Keys to leadership success: Optimism, resilience and a willingness to look in the mirror


Complex, sophisticated and diverse societies, like ours in 2016, have always been difficult to lead. There have always been challenging issues and we’ve always looked for the very best in our men and women to provide leadership. Just because things are difficult now does not mean we are any better or worse than we were in the past.

Maybe, though, we should recognise that we do have to stand up. Real leadership is found right throughout our community. It’s not just on the hill in Parliament House.

Why does leadership matter?

We have long been a high-wage, high-living standard country, and we have come to expect higher standards of living for ourselves and our children. Thankfully more and more of the world’s citizens are getting real opportunity to realise their potential, regardless of the country where they were born, their ethnic group or their family circumstance. So we have to recognise that we live in an increasingly competitive world.

You would expect the chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry to start talking at this point about workplace flexibility.

Yes, that’s important, but if we are going to deliver greater productivity in Australian organisations, be they for-profit or not-for-profit, we also need to have the highest possible standard of management and leadership. As someone who has come out of the resources industry, and has seen projects overrun in terms of time and budget to the tune of billions of dollars, I recognise that there is opportunity not just for improvement in productivity on the shop floor and at the front counter, but also in head office. That means improvement in management and leadership.

My experience is that Australians overseas have a reputation for being hardworking, curious, and adaptable, and also that we have a reputation for speaking truth to power. Australians as leaders fit in very well in different organisational cultures because we tend not to come along with the innate sense of superiority that can characterise leaders from some other cultures. The best Australian leaders I’ve worked for have met those criteria. They’ve had a sense of humour. They’ve been expansive in their vision. They’ve been egalitarian. I think that reflects aspects of our national character that we want to hold onto and rightfully have pride in.

On the deficit side of the ledger, I’ve seen some Australian leaders at critical moments lack a sense of self-belief. You need to have that sense of self-belief, particularly if you are to prevail in a critical situation. Now and again, it does help to have some sense of manifest destiny. Self-confidence is absolutely critical. When everything is going to hell in a handbasket, your team will look to you. It’s moments like that when you realise how much responsibility is attached to your authority, whether you’re running a country or you’re running a company. That’s when you get to realise the privilege of leadership.

What do Australians look for from their leadership?

I think we look for people who aren’t going to tell us what to do. They’re going to tell us what needs to be done, they’re going to give us a very clear idea of why it needs to be done, and they’re going to help us to understand what we need to do in order to achieve that end. I have found that Australian leaders who fulfil that desire among team members are much more likely be successful.

I was asked by Victor Perton, who runs an Australian leadership blog, to reflect on the most inspirational story of Australian leadership that has had an impact on me. I love sailing. I was inspired by the winning of the America’s Cup in 1983 by Australia II, skippered by John Bertrand. It ended the world’s longest winning streak in any sport.

Bertrand realised that his team had to sail at a standard beyond that ever achieved by any other sailing crew in match racing, one boat against one other. Given the Americans were the best in this competition and had never been beaten, the Australian crew had to work out a way to become ahead of their time, ahead of the standard of the day. To me, that was an incredibly inspirational and empowering goal. You start to realise that not only are you trying to win a sporting contest, you are actually creating the future.

There is a saying that those who want to predict the future should invent it. That’s exactly what Bertrand and his crew did off Rhode Island in 1983. When did it happen? It happened when they were 3-1 down in a best-of-seven series. They had reached the critical moment. For their organisation, for their endeavour, this was the critical moment. When they sailed out for that fifth race, there were only two outcomes. They were either going to come back losers, or they were going to come back able to sail another day. They did that three times in a row.

Those critical moments are when all the things you’ve learned, all of the things you’ve been trained in, all of the responsibility that sits on your shoulders as a manager or a leader, come to the fore. That’s when you truly realise what a privilege it is to be in a leadership position.

Where should Australian leadership be heading?

I believe that unless you are optimistic and are resilient enough to recover from setbacks and demonstrate that you can shake it off, recover, and continue forward, you will struggle to be an effective leader under pressure.

