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Leadership lessons from Lady Liverpool

The Great War, volunteers, and socks combined to create a leadership opportunity for Lady Annette Liverpool in New Zealand in 1914.

One of the ideas we explore in leadership programmes is how to start a movement and gain followers. We sometimes use Leadership from a dancing guy. Dancing guy is relatable - sunburnt, shirtless, and fully engaged in dancing like a mad thing. All he asks of his followers is participation, and a lack of inhibition. You're left thinking, if that guy can do it, anyone can.

Portrait of Lady Liverpool in formal Edwardian gown
Lady Annette Liverpool. Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. DA568.L7 ANN.

I've recently found a different role model, Lady Annette Liverpool. She's not as immediately relatable - what with being a Lady and all - and her efforts weren't captured on video (TV3 put together a story in 2014). But she was fully engaged, she amassed followers and sustained a movement. Here's the story.

On 5 August 1914, New Zealand entered the Great War as part of the British Empire.

Lady Liverpool was the wife of Lord Liverpool, who served as New Zealand's Governor from 1912 and as Governor General from 1917 to 1920. He's relevant because his status gave his wife positional authority that she used to the max.

By 7 August, Lady Liverpool's Appeal to the women of the Dominion was printed in newspapers throughout the country. The link is to the appeal in the Ashburton Guardian, and is followed by a snippet on the Mayoress having received a telegram from Lady Liverpool.

Lady Liverpool communicated effectively without social media—her channels were her personal networks, society events, letters, telegrams, and newspapers. She had the advantage of status to increase her influence, and having her target audience largely unified by a desire to support the war effort of the British Empire.

"At this moment of our Empire's needs I appeal to the women of New Zealand to assist me in trying to provide any necessaries which may be required for those portions of the citizen army which is now mobilising […]. My suggestion would be to start a fund in every centre under a small committee of ladies."

Her appeal is addressed specifically to women. She unites them to the common cause of supporting the citizen army. She acknowledges existing committees and goes on to nominate Mayoresses as local champions. She gets to the specifics of what help is needed—clothing, cutlery, mending kits. She says she'll endeavour to report back on the impact of their efforts. And she finishes by deferring to the Defence Department for guidance.

The efforts of these women were initially targeted at the 8,500 troops who left New Zealand in the first wave. By 1918, over 100,000 service people had departed from New Zealand, of whom one in five died. The total population at the time was 1.1 million. And the women didn't just help New Zealanders: relief parcels were also sent to Belgium, Britain, and France.

Where do the socks come in?

A letter from a soldier in 1915 reported that a pair of socks lasted just two weeks. That spurred Lady Liverpool to set a goal: 30,000 pairs of hand knitted socks by June.

Dancing guy did not demand any skill from his followers, whereas Lady Liverpool required people to use specific skills to produce precise outcomes: wearable socks. Lucky for her, those specific skills were commonplace in a country with relatively little clothing manufacturing and lots of wool. Her genius was in taking that domestic activity and reframing it as a contribution to the war effort. On top of that, she added goals.

A letter published in the Christchurch Sun in April 1915 captures the mindset of Lady Liverpool's devoted followers. A Soldier's Mother wrote:

One's knitting can be kept at hand. During the day there will be found to be many idle moments, when a few stitches can be put in. And thus the works grows, and the result is the completed sock [...] I have found time to make 20 pairs [...] Women, if you cannot knit, learn!

I haven't found a report confirming the target of 30,000 pairs by June was reached. But the efforts continued.

Her Excellency's Knitting Book was published in August 1915, chock full of patterns for socks, balaclavas and gloves. To increase the chances women would use each idle moment, the book was made to a size deemed most convenient for a knitting bag.

Lady Liverpool's leadership extended beyond her army of women. She needed to exert influence to ensure her army's efforts reached their destination. From 1916, 24,000 parcels were being sent to Europe each month using the Dominion Parcels Scheme. The parcels included food and clothing, and always at least one pair of socks.

Such was the status of the work that the Minister of Munitions set a reduced price for wool to be supplied to the Lady Liverpool Fund (and the Red Cross) when the price of wool shot up in response to heavy demand.

The influencing didn't stop there: soldiers were asked to acknowledge the receipt of a parcel. Lady Liverpool knew these acknowledgements would help maintain the impetus by reinforcing that soldiers overseas appreciated the work of the home army.

Lady Liverpool's services to the war effort were recognised in March 1918 when she was made Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

What made her successful?

Lady Liverpool's story shows she used a range of techniques that demonstrate sound leadership, influencing, and communications practices.

  • She used her position as a member of the political elite to get authority and connections to decision makers.

  • She got personally involved and made herself available at events.

  • She recognised newspapers were the dominant means of mass communication, and she mastered letters to the editor (secure in the knowledge her missives would always be printed).

  • She used telegrams to reinforce her messages to key people.

  • She understood her audience and used language that connected with them emotionally.

  • She set clear goals.

  • She established systems for feedback.

Quirky factoid to finish. Lord Kitchener, Britain's Secretary of War, insisted that handknitted socks be as smooth as possible to minimise the risk of blisters. The technique for producing a smooth sock toe is called the Kitchener Graft and is still used.

This story uses links to Papers Past, provided by the National Library of New Zealand, and information from Te Papa and The Lady Liverpool Great War Story on NZ History. Image from


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