The following is an edited version of an address Gordon gave at the Australian Medical Students’ Association National Leadership Development Seminar in May 2014
As I begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional Owners of the Land:
the Ngunnawal and Ngembri people
especially their elders who have provided leadership
for this land and its peoples since time immemorial
Once lunch time, back in 1977 at a high school in Sydney
two young boys were walking across the school grounds towards the cricket fields.
As they got near one of the school buildings,
one of the boys said that he wasn’t going out to play cricket
but was heading into the school’s Drama Group.
The second boy was stunned –
it was a fine Sydney day, and there was cricket to be played
“Why would you want to go to a drama group?” he asked.
The first boy shrugged
“I like drama – I like acting. I’m going to be an actor.”
The second boy was still a bit perplexed.
“There’s no future in acting,” he said.
The first boy smiled, flicked the second boy’s shoulder and walked off.
I am the second boy in that story.
You may have come across the first boy at some stage or other.
His name is Russell Crowe
So you might like to prepare yourself to receive some reflections and maybe even advice
from the man who told Russell Crowe that there is no future in acting.
These days, I am based in Canberra and have been for the past 17 years
with a great family – my wife, Lyndelle, and 2 children (21 & 17)
in a community called Kippax – out on the western edges of the ACT.
I apologise in advance that my connection to Medical students is tenuous.
My wife is a designer. My son is an Engineering IT student
My daughter is in year 12 and in all likelihood will end up in the Humanities
Though at least my father was a pharmacist,
and my sister works in haematology.
For a while in my life I was a lawyer with one of the big corporate legal firms
and these days I am a Uniting Church minister,
and work heavily in the UnitingCare network – the UCA’s community services expression.
UnitingCare happens to be Australia’s largest NGO provider of community services
and directly affects the life of 1 in 8 Australians every year.
My role is advocacy, and organisational leadership,
primarily in areas that have an impact on people who are doing life pretty tough.
I’ve had the honour of working with the ACT’s Community Inclusion Board
and chairing the Targeted Assistance Strategy to help shape Government policy and action
I also chair the Board of UnitingCare NSW ACT these days
as we are focusing the work of an $800m pa organisation to help maximise its impact
UnitingCare NSW ACT is the largest provider of Aged Care services in NSW
And it has a range of other services –
including the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre in Kings Cross.
One of my current areas of leadership is to establish a new Governance Structure
re-establish positive relationships with other parts of the Uniting Church
and to discern where it is that as a faith-based community services organisation
we can head over the next few years,
in the midst of major de-regulation and re-consideration of funding
for health and community services
so that people who are some of society’s most vulnerable
have the chance to live a decent life.
But in all that I am pretty sure that none of you would have heard of me before today
(though you probably know of my chef name-sake)
And many of you wouldn’t be very aware of the work of UnitingCare.
That might in itself get you thinking about the nature of leadership.
What is the difference between leadership and being well known?
These few days are a great initiative – the NLDS is a great event
and it has the capacity to shape the future in a way
that you may not truly appreciate for years – maybe decades – to come.
Each of the speakers, each of the panel discussions,
each of the conversations around meals
will bring you something slightly different.
And you will need to sift and to work out what it is
that you take home with you as valuable
and what is as helpful as my advice to Russell Crowe all those years ago
But let me start with a bottom line about what it means to be a leader.
You may have seen this clip before – it’s from 2010, which makes it ancient.
It’s called the Dancing Guy.
The bottom line for leadership is that a leader is someone that others follow.
A leader is a descriptive term, not a prescriptive term.
In fact I wonder a little if the theme for these days might put the cart before the horse
“How to be a leader in a profession of leaders”
I’d encourage you to consider at times whether you are a profession of leades
or a profession of people who are intelligent, capable and relatively privileged.
It’s worth remembering
that if there is no one that is following, then you may just be a lone nut
or as John C Maxwell puts it,
If you think you’re a leader and no one is following you, then you’re just going for a walk
And the flip side is just as important –
It is extremely important for a good leader to know when to follow, rather than to lead.
Leadership is inherently relational – and for that matter so is life.
Oscar Wilde – source of a great many of the world’s wonderful quotes –
offered the wisdom that you should “surround yourself with those you wish to become”
Who are the people who surround yourself with.
If you became more like them over the next 5, 10 or more years,
would you be becoming the sort of person you want to be?
Who do you benchmark yourself against?
Who are the people that inspire you?
Equally important, who are your crap detectors?
Who are those who point out to you that you’re having yourself on?
I’d like you to allow me to get a bit cheesy at the moment
and give you an illustration of my mother.
Her name was Roberta (Bobbie) Thomson –
and unless you have moved in pretty specific circles, you wont have heard of her either.
