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Notes for Melbourne University Senior Leadership Dinner Forum, 21 May 2012

Appreciate Glyn’s invite to talk about some of experiences that made me the humble and diminished figure you see today…

Certainly humbled at thought of trying to tell any of you, and especially Glyn himself, anything re art of leadership.

Don't think anyone cld poss say of Glyn what one of my predecessors as Pres SRC said of first MU VC I had pleasure to know, Geo Paton. Man of impeccable integrity and lovely charm, but not exactly one of nature’s dynamos: ‘Of all the great & good had opp to meet as a student leader [and in those days one cld] only one from whom one came away from his office feeling he had wasted my time..’…


First thing to say about leadership – not fully apprec by those who aspire until get there – is that while rewards, psychic & owise, can be great -- it’s a very high risk business: summarized in dictum of Francis Bacon –

“He doth like the ape, that the higher he clymbes the more he shows his ars”

My own leadership career - in variety of different institutional settings - certainly had its share of downs as well as ups, and I haven’t been unique in that respect. So much so that reas question to ask why any of us ever submit to the constant tension, criticism, invasion of privacy and often outright humiliation that often, especially in political life but in many other contexts as well, come with that territory.

I suspect that it’s because those of us who aspire to leadership of anything have a missing sensitivity gene of one kind or another -- and that for those who go so far as to not only aspire to, but actually achieve, the leadership of their country, or a major intergovernmental organization like the UN, the omission is of seriously clinical significance: involving a level of insensitivity to what people think and say about you that most normal mortals would regard, rightly, as pathological…

But maybe that just another way of saying what you need to get to leadership position in any major institution is an abnormal degree of self-confidence/self-belief – that defies normal human inhibitions.

That said, while this kind of self-confidence a key factor in getting to lship, don't think for a moment it’s enough to keep you there, or make you effective and successful in the role. For that I think other factors considerably more important…


The various leadership positions I have held over the decades not partic exalted, but I guess close enough to the action to have been able to form some judgements about what makes for effective – and sustainable - leadership of organisations ranging from universities to global NGOs to governments.

Briefly summarise the leadership experience have had:

  • Begins and ends w Univs – President of SRC for two years in heady 60s 1964-66 to now Chancellor of ANU (tho cheerfully ack, as VCs club wld want me to, that this more symbolic than substantive
  • Incl 13 years, from 1983-96, heading 4 depts of state – AGs, Resources & Energy, Transport & Coms, Foreign Affair (altho two kinds of Mins – those who take charge of their depts , and those whose depts take charge of them - don't think , for better or worse, anyone in much doubt about which side of line I was on)
  • Took diff political form in years 93-96 when Leader of Govt in Senate - when very much in minority, and every piece of leg had to be negotiated (dealing w Greens - closer to nervous breakdown than ever in life)
  • Diff form again as Pres & CEO of International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention and resolution analysis and advocacy NGO, which grew from a 20 person, $2m a year org w small presence in Balkans and Central Africa, to one with a staff of over 130, a budget going on for $17 m, and a genuinely worldwide presence, during the nearly 10 years I led it from 2000 to 2009

I think I’ve learned from this body of experience is that it what takes to be - or at least be seen to be – an effective leader is five things: five qualities that you need to have, or at least persuade others to think you have (As Groucho Marx once said – and it could equally well have been Tony Blair: ‘ The secret of success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’)

-- Clear Sense of Direction, Judgement, Integrity, Work Ethic, Empathy

Certainly don’t pretend for a moment to be paragon of all these virtues, but let me spell out what I mean by each of them, giving some examples of their presence and absence from my own career – and watching others at close quarters


(1) Clear Sense of Direction

o Of Labor leaders I’ve known - Whitlam/Hawke/Keating/Rudd (little more erratically)

  • govt not just about being there
  • cf. KB
  • & I fear J G

o For me, most successful stints in this resect

  • as FM – ‘mind that craves structures’ –national interests/middle power/Asia
  • Crisis Group – clarity of conflict mission – resisted diversion to hr/ thematic etc

(2) Judgement

Of course, what direction as imp as having a direction – that’s where judgment comes in:

o My career littered w some fairly spectac errors of jment - incl right at beginning of first real l’ship posit – pres of Melb SRC – [story > gave his first ever management job to John Elliott]

