Jeremy Irvine, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Dental Prosthetists Association talks with Victor Perton about Australian Leadership: Australians demand to know 'why' from their leaders and then decide for themselves.
Jeremy Irvine: “Leading people is a responsibility, not a right. You have to want to lead, and want to challenged – and it must come from within.”
Victor Perton: Jeremy, what are your favourite stories of contemporary Australian leadership?
Jeremy Irvine: I’ve been fortunate to have worked with and for some great leaders in my time in politics, and in industry and professional associations.
One of my favourite examples of leadership was a principal at an independent school in Canberra I knew, Paul Browning. Paul used to talk about the drop-off line in the morning being a time when he would not do any meetings – it was a time for him to stand at school, greet his students, and acknowledge or talk with parents. That’s stuck with me - he had choices with his time and he prioritised making time for his students and their parents – ultimately both of whom, in a way, were his employers. That time before school each day was important to Paul, because he was being available, he was being seen to be available, and he was genuine in committing each day to be available to the community which he led and served. Paul talks of and writes about ‘servant leadership’ and of trust. You need to drive yourself to earn it from those you seek to lead, have a vision and then be able to contextualise and communicate what you’re doing and why.
Another leader I admired tremendously when I worked in federal Parliament was a gentleman called Michael Manthorpe, who at the time was a branch head in the department my minister was responsible for. Michael was a classic case in all that is good about the public service, because he was committed to the service of the public for good. His branch admired him, the ministers’ offices he worked with respected him, and he was devoid of arrogance. There was a steely resolve tempered with incredible decency. Here was someone who led by example, quietly, and was achieving. He’s since gone to be a very high-ranked public servant who has been recognised with a Public Service Medal and was recently appointed as Commonwealth Ombudsman. I have reflected at times over the years as I’ve seen Michael on Estimates (once a staffer, always a staffer!) if much of his career success has been in no small part due to his lack of arrogance and his commitment to his people and craft. The boy from Kingaroy, as I recall he was from, has led by example and it’s fantastic to see Michael’s career turn out the way it has – fantastic and totally unsurprising.
The third and probably most profound leader I have seen in action was Julie Bishop, now our Minister for Foreign Affairs – back then she was aged care minister and I was humbled to be offered a role as one of her advisers. Julie personified everything good about action leadership – she had exceptionally high expectations of herself and of her team and demanded only the best. “I don’t know” was not a term to be uttered in Question Time briefing and you had to be across your portfolio area and ready to deliver. She actively sought advisers’ views, listened, made good decisions and ran a high-tempo, backbench-friendly and professional office and it engendered total loyalty by her staff which was reciprocated by her. Julie knew herself extremely well and coming into the ministry she was already a successful and experienced parliamentarian, civic leader and lawyer who knew what needed to be done and she had a vision of how she – and her staff and department – were going to get there. Critically, Julie was compassionate, and the only reason I left the office was because I got quite ill. Among all her competing priorities, she made significant time to ask what I needed from her and she did so because she genuinely cared.
What do Paul, Michael and Julie have in common in their leadership?
Firstly, they knew themselves and how they ticked and were internally constantly reflecting on how to improve. They were self-driven, highly-motivated. They all had good judgement – the ‘x factor’ of making a call based on gut instinct and experience. They had a vision of what needed to be done, how it needed to happen and actively encouraged and supported their people, all of which generated loyalty. Finally, they did not suffer fools, they drove excellence and were all exceptional communicators in explaining the why.
And the proof is there to see – Paul is a leading independent school principal and leadership thinker, Michael led the response to the ABC child care issues and was awarded a PSM for it, and Julie is Deputy Leader of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party.
Victor Perton: Jeremy, what are the qualities that Australians seek from their leaders?
Jeremy Irvine: Head – being able to create a vision that has meaning, explaining the why and making it real
My four-year-old son Gus’s favourite phrase is “why Dad?” – from bath time to explaining the difference between red and green trams (!) – but even at his age, he wants context.
In a leadership sense, from the goldfields, through past Federation and the wars, Australians have demanded to know ‘why’ from their leaders – and then decide for themselves.