Self-awareness is fundamental. Modern leadership language talks a lot about authenticity. Personally, I’ve found that a rather difficult concept to define. I prefer to think about self-awareness.

Every one of us has biases and preferences when we come to a particular decision, a particular situation or dealing with a particular person. We tend to spend more time with the people who are like us, or who like us and we like, than with those who tend to be more difficult to deal with, maybe because they tell us stuff that we don’t particularly want to hear.

A wise person said to me recently that those are the very people you need to spend most time with, because they’re the people who will challenge you. Let’s not pretend that that’s not unpleasant. Let’s not pretend that that’s not difficult for us. Let’s not pretend that we’re some kind of super-manager or super-leader who just doesn’t mind about that stuff and can deal with anyone at any time regardless of what they say or feel.

The fact is that we do have particular feelings. We need to be in touch with how we feel and what we’re thinking when we approach conversations with people we find difficult to deal with. Then we can start to examine why we feel that way. What is it about our own perspective, our own biases, our own personal history, that makes us feel that way? By getting in touch with how we’re truly feeling and what we’re actually honestly thinking about that conversation, that interaction, that decision, I think we’re much more likely to keep evolving, getting more effective and therefore more useful to our teams as leaders.

That kind of introspection is not talked about as much as it should be when we talk about how to become effective leaders.

In my last leadership role at Shell Australia, we used the trust equation. Shell is an engineering company. At the end of the day, Shell people are never happier than when they can reduce something, even an element of something as complicated as leadership, to an algorithm or a formula or an equation.

Shell taught me a trust equation, and it goes like this. Trust equals credibility (what we say), plus reliability (we do what we say), plus intimacy (what we feel, and how we communicate that). You add credibility, reliability, and intimacy together, and you can generate trust with other people. I think trust is one of the hallmarks of good leadership.

There’s another factor, and that is self-orientation. What are your motives? Why are you really doing it? It’s not subtracted from credibility plus reliability plus intimacy. Those things are actually divided by self-orientation, because it is a powerful negative force.

Let’s think of an example. People might sound good, they might do what they say they’re going to do, and they might give you the impression of being honest with you. But if you work out that they are only in it for themselves, you will start not to trust them and will become wary of them.

My point is that whatever leadership position we’re privileged to occupy, we must understand why we’re doing it, what motivates us. Are we in the company to drive the bottom line, to deliver more value for our shareholders? Are we in government to develop and deliver great policy, to make the country a better place to live? Or are we all about satisfying ourselves, and these other outcomes are incidental by-products? What exactly motivates us? I think until we can understand that, and that requires self-awareness, we’re much less likely to win sustainable trust.

A challenge for Australian leaders is not the brilliant flash of leadership – the great decision in a moment, including in a crisis – but the sustainable quality of leadership at a very high level. Maybe that’s one reason we’ve had so many prime ministers in such a short period. Sustainability is an overused word nowadays, but when it comes to leadership quality, it’s about doing it again and again and again, in the crises and in the day-to-day.

The other thing that will help us get self-awareness is unsolicited feedback. It’s sometimes in the form of that wonderful thing known as 360-degree feedback. Don’t you love it when people say that they’re going to give you constructive feedback?

That offers a moment when you can quickly and easily get in touch with how you really feel. It is important to capture that feeling, to think about it. Not to become obsessive and negative, but to actually understand that the gift of feedback can help you become more self-aware. People wouldn’t bother organising 360-degree feedback and wouldn’t bother giving you honest feedback unless they really cared about the outcome. The fact that people are prepared to give you honest feedback is because they care to see you succeed.

That’s why we call it the gift of feedback. It’s another reason we should always treasure the fact that other people – our bosses, our peers or our team members – have given to us the honour, privilege and opportunity of being a leader. It’s something that’s very precious. It is absolutely essential to take our nation forward.

James Pearson delivered an adapted version of this article to the AIM Australian Leadership Excellence Awards 2016 in Canberra on September 20.


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