A deep acknowledgement to our Sydney Leadership 2015 graduates

17 November 2015 - 12:26pm

I am honoured to be standing here today with the Graduating Sydney Leadership Cohort of 2015.

You are a group of people who are wise, caring, successful, skilled and motivated to do something for yourselves & the world. You were all these things before you met us. And with all those gifts and skills you were willing to tolerate coming into a space of learning for a significant part of your lives. And, as you have learnt, real learning is not easy. A deep acknowledgement to you.

This is a special moment for us in SLA as much as it is for you as graduates.

In working with you we aim to exercise leadership ourselves. For we see leadership as enabling people to understand and solve their own problems – to turn-on their own potential. This is what we aim to achieve with Sydney Leadership. So this is a special moment in that we hold a hope right now that we were useful to you and we have an expectation and the experience that you will move past us - that we were privileged enough to be your teachers for a moment & soon, if not already, you will become ours.

So our hope is that if we are lucky, we will work with you again or as a minimum learn from you. Because everything we know about leadership we have learned from the people who have sat in those chairs in the years before you.

Tonight I would like to focus on something which is I believe everyone's learning edge and an ongoing piece of work. It is an area where none us can act like we have it all sorted out. That is, that age old problem of "people who are not us". Or more specifically - anyone who is not me. Let us perhaps take this line of enquiry as one that begins a new relationship between us.

How do we relate to others? Understand them? Work with them? Have compassion for them? As you have probably worked out this is the core of leadership and also something for which we will never have it all sorted out. It is full of contradictions. Difficult yet joyous. Predictable yet creative.

This is an important area to continue to be curious. Not just because it is hard, but because leadership is inevitably about being useful in the world. And that, like it or not, means finding a more useful relationship with others. A way of understanding, inspiring, pushing and learning with others. 

I need to say I naively hoped to have this all sorted out by now. Have reached some kind of zen state in my forties. Well, that didn’t really happen.

While i can offer you some intellectual constructs to start to think about "the other" - something has to drop from the head to the heart for each of us to make this real.

To help this enquiry, I think we need to look at a more honest motivation for why we want to lead in the first place. In my experience over the years, it is most often to find a way to live a life of meaning and purpose. I am not sure this is possible without finding a way to work with others that is compassionate and authentic: that is not just head but also heart. I would even put it more bluntly - I never met a happy person who didn’t like people: who didn’t see others as crucial to their purpose and fulfillment. 

It’s not selfish to seek a life of purpose and meaning because inevitably you end up having to work to the benefit of others. Purpose, meaning and service go together.

This isn’t so hard when it comes to people we like. But that's not the point of exercising leadership or even living a life of purpose.

Little happens developmentally or in the world when we are cocooned by those who just protect us. We don’t grow and nor do our systems adapt. 

Beyond the people we do like are those who are neutral to us, those who are a bit irritating and then those that are a down right pain. These relationships are our teachers. And the harder they are – the more they offer.

There is a very strong link to power here. It’s not ok to be just kind and let our power go. Nor to abuse our power by steam-rolling people. We need to use our power to somehow be both wise and compassionate. 

Which brings me to the first thing I would like to encourage you to think of: "Despite or because of". If we think about exercising leadership and we think about living a life of purpose and meaning. Is it despite or because of others. I would argue that most often leading, wellness and fulfillment is framed as "despite". "We got this done despite …", "I have found meaning in my life despite…". We can see the whole leadership narrative framed in despite. The other is to be overcome, rather than a crucial part of me and my systems growth and wellbeing.

I would ask you to think about this for your own life – how do I frame my challenges as because of. This is relatively easy when it comes to those we like - our own factions, beliefs and values. What about those which are much more "other"?

This is I think where we need to go beyond our heads. Head stuff you have learnt – heart stuff is more challenging and non-logical.

How do we drop from the head to the heart in a way which isn’t just sentimental, pitying, causes resentment or leaves us open to be used? I would like to offer something from the Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron which is simple but I think elegant,

"How do we make the teachings real?... in the midst of our over scheduled lives, how do we discover our inherent clarity and compassion? The essence of this practice is that when we encounter pain in our life we breathe into our heart with the recognition that others also feel this. When we encounter any pleasure or tenderness in our life, we cherish that and rejoice. Then we make the wish that others could also experience this delight or this relief. In a nutshell, when life is pleasant we think of others. When life is a burden we think of others. This simple way of training with pleasure and pain allows us to use what we have to connect with other people. It engenders on the spot bravery. "

So what does this mean for us. Firstly it means understanding that this is a world learning edge. And that because it is such a sticky problem, that it may require doing something that seems counterintuitive or non-linear.

Pema’s words are useful to me both in the darkest moments to understand the suffering that is shared, as well as the most joyous to remember the potential and hope for humanity.

Secondly, that working with and for others in a different way can be uncomfortable – to quote the great American educator, Parker Palmer it will mean that you "Put your shadows in the light". I have seen this year that you have the power to do this: to be vulnerable for yourself and others progress.

This is perhaps my biggest encouragement to you – that you find a way to integrate incompetence and ignorance with knowledge and success. This is what is being called for and yearned for to be modeled. That is what we need in terms of leadership with purpose and meaning. Don’t be seduced by the call for perfection – it’s a mirage.

I want to congratulate you and acknowledge the work you have done and will do. It is unmistakably an act of love and compassion. I wish you well and hope that you can find a way to bring compassion and leadership together in your practice and remember that leadership like love is always about what we are doing every moment. It’s the journey as they say.

The Sydney Leadership program exists because we believe in people and their potential to make progress on the toughest issues we face in Australia. We believe in the capability of people to realise the power they have to change the world.

I am delighted that all of you, our friends and colleagues, have been able to join us this evening to celebrate the graduation of the 17th Sydney Leadership program participants. It is my privilege to congratulate you all. Tonight you join forces with over 500 great people who have graduated from the Sydney Leadership program since 1999.

It's people like these here tonight who are modeling the courage, compassion and commitment we need, to lead the change we want to see in Australia. Thank you