Notes on Leadership

I thought it sensible to throw together some brief notes on leadership for two reasons.

First, because of the Australian federal election, leadership is clearly in the public spotlight.

But second, and for more long-term reasons, leadership is a trait that will never go out of fashion. We will always need more leadership, as many people lament, and more genuine leaders.

All shapes and sizes

The first thing I learnt about effective leaders is that they come in all shapes and sizes.

By the time I hit 30 I had worked for the Australian aid program in Fiji, the UN in Papua New Guinea, helped deliver a G20 Summit, won a national water polo championship and served as a senior policy adviser at all tiers of government.

I’d even ran as a local political candidate for an inner-city Brisbane seat with 28,000 voters.

In all of these arenas it has become clear to me that leaders do not all look, talk or act the same.

Some are stern and authoritative, while others are more quiet and calm. Some like to dive into the detail, and cover all matters big and small, while others prefer to stay hands off. Some, at six foot four with a booming voice, are physically intimidating while others, at five foot two and quiet as a mouse, can be much less imposing.

But what joins them together is a capacity to be effective and, as cliché as it sounds, ‘get outcomes’.

Effective leaders have found their authentic style and owned it. Trying to run a team and being someone you’re not will quickly wear thin if it’s not connected to who you are.

Deliver guidance

Leaders can find you a way out of trouble.

I can recall being totally stumped, and worried, as a young policy adviser when I didn’t know where a brief needed to go, how I should write it, or who I needed to show it to.

I was governed by a similar anxiety being three goals down in a tough water polo match.

But a solid leader could, very calmly and simply, give you a course of action.

There is also much to be said about being accessible to the people you’re responsible for.

I’ve been in a lot of situations where the person in charge wasn’t available. It put so much pressure not only on me but our team and, inevitably, could’ve led to a much better outcome.

Ironically, absent leadership has helped refine my approach and forced me to build skills, learn from mistakes and invert – which means doing what not to do.

But even when unavailable, decent leaders put plans in place to mitigate their (planned or unplanned) absence.

Gear up, gear down

Many leaders have the capacity to change gears when they need to.

This doesn’t mean being duplicitous or someone they’re not.

But they know when it’s time to dive into detail and when to lay back or, in the words of Indigenous Australian Noel Pearson, to “dream by night, and walk by day”.[1]

I can’t think of anything other than raw experience that has helped them get to this decisive position.

“Good judgment comes from experience,” says the American statesman Colin Powell, “and experience comes from bad judgment.”[2]

Changing gears also means knowing when you’re not working to give yourself a break and recharge.

Know and develop people

I was once placed in a division of a large government department that I was not doing well in.

I tried to learn as much as I could but it was clearly not for me.

After a career catch-up with the division head – responsible for about 50-60 people – he very quickly found this out by asking about my skills, background and experience.

With the quick tap of a keyboard he’d placed me into an area where my skills would be put to better use. I was sceptical but it turned out to be a mini-master stroke.

My personal satisfaction increased, I worked smarter and harder, and I felt I wasn’t drowning.

It was a great example of being able to ‘know your people’ and appropriately align them with the tasks they can be most effective at.

Inspire people

Leaders mean something to people.

While many would agree with this point it’s actually worth considering what it can mean, especially in the political context.

The late premier of Queensland Joh Bjelke-Peterson, for example, was almost like the Trump of his day – many simply could not fathom how he could be elected, let alone popular.

But ultimately he inspired people, according to biographer Hugh Lunn, as “a winner in a state with the people often feel they are losing out.”[3]

“Not well educated in the full sense,” wrote Lunn in the late 1970s, “he runs a state where people leave school earlier than anywhere else in Australia and where fewer places are available at university.”

Like most things – by understanding the context it’s easy to see the appeal.

Bjelke-Peterson was not everyone’s cup of tea but he became one of the most successful politicians in Australian history. Others not of his political persuasion can find their examples in other leaders, such as former American President Barack Obama, who clearly inspired many people as a public figure.

The lonely road

As a busy political candidate, I was often around people. But I remember the last piece of pre-election advice from Graham Quirk – the recently retired Lord Mayor of Brisbane – who said that being out there, on the streets campaigning, could be a lonely journey. It’s a small snippet, among a legion of other bits of insight, that I’ll never forget.

But, ultimately, what this journey of solitude means is that the buck does stop with you. It means, in the words of writer William Deresiewicz, “you are the one that has to make the hard decisions. And at such moments, all you really have is yourself.”[4]


[1] Noel Pearson, ‘Nights When I Dream Of A Better World: Moving from the centre left to the radical centre of Australian politics’, 2010 John Button Oration,

[2] Colin Powell, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, HarperCollins Publishers, 2012, Kindle Version.

[3] Hugh Lunn, Joh: The life and political adventures of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland, 1978, xvi.

[4] William Deresiewicz, ‘Solitude and Leadership’, The American Scholar, 1 March 2010,

Image Source: Nick Haggarty/ABC News

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