Mum was a brilliant economist.
She had a pretty traumatic childhood in Qld
and ended up in Sydney living with extended family
for her secondary and tertiary education.
Because of that she had to work a full time job and do her economics degree at night.
She was the first ever night student at Sydney Uni
to obtain First class honours in Economics
She then went from there to work for the Reserve Bank as an economic statistician
She had a pretty significant career trajectory going on there
but given that it was the 1950s the social and professional barriers
were even higher than now.
When she got to a point of potential promotion one of the barriers that was there
was that females could only get promoted past a particular level at the Bank
if they could type at a certain speed.
It didn’t matter that mum’s position didn’t require her to type:
she was by that stage already one of the leading statisticians
in the development of economic policy.
None of her male colleagues at level had to be able to type, but females did
Different models of leadership operate in different ways in circumstances like this.
Mum’s way was to choose to develop yet another skillset.
She taught herself to type, added the skillset
(that became much appreciated by her family in later years)
got the promotion and kept working.
Her actions provided the demonstration of the absurdity of the policy
The bank abandoned that requirement quite soon afterwards as it recognised its stupidity
Leaders find a way around, through or over the barriers that are there
and in one way or another help those barriers break down
and create a path for those who are following.
I have found that an important thing to remember
is the distinction between a leadership role and a leader.
A leader is someone that others follow.
A leadership role is a position of structural authority in relation to others.
A leader may be in a leadership role.
And a leadership role may be filled by a leader.
But they may not
In fact in my experiences – particularly often in a church-based setting
where people can be very keen to ‘encourage’ young people to exercise their skills –
I have seen too many occasions when people have been moved into leadership roles
too early in the maturing, or when they haven’t had the capacity to deliver in those roles.
Sometimes we are best to enable and encourage people to exercise leadership
without the additional burden of a leadership role.
And sometimes the wisest part of being a leader
is to know whether to step into a leadership role or not.
So if we are keeping in mind that being a leader –
and hopefully being an excellent leader –
is more about the person than about the role,
What do I think helps define a good leader?
I would says that a good leader has a story that is bigger than themselves.
In fact a good leader, an ethical leader, realises that it is not actually about themselves
Leaders need to have a meta-narrative, a bigger-story.
It even sounds simplistic at times,
but a leader is heading somewhere and taking others along.
The bigger story, the meta-narrative, is both where you are heading and why.
My particular heritage, my framework, is pretty well expressed in the UCA
and when it tried to describe its where and why story a few years back,
it put it this way
We affirm our eagerness to uphold basic Christian values and principles,
such as the importance of every human being, and the welfare of the whole human race
We pledge ourselves to seek the correction of injustices wherever they occur.
We will work for the eradication of poverty and racism within our society and beyond.
We affirm the rights of all people to equal educational opportunities,
adequate health care, freedom of speech,
employment or dignity in unemployment if work is not available.
We will oppose all forms of discrimination which infringe basic rights and freedoms.
We will challenge values which emphasise acquisitiveness
and greed in disregard of the needs of others
and which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged
in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor.
We are concerned with the basic human rights of future generations
and will urge the wise use of energy, the protection of the environment
and the replenishment of the earth’s resources for their use and enjoyment
That’s part of my Bigger story”
The bigger story is what makes you want to get out of bed in the morning
It’s what at its core, motivates you to stay up late
and do all of the things that you will do as a leader
Without a bigger story – and a consciousness of what it is –
our leadership becomes empty and self-focussed.
So it was the bigger story
that lay at the heart of my role with the Targeted Assistance Strategy.
I will challenge values which encourage a higher standard of living for the privileged
in the face of the daily widening gap between the rich and poor.
And it has really simple implications.
The ACT Government had a policy that said, in many circumstances,
if you had outstanding traffic fines then your drivers licence was suspended
And it also had a policy that in the vast majority of cases,
the only way you could pay the traffic fines was in one lump sum,
and it had to be in money – cash, credit card etc
But when you start overlaying the reality of life for people on low incomes,
and their capacity to pay in single sums at a particular time
and you considered the implications for many vulnerable households
if the opportunity to drive is removed,
then the reality of the policy was that it was hitting the most vulnerable people
harder than anyone else in the ACT community.
And for a Human-Rights dedicated Government, it was an anomaly – and a bad one.
So – the TAS recommended that fines could be paid off by instalment
and in many cases done by community service hours.
And that recommendation is now ACT law.
Parking fines is not a sexy topic. But simple changes can make big differences.
And it comes from a particular ‘bigger story’.
Know your bigger story if you want to be a leader
Leaders will learn – all the time. All the time.
Good leaders are reflective people.