  • AG’s - direc clear, but wrong one – wanted implement Whitlam agenda, but party/country didn't
  • one spectac specific misjudgment attrib to me – spy fligts – recast story and say error was trusting Defence (also believing press/public wld apprec self-depre humour – learned secret of success to be dead bore – tried to persuade Carr of that…]
  • proof that you don't nec learn thru exp – second worst error of jment in min career right at other end – all my own work – French nuclear tests – ‘cld have been worse'

(3) Integrity

  • Not just staying within the law, but not playing fast and loose with the truth
  • Also not playing favorites – scrupulously fair in treatment of people

Can think of plenty of examples – which won’t spell out – in various institute settings - of all these kinds of behavior, & it’s always (eventually) caught up with people

In past used to be able to separate to significant extent professional from personal integrity - personal misbehavior (and there was plenty of it…afraid not immune from MofU syndrome) stayed personal, but for better or worse (and it’s not an easy judgement to make as to what is genuinely in the wider public or institutional interest to reveal, and what’s merely salacious invasion of a legitimate zone of privacy) that’s no longer the case

(4) Work Ethic

Willingness to put in yourself hours/effort expect and demand of others

Maybe not crucial if compensate by other qualities

  • eg Eisenhower – famously spent more time on golf course than Oval Office – but as recent bios re-evaluating – got nearly all the big calls right re war and peace
  • cf GW Bush - both lazy and lousy judgement

Crazily long work hours can also be minus if lose judgement w sheer fatigue – my advice to KR (based on retro eval of my own career) get more sleep: pity didn't take

I erred a bit on side of mania throughout min career – stood in good stead eg re Cambodia exercise, worked day and night for a week w team re Red Book

But gen made more strung out and cantankerous than should have been case: staff will live w that if have sufficient respect for what trying to do, basic judgement and commitment --- but shouldn’t make it hard for them

(5) Empathy

Capacity to understand how others see issues/ likely to react

  • Secret of effective diplomacy (though often misunderstood – understand/engage doesn't mean endorse) and negotiation, include with minor parties when minority government or minority in Senate as when I was leader
  • JG particularly strong on these transactional skills – does understand what others want/ how see world/issues …crucial if to be able to accommodate
  • This assumes though that others do have consistent and rational view point which it’s possible to identify – my trouble w Greens in senate in my day (Chamarette and Margetts) in negotiating Mabo etc was that had deeply weird view of world – like Lewis Carroll’s White Queen who said she sometimes ‘believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast’ - and all of them inconsistent w each other (rather influenced my view of Greens ever since..)
  • Suspect lack of empathy at heart of some kinds of leadership dysfunction which have been in Aust news in recent months – ie. Chaotic management style, inability to prioritise, setting impossible deadlines then ignoring product > often function of simple inability to put yourself in staff/bureaucracy’s shoes: some truth in arg that KR ‘all IQ no EQ’

'Communication skill'?

What haven’t said anything directly about so far is persuasive communication skills. Used to say at Crisis Group that what we were about was ‘getting people to think about they didn't want to think about, and do things they didn't want to do' - and maybe that’s as good a quick description of what leadership is about as any other.

Maybe this a distinct 6th criterion – but am little inclined to think of this as essentially subset of empathy:

silver tongue less imp than instinctively understanding kind of thing needs to be said to particular audience – how you say it less imp than what you say : Martin Ferguson at AII Dinner last week]

Worst failures of communication when utterly fail to take into account how a particular audience likely to react – say what want to say w/o any regard to nature of occasion/other’s expectations

Some of most spectacular failures also from KR, though capable of great brilliance as communicator (Shangri la Dialogue; Aust Day speech nadir – productivity for 25 mins)


Not sure that’s an exhaustive list even just of the main factors that make for effective leadership.

At least on a larger national or international stage, most would probably want to add something that capturing an element of ‘charisma’

It’s certainly something you recognize when you see it:

  • in the UN, Kofi Annan had it, Ban Ki Moon (tho decent, v principled man) doesn't
  • in EU, Chris Patten had it, Javier Solana didn't , Catherine Ashton doesn’t
  • among US Secs of State I’ve known close up, Jim Baker and Colin Powell had it, Warren Christopher (walnut on stick – though better than Schwarzenegger – condom full of walnuts) didn't – ‘wouldn’t have happened had Warren Christopher been alive’
  • Whitlam, Hawke, Keating among others had it in spades – others haven’t ----- but those others would certainly incl John Howard, by any measure a very successful leader, so maybe at end of day not as important as other factors

Certainly haven’t said enough on any of this to conclude the debate as to what matters most – certainly in a university institutional setting – but perhaps have said enough to get our conversation started.