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Australians demand little but expect a great deal of their leaders

In April, I was interviewed by Joseph Ghaly about Australian leadership for his blog Australian Leadership – celebrating, understanding and improving Australian leadership. The interview is republished here, with Joseph's kind permission.

Joseph: Vivienne, what are the unique qualities and features of Australian leadership?

Vivienne: Australians demand little but expect a great deal of their leaders, which perhaps results in an apparent disappointment in their performance. Leaders are expected to know what to do, to be innately strong and show direction. They should take advice but not be dependent on or subservient to it, they should make good choices.

Our sense of equality is reflected in our desire for leaders to be leaders in their fields of endeavour, but a normal part of the team when they are not working. We expect leaders to be accessible as individuals, for us to be able to run into them at the market or the coffee shop, and for them to greet us as equals. When Australians demonstrate these behaviours, they are seen to be leaders, when they do not, they are seen to be merely aping leadership.

Joseph: What is the finest story of Australian leadership you have experienced, delivered or observed?

Vivienne: Many of the best leaders I have experienced are those who have led more by example than by direction, which is perhaps more common with women than with men.

One of the best leaders I have seen and worked with is Jane Hemstritch. Jane is now a distinguished independent director, but when I first met her, she was a senior manager at the large international accounting firm we both worked for. Jane was appointed as the first female partner of the Australian practice at a time when the number of female partners of Australian firms could have been counted on a few hands. She showed great leadership in the respect she had clearly earned from her fellow partners, the grace with which she stepped into the role and the strength with which she set about making herself one of the most well-respected partners in the business. Her final rise to the head of APAC for Accenture responsible for 30,000 staff surprised no one, but in an era of mostly macho IT leader, the calmness that marked her time at the helm was memorable. Along the road, Jane has never forgotten anyone and even in times of great personal challenge has been resolutely but not Pollyannishly positive. On boards, she is calm but steely and determined. Regardless of the situation, she has always managed to deploy a clear eye and a keen sense of humour.

In the Arts field, leadership is sometimes seen to be antithetical to the creative process, but Lisa Dempster, now CEO of the Melbourne Writers Festival, is a natural. I met Lisa when I was Chair, and we hired her as the part-time General Manager of the Emerging Writers Festival. Lisa showed great leadership of staff, the Board and volunteers simultaneously. She rolled up her sleeves, got everyone enthused and fired up in the right direction. Lisa treats great international stars and volunteers with the same respect and firmness of purpose. Like the best art curators, she is Catholic in her tastes and passionate about art she feels needs exposure, even if it is not to her liking. There was never any drama (rare in the arts), and she is the master of enrolling and enthusing people in the cause.

The third great leader is also a woman in the arts, Amanda Pelman. I met Amanda when she arrived in my staid, sensible private girls’ school like a whirling dervish of noise, enthusiasm and laughter. At an age when few of us knew what we were doing and none where we were going, Amanda resolutely told the Careers Counsellor that she was going to be a rock impresario. This was something few had heard of and none could pronounce, but that is exactly what she did. In the blokey world of rock and roll, Amanda launched Kylie, ran record labels, organised concerts, and created careers. Along the way, she developed and launched Long Way to the Top, all while being a partner, mother and great friend to all who are lucky enough to know her.

Joseph: What were your greatest challenges? What tough challenges do you expect in future, for you, for Australia?

Vivienne: Having role models for combining entrepreneurship and motherhood is something most young women trying to start a business find difficult. Mentors can be found, but it is unlikely they will be doing exactly what you are doing. Women tend to get on and do what they need to without fanfare, which can make good examples hard to find. The web is now awash with internet entrepreneurs ready to sell you their story, but in some ways finding genuine leadership is even more difficult in the noise. In the end, you need to look to a lot of different people from all walks of life, look at everyone you respect and see if they can help you find ways to build a business, earn money, learn, be creative, hold relationships together and stay sane – all at once.

The tough challenges for Australia are that we need to find a model for being good corporate and good global citizens at the same time. Creativity and business, growth and the environment, progress and happiness can all be achieved simultaneously, but that requires leadership. Leadership needs to come from everyone, from the creative industries, business, government and the not for profit sectors as well. Leadership is not something we should delegate to the elected, it is something we should ask them to be the prime, not the solo, exemplars of, so we know how to lead too.

Joseph Ghaly is an Australian education and innovation leader. You can read more of his interviews here.

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