The Way Forward - a speech by Sydney Leadership 2013

Posted by Brenna Hobson
12th November 2013

The Way Forward - a speech by Sydney Leadership 2013

Spoken and published by Brenna Hobson on behalf of the Sydney Leadership 2013 graduates at the Sydney Leadership 2013 graduation ceremony

View the 2013 Sydney Graduate Directory Here

I’d like to acknowledge Gadigal People of the Eora nation, the custodians of the land on which we meet today.

I’d also like to thank everyone at Social Leadership Australia for what has been a big, inspiring, difficult eight months. Terri, Lauren, Lisa, Geoff, Julie, Diana, and Liz particular.

This speech has been largely crowd sourced so anything that you like probably came from someone else and I thank them, anything you don’t I take full responsibility for.  

So I’ve been asked to synthesise the thoughts of 25 pretty diverse people on exercising leadership, representing the values of Sydney Leadership 2013 and also providing a leadership intervention, with the words of the great American orators as inspiration, all in ten minutes. No worries mate, piece of cake.

slgradopenretreat.jpgIn all seriousness though I think the greatest thing that we have learnt from this program is the interconnectedness of any leadership project, to peers, to collaborators, to those being led and to those who went before and inspire us. So it felt fitting to be looking at speeches from the likes of John F Kennedy and Barak Obama in the lead up to our closing retreat. The fact that Martin Luther King’s great “I have a dream speech” turned fifty in the week of that retreat also didn’t escape us. Great American oratory is inspiring and reminds us of many things, how important vision is, the fact that any large piece of social change may take time (and that you may not be around to see the result), The power of words and ideas to both inspire and threaten; confront and challenge. And hopefully, but this is the hard bit, to take you from inspiration to action.

Here in Australia we have a less stellar history of public oration. We’re suspicious of high falutin’ ideas and the sentiment and length with which they are expressed. One of our most famous speeches, Chifley’s Light on the Hill, runs for a mere 550 words. Australian leaders are generally better known for the creative insult rather than soaring oratory. They can be powerful speakers but often their verbal dexterity runs to comparisons of their rivals to wet lettuce or a feral abacus rather than the overt attempt to inspire that we see from American leaders. The Light on the Hill speech is not a call to arms in the way that Martin Luther King’s is. Rather it talks about the coincidence of being thrust into a leadership role, the fallibility of leaders, and the importance of incremental change to ordinary people; faith that their leaders will shield them when times are tough, and the responsibility to do just that if you are lucky enough to be in a powerful position.

And I suppose that feels closer to who we, as a group, are. Flawed, uncertain, striving, falling over, getting up again, laughing, crying. It feels more fitting to the Australian psyche to acknowledge these necessary aspects of leaders and their task.

But if we were and are flawed yet striving, to what end, what was our purpose?  I will never forget the words of one of our number when describing what inspired her to her vocation. Val was a sick child, who spent time in hospital. One night when the almost four year old had wet the bed the nurse on duty took her doll away from her saying that naughty children didn’t get to have special things. Even at such a young age she bridled at the injustice and swore to herself that she would grow up to become a nurse so that this sort of thing wouldn’t happen to other children. Val now holds a senior nursing research role within healthcare and has been able to make the experience of countless sick children better and more dignified. Hearing her talk about that moment of clarity is perhaps the best articulation of purpose I have ever heard.

For different reasons and from different perspectives all of us came to this program with a desire to find a better way. To be better leaders, to effect change more meaningfully.

So as a group we arrived with that purpose. And that sense of purpose, for small tasks and large ones is something we have spent a lot of time thinking about and working on since then. We see purpose as a reason for starting a leadership task, it’s what gives you skin in the game. And that’s important; many of the things that we think are worth doing are hard and unclear. Purpose provides you with some momentum and also a way of reorienting yourself when things are difficult. Many of the issues in our society that we seek to have an impact on are large, complex and have ill-defined boundaries. They are issues that people and organisations with great intellect and budget have failed to resolve. How can we hope to have an impact? Is it not the height of arrogance to presume act where so many others have failed?

Leadership isn’t about being the best or the brightest. It’s about seeing an issue and acting. And accepting that sometimes you will fail, and that takes courage. We have all found ourselves failing at different times over the last eight months. My own syndicate group found ourselves spectacularly stuck around how to move in relation to our community of interest, it was difficult and frustrating but I think we learned from it.

I suspect that that is why as a group we believe in authenticity in leadership. We believe that leaderships needs to be honest, genuine and caring.  And we believe in those things because if you aren’t authentic, if you don’t give something of yourself over to the task at hand then you don’t risk. And without risk very little can be achieved. Risk involves noticing, and inquiring. Asking questions that you don’t know the answers to. It requires trusting yourself to test assumptions about what is seen and hidden, what is said and what remains silent.

