Vale John van Geldermalsen
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 83 autumn 2011
It is with great sadness that the Board, staff and volunteers of St James Ethics Centre, the Vincent Fairfax Fellowship Alumni and all our colleagues who worked with him acknowledge the passing of John van Geldermalsen, who drowned tragically while holidaying with his family in Mexico.
I first became aware of John van Geldermalsen when, in 1999, he applied for the position of Manager of the Vincent Fairfax Fellowship. John was forty-one years of age and had risen to the position of Managing Director of Time Inc’s magazine operations in Australia. Impressive as that achievement was in itself, it was John’s use of that opportunity that really stood out. Here is part of what he said in his application letter:
During my period as Managing Director I focused closely on the character of our organisation and the forces that were at work to mould it. Up until that point it had been sufficient for me to have my own private view and to operate according to the expectations on me but now I found that I was personally identified with the character of the company. After a year of inner conflict I chose to begin to weave my views and values into the way we went about our business. This was a liberating experience for me and eventually for a large proportion of the staff working with me.
I have been seeking an opportunity to either model or teach what I have learned to a broader base of managers and leaders and believe that the position you have open may offer me just that.
John was appointed to the role he sought at St James Ethics Centre. This was a permanent part-time position and it soon became clear that John had much more to offer the Centre as a whole (and that the Centre had much need of what he had to offer). So, his role expanded over time – with John eventually serving as General Manager.
John was an extraordinary man who was (in the best sense of the word) a challenging colleague. As foreshadowed in his application letter, John held a number of private views that he would only offer in response to a direct question. Without exception, it was always worth persisting in questioning John because his private views were often laced with deep insight.
On a day-to-day basis, John would meet regularly with our colleague Suzi Ross and I to conduct what came to be known as the ‘Bold Arrow’ process. This was the method by which we collectively managed the scope of the Centre’s work. In this capacity, John helped to ensure that the Centre remained focused on its core purpose while achieving sustainability.
While John’s contribution to the life of the Centre was significant, it is for his work with emerging leaders that John will be best remembered. This was the purpose for which John joined the Centre and this was where his passion lay. For John, it was always the work that mattered far more than the institutional setting within which it was undertaken. For this reason, John was keen to share his insights wherever the opportunity arose. This meant that the scope of his work was always beyond the ‘borders’ of any single organisation.
The precise nature of that work would, of course, change according to the context within which it was undertaken. What remained the same was John’s commitment to a gentle art of subversion in which he would encourage and support people to re-evaluate the foundations for their leadership (if not their lives).
As noted above, the process employed by John was gentle – but incredibly robust. John’s confidence in proceeding in this manner arose, at least in part, from the fact that he possessed a very solid grounding – both in his religious faith as a Christian and in his family – both of which sustained him. For all of John’s personal conviction, he never sought to impose his views on any other person. Indeed, you really had to work to know what John thought; he needed to be convinced that you really wanted to know.
John van Geldermalsen resigned his executive roles at the Centre in 2007 and took on a new role as Program Mentor with the Fellows – a role he performed until 2010 with us and then at the Melbourne Business School. In resigning, John was able to reflect on his work in the following terms:
I came to St James Ethics Centre in order to work with men and women seeking to enhance the experience of work both of themselves and of those they influence and I have enjoyed the opportunity to do so. In the role of Program Mentor this opportunity will continue with Vincent Fairfax Fellows. In taking up more executive responsibility within St James Ethics Centre I was similarly motivated but always saw it as a particular piece of work with some finitude to it. I believe I have contributed something positive to the quality of the workplace during my tenure but the time has now come for me to focus on new contexts with other people.
John had a profound and positive impact on many people and he will be missed. I have no doubt that although his life has ended, his work will continue.