‘Yeah Nah’ is not a line from Kath and Kim, it’s a good way of understanding the Banjo Paterson ideal of the Australian ‘no-one is my master’ egalitarian ‘I’ll follow my equal’ spirit.
Australians expect to know what it is they’re being told to do, why, what meaning it has, and for the direction to have been considered and thought-out. Hand – getting stuck in, making decisions and being proactive. Nothing smacks more of poor leadership I think to Australians than passivity.
People respect leaders who actively seek out the B*S and remove it from their organisations (also known as – which I love – the ‘no d*ckheads policy’). That brings with its challenges, but as someone who’s had their share of appalling leaders, I believe that if you want the coin, you need to earn it.
A title is useless without meaning and actively focusing on the people you lead and serve (including your team) and getting on and doing is what people not only seek, but what they deserve to get from you as a leader as a minimum. You need to be active, open, making decisions.
Steve Smith, for example, won’t win a test by standing in the slips, letting the game go and not hatching a plan to have England 5-52 at lunch on day one of a Boxing Day Test. It’s about action, planning, nimbleness. You need to be thinking, taking counsel, leading by example, and encouraging your team. Do.
Heart – genuinely caring about people and not being ‘full of it’ People are too busy, too intelligent to be spun platitudes.
“Leading by example” by its very nature means striving as a leader in your own right to be an exemplar of the behaviours you wish to exhibit and be judged for. With tongue somewhat in cheek (again political observation with relevance to reality): Some day, somewhere, you’ll don a fluoro vest and hard hat and stand behind someone more important than you, smiling, on national TV, while having tie askew and the remnants of lunch in your teeth – and no-one will know who you are, or care. This is the quality of not believing your own B*S – and it’s a must. No-one will remember the media gaggle or you, but they’ll thank you for helping get the local hospital funding.
Why? Because it’s not about you. Really. And the good leaders know it.
Leading people is a responsibility, not a right.
Victor Perton: Jeremy, what are the unique qualities of leadership in Australia and by Australians?
Jeremy Irvine: This is a tough one for me as I’ve worked only in Australia and then for a few years in New Zealand, so my view is framed on my experience.
Top three: You can come from anywhere and be anyone and be the person you want to be. John Curtin, arguably one of our greatest prime ministers, left school at 13, was a reformed alcoholic, went to jail for his beliefs. Curtin had a profound impact as leader during World War 2 and beyond. I’ve stood in the old House of Reps chamber and wondered what it would’ve been like in late 1941, early 1942 as the war in the Pacific directly threatened Australia and what type of person would’ve been needed to have led the country through such incredible national stress and unimaginable real fear. Curtin was it.
John Monash, another example, rose through the ranks from being a reservist officer in World War 1 to command the Australian troops in France. A first-generation Jewish German-Australian too – it’s almost hard to imagine in those times. After the war, he was a civic leader and according to his biographer, “in the 1920s Monash was broadly accepted, not just in Victoria, as the greatest living Australian". The Shrine of Remembrance is a notable example of his energy and drive and it’s fitting that so much of Melbourne (uni, hospital, freeway, school, city) is named in Monash’s honour. His pre-and post-war achievements alone are staggering, let alone the critical role he played in the war itself.
Good Australian leadership is consultative, egalitarian leadership. Former Australian cricket captain Mark Taylor highlights listening as a key leadership trait, acknowledging mistakes and learning from them, but not being bogged down by errors. Taylor was a consultative, considered leader on the field who as an opening batsman literally led the team from the front. In any team, sport, corporate setting or whatever, there are going to be people cleverer than you. Shut up and listen to them and decide and then act. No-one knows everything.
Positivity: Australians have, at their best, an incredible positivity and good Australian leadership empowers it. Acknowledging the real challenges and ordeals of the past that continue today in many parts of our community, we are a nation of rolling our sleeves up and getting on and doing the doing. Good Australian leadership sees each day as an opportunity and to have a go. It confounds me that often we can be so negative, when the opportunity to be positive and look at what could be is self-evident.
Good Australian leadership harnesses the genuine goodwill of people, it’s positive, it puts people first, and it gets on and does.
This article was originally sourced from the Australian Leadership.