Good leaders take time out to consider what it is that they have to learn.
And for people who are serious about developing as leaders,
I’d suggest that this isn’t just informal ways
as you surround yourself with people you wish to become,
but in deliberate, formal and structured reflective ways
Find someone you trust and respect as a leader
someone that you think of as a wise person (not just a clever person)
and work with them in a specific leadership-development role.
I have someone that I have known for about 20 years
with whom I meet regularly
just to help me consider what is going on with me in leadership.
Remember with leadership,
because it is about relationships and influence, and people following,
when you hit the bottom line all you have in the end is your integrity.
With your reputation and integrity, you are likely only to get one shot.
There are stories all over the place which demonstrate what happens
when a leader lets their reputation, their integrity go.
You may be able to hold on to a leadership position,
but your place as a leader is probably gone for good.
Leaders are leaders 24/7.
We don’t get to be leaders in the morning and not a leader in the afternoon
We take time off from our roles, but not from who we are.
And if you do something that takes away your reputation as a leader
and means that people aren’t going to follow you
then you are going to end up as a lone nut.
And in fact a good leader is aware of this all the time.
And leadership integrity has to mean a willingness to make decisions that cost.
Let me tell you a couple of great Canberra-based integrity stories
In 2008 in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics,
the ACT Australian of the Year Lin Hatfield Dodds
was chosen as one of the runners to be part of the Olympic Torch relay.
At the same time, in the lead up to the Olympics,
the Chinese government made a major crackdown on democracy in Tibet.
Lin’s “bigger story” is about human rights and the dignity of all people.
Lin was also in her younger days an excellent athlete
and she knew the impact of the torch relay and the excitement about being part of it.
I am aware on very good authority that she had been doing training for some time .
But for Lin, leadership integrity came first,
and she withdrew from being part of the relay.
Lin said at the time
I have made the decision not to run because my personal commitment
to standing with those who are vulnerable and marginalised
and the leadership positions I hold in the Uniting Church and ACOSS
make it important to ensure that my actions
do not leave any doubt about our commitment to human rights.
David and Emma Pocock are (these days) a Canberra based couple.
David is a world renowned Rugby player. Emma works in international rights and justice
David has a foundation for alleviating poverty in his home country of Zimbabwe
They are also people of an active faith background.
And they are people who are not only deeply in love,
but strongly deeply committed to not marrying – at least not yet.
David and Emma are active advocates of marriage equality in Australia
and have chosen not to marry until their same-sex couple friends
have the legal right to marry in Australia.
I was at the function in Canberra last year with David and Emma
at the celebration of the passing of the legislation that (briefly) enabled same sex marriage.
But David and Emma are still waiting because those rights aren’t there nation wide
They will continue to advocate,
and in the mean time the decisions about their personal lives are kept in sync.
They will not be part of a marriage framework that they see as exclusive and hurtful.
Integrity in leadership guides our personal decisions as well
And finally, good ethical leaders know the power of hope and hopefulness.
Good leaders never give up.
In all good leaders, there is a little bit of Dory as we live out our own Finding Nemo:
just keep swimming, keep on swimming
You may have seen recently there is an increasing number of daggy, unlikely leaders
seeking to bring others – in fact a nation – along to a new point
in the area of the treatment of asylum seekers
and in particular children who are being kept in detention
They are people of a wide range of Christian backgrounds
who are gathering in parliamentary and electoral offices –
so far the Minister for Immigration, the Foreign Minister, the Prime Minister
and the leader of the Opposition –
and when they get there the unlikely group
of nuns, priests, ministers, church workers and church members – stop and pray.
And they commit to stay there and pray until there is bipartisan support
To release the 1183 children who are currently in detention as asylum seekers .
This group – the growing group that goes by the name “Love Makes A Way” –
has a strong sense that compassion will come through
They are firm in their belief that we will not remain a nation that locks up children
who are seeking to escape persecution and live a decent life.
And in their hopefulness this group is committed to keep going
on and on and on and on.
They are leaders – others are following.
As I draw this to a close, I want to remind us
that good leadership is deeply and profoundly moving.
In one of the UnitingCare Ageing facilities recently
we have seen the power of good, sensitive and compassionate leadership.
In the caring for people in the latter years of their lives
there is often a focus on minimising or reducing risk.
One of our leaders saw the way that this was impacting on people’s opportunity to live.
Let me show you a brief clip of what happened
when good, ethical, compassionate leadership found a way:
As leaders – know your bigger story,
find the why, listen for where it is going
and inspire, encourage and bring others with you to make the why a reality
As Margaret Mead famously said
“People say to me that the actions of a few won’t change the world.
I tell you, it’s the only thing that ever has”.