servant; written 40 research articles and two books; and edited a quarterly economic review for one of Northern Ireland’s largest banks for 25 years. His most lauded success, as chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board, earned him the UK’s highest honor—a knighthood—in 2005.
“Four things have stuck with me from Berkeley,” says Rea, who returned to Queen’s University’s new business administration department in 1967 to lecture and earn a master’s in corporate finance and PhD in organizational behavior and human resource management.
“One, the surviving organization is the exception, not the rule. Two, management is an adaptive process. Three, authority comes primarily from below; what’s critical is that people consent to your organizational position. Four, think future; leaders continually have to think, ‘where are we taking this organization?’”
In 1985, these insights poised Rea, by now heading University of Ulster’s business studies department, to begin taking public-sector posts in health, education, and local government. By 1996, Rea was chair of the Northern Ireland Labour Relations Agency.
“You have to note the politics then: We were in the Troubles, with more than 3,000 people killed, families bereaved, countless thousands injured, major incidents. Two processes—a non-contentious political process and a very contentious peace process—were underway,” he says.
The peace process created the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, which issued 175 recommendations on everything from 50-50 recruitment for Catholics and Protestants to the formation of the independent Northern Ireland Policing Board to oversee the police force. Rea applied to become the board’s first chairman.
“I felt that everything I had done before had led to this role,” he says. The position appealed not only to his strong values of fairness and equity from his Methodist upbringing, but also to his interest in organizational behavior and leading public bodies.
Rea was appointed to the Policing Board for four years and elected twice, ultimately spending more than eight years ensuring the police service carried out its daily duties while gradually transforming in line with the Independent Commission’s recommendations.
Yet Rea downplays his pivotal role in the evolution of an important institution in Northern Ireland. He says his real achievement was “concentrating on the business and at the same time thinking ahead,” and adds, “Getting on with it and relating to people—that’s been the most important thing.” —Christine Fundak Rohan