Leading the Way from a Young Age

Whether he desired the role or not, VITALE LAFAELE has always been a leader. He did it as a child growing up in a Samoan family in Grey Lynn, doing any job he could – milk runs, paper rounds, stacking shelves - to help his family, where Mum and Dad (Souoapuava and Kalolo) both worked two jobs to help the family get by.  He is doing it today running leadership courses for the Ministry of Social Development. 

But there has been a lot in between these two extremes, and they have been captured in his autobiography – A Canoe Before the Wind: An Immigrant Son’s Story of Family, Adversity and Courage. 

He moved to Auckland, with his family more than 60 years ago, when he was just two years old. By the time he started school he was aware of the casual racism which enveloped the playground at the time, and like others, suffered from it. 

But he didn’t let it deter him, and even back then he showed the first signs of leadership potential, being made a prefect and taking on sports coaching roles. 

In his Ted Talk in Tauranga in 2021, he readily admitted to not being academic and while his parents wanted more for him than a factory job on leaving school, he found work as a fork hoist driver. But he always felt there was more. 

His aim, he told his audience, was to get into the police force, but four times he tried, and four times he was rejected. 

He then stumbled across an advert for the ‘’elite’’ SAS (Special Air Service), which intrigued him, even if he wasn’t sure what it was all about. 

‘’I did not really know what it (SAS) meant. I knew it was something to do with guns, simply because it was a New Zealand Army ad,’’ Vitale said. 

So, along with 300 others he went to the Open Day and put his name forward. What followed was 16 months of testing and at the end of it there were just four people left standing. 

Including Vitale. 

He is not sure why he succeeded where others didn’t, but looked back at his formative years for an answer. 

‘’Maybe what they had seen (in me) was that belief system I had fought for over those early years may have aligned to the SAS values, but whatever it was, I had found a place where I belonged,’’ he said. 

He used the experience of growing up and the lessons learned as he rose through the ranks to become a senior officer, happily sitting in the background, allowing his teams to take the limelight, allowing, he said ‘’followers to transition to leaders themselves’’. 

‘’It’s about humility and respect. I learned at a very young age to respect what it is you have. I may have lived in the humblest of homes, but they were always clean and tidy, the lawns were mowed, and the children always had a couple of sets of clothes washed and clean.’’ 

But even when rising through the ranks of the SAS, Vitale still harboured a longing for a role with the police force, and he kept applying, eventually succeeding, and so began a steady rise through the ranks, eventually becoming the first Samoan to be Area Commander for Counties Manukau. 

Among the roles he played over 30 years with the force was that of Commander of the Armed Offenders Squad, being in charge during a New Lynn siege in July 2007, when he oversaw the first ever use of explosives by a police force in either New Zealand or Australia in such a situation in a successful gambit to rescue three hostages. 

In 2014, Vitale suffered a stroke which left him legally blind, and that was the end of his police career and into compulsory medical retirement’. 

Vitale then set about reinventing himself, taking on service roles and work with the Stroke Foundation as well as motivational speeches. 

Through those speeches he gained a position with the MSD running leadership courses. 

And he has some timely advice for people looking to advance themselves. 

‘’Understand yourself first. Be yourself as a leader. Once I understood that I not only became a better leader, but I became a better person’’.  (Vitale Lafaele) 

TEDxTauranga – The Invisible Leader | Vitale Lafaele

A Canoe Before the Wind

An Immigrant Son’s Story of Family, Adversity and Courage 
Author – Vitale Lafaele 
Publisher – Harper Collins