Aaron Fleming

BLAKE Leader 2017

Director, Southern South Island at Department of Conservation.

Aaron Fleming has shown outstanding leadership skills during times of crisis and change in several different fields. He is an author and ambassador, a respected leader of people, a champion of the environment, and an athlete who has defied the medical world.

Improving the lives of New Zealanders is the incentive that drives Aaron Fleming – an enterprising leader, environmental warrior and an athlete who has defied the medical world.

At the relatively young age of 33, Aaron has shown outstanding leadership skills during times of crisis and change, and proven he can successfully engage, build and lead successful teams. He’s held senior public sector roles in both local and central government, and established environmental groups and events that encourage people to take better care of our country. He has an affinity with youth, speaking at schools around the country, inspiring students to dream big and overcome adversity.And he’s proudly proven doctors wrong and become a globally-respected Ironman triathlete.

Aaron’s peers describe him as a great people leader who has a vision and motivates team members to help him achieve it. He drives change to make New Zealand a better place to live. Born in Blenheim and raised in Taupo, Aaron was an athletic and promising young gymnast. Then without warning, at 16, his right lung collapsed four times – a condition known as spontaneous pneumothorax. After two major surgeries, and years of pain and discomfort, Aaron became reclusive and depressed; his body craving painkillers. He hit rock bottom and shut out everyone around him. His surgeon told him he could not physically overexert himself again. And yet, five years later, Aaron used those words as motivation to complete the gruelling New Zealand Ironman.

With his “anything is possible” attitude, he has now competed in nine international Ironman events in just over a decade – halfway towards his goal of completing an Ironman on all six continents. Although a “back of the pack” athlete, Aaron has earned respect globally for his gritty determination and self-belief. To Aaron, finishing is winning.

Wanting to make a difference in the lives of young Kiwis with lung problems, he has used Ironman to raise funds for cystic fibrosis, and built mentor relationships with many CF families. He has now raised over $34,000 for various charities through his sport.

At Victoria University, Aaron achieved a Bachelor of Science in environmental science, and a Bachelor of Commerce in public policy. At 29, he took on the senior role of Strategy and Research Manager for the city of Hamilton – a remarkable achievement for someone of his age working for a metro council. His trusting and empowering leadership style, and focus on people, motivated a team facing many challenges to consistently deliver results. He spearheaded a number of significant projects, including Hamilton being the lead city in New Zealand to develop a policy to eliminate legal highs.

In early 2016, Aaron joined the Department of Internal Affairs, where it wasn’t long before he became a director, leading a nationwide high-performing team of the National Library, Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa, through significant transformation. This includes an ongoing lead role in the He Tohu exhibition in Wellington, which has made the Treaty of Waitangi and the 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition accessible to all New Zealanders. In 2017, he took on the role of Director, Southern South Island at the Department of Conservation.

Passionate about improving and protecting New Zealand’s environment, Aaron has been a board member of the Waikato Environment Centre, influential in driving the organisation’s growth and achieving positive environmental change in the Waikato. He helped establish Kaivolution, Hamilton’s first food rescue service, seeing thousands of tonnes of food diverted from landfill and redistributed to areas of need in the community. He co-founded the Trash to Fashion Charitable Trust, educating the Waikato community on environmental issues and recycling, and co-organised the annual ReStyle wearable arts event.

To help other young New Zealanders facing depression, he has been an ambassador for The Lowdown Project, openly sharing his personal story to give others courage and support through difficult times. At the age of 24, he wrote and self-published a book, Purpose, to inspire and motivate young Kiwis like him to realise their goals. He is also a popular motivational speaker.

Aaron is an ambassador for Proud to Play, promoting inclusive sport and recreation, and aiming to eliminate homophobia in sport. He bravely shared his “coming out” experience presenting the television show Neighbourhood, helping others to understand questions around their sexuality.

In 2008, Aaron was the sole New Zealander chosen to carry the Olympic torch on its relay around the world before the Beijing Olympics. In 2011, he was the recipient of a New Zealand Local Hero award, and a top-10 finalist for Young New Zealander of the Year.