While the risks we take are considerably smaller than those great American orators who risked their lives they are still real and personal to us. In embracing risk we accept that we will sometimes get it wrong, be embarrassed, find ourselves being mocked for our beliefs and our actions. Taking risks often involves a leap of faith towards an ideal without all the facts. It involves setting expectations of ourselves and wanting to achieve something that is beyond what the current environment is able to provide. This can be difficult when we are strongly encouraged to be risk averse, to make sure we have all the data before we act. And yet if we do not risk and step beyond ourselves then nothing new can happen. Fifty years ago the thought of an African American President or a female Australian Prime Minister was a distant dream. Now that these things have been achieved we see all the imperfections of those achievements and all the other things that need to happen. We are on a journey without a final destination.

One of my colleagues noted that what he valued the most was that at least once a day on the seventeen days that we have spent together someone revealed something about themselves that was deeply personal and involved them risking what the group thought of them and indeed even their own emotional stability. He felt that not only did he learn from it but that it was an indication that the person sharing that information was prepared to tangibly invest in what was happening. Whether you call that a learning edge or skin in the game or some other term it’s a powerful way of indicating to someone else that you are genuinely engaged.


We believe that it’s important to care, important to have skin in the game but if you don’t use your head as well then passion can be as paralysing as it is empowering. We engage with issues because we believe that they matter. That means that the stakes are high and the prospect of failing can be paralysing. That’s where flexibility and a love of learning come in. One of the most enthusiastic learners amongst our cohort has also been our oldest, his ability to embrace new concepts and the contributions of his fellows has been so notable that we now all permanently associate him with the words “that’s terrific!”.  And Robin that is terrific.

And again that is where the value of networks has become apparent. We have spent time looking at different analytical tools in this program but more importantly we’ve engaged with each other and our different ways of looking at and analysing the world around us. Alone we are isolated; together there is strength and insight in the diversity. And still difference scares. We’ve been chipping away at this idea of adaptive leadership. We believe that flexibility and the ability to learn and in some cases radically change your approach are key to that.

It takes either courage or foolishness to step into the adaptive space and the reasons for not doing it can be counter intuitive.

Passion can be one of those reasons. There are many issues that inspire passionate responses. It’s all too easy for those of us who are passionate about an issue to hold it so closely that it’s difficult to hear about options for improvement, even if they are needed.

My colleagues saw Shine as a case in point. Shine is a facility that aims to make the experience of children with incarcerated parents more comfortable and to raise the visibility of their plight. Prior to the Sydney Leadership 2013 visit they acknowledged that they weren’t achieving as much as they would like to, particularly around visibility. And yet it was still incredibly difficult for some of these wonderfully passionate people to talk about different ways of doing things and hear different ideas. Learning can be difficult when it involves letting go of some of the things that you have been doing out of great care and conviction. Learning and flexibility can involve having to sacrifice your ideas and accept that some of the work you have been doing has been wasted energy. That’s a big ask and one that many of us have struggled with over the last eight months and will probably continue to.

Part of that learning and flexibility is about an openness to difference. We need to be able to hear the whisper. To hear what isn’t being said as well as what is. There is no great leadership challenge in leading a group of people just like you. There is great difficulty and the potential for great reward in embracing a group who are different. Some of the most surprising and inspiring times of our last eight months have been from our quieter voices.

A moment which has stuck with many of us came from one of our own number in Canberra. We were looking at power and had Sydney Leadership alumnus and climate change campaigner Anna Rose speaking to us. Anna Rose is incredibly passionate and dedicated to her cause and utterly convinced by it, she’s someone who I admire in many ways. She came to the end of her presentation which had ranged over a number of topics including her work in the lead up to last week’s election, and asked for questions. Richard spoke up in his quiet and gentle way and said that he had struggled with what Anna Rose was saying because she consistently referred to the then Opposition Leader simply as Abbott. Richard noted that he felt that it was disrespectful and that when people referred to either party leader in that way that he just tuned out. It was a point that Anna Rose really seemed to take on board and I suspect it was a lesson for many of us in that room, certainly myself. Richard is one of the quieter voices in Sydney Leadership 2013 and one who defies easy categorisation. But his quiet insistence on respect regardless of political belief was powerful. We can’t expect the political dialogue in this country to improve unless we all take responsibility for making sure that the tone of the conversation is respectful. Respectful enough to allow the actual engagement of ideas rather than just an exchange of insults. It was a powerful reminder that it is all too easy to preach to the converted and that we have to find a way of genuinely having a conversation. Sometimes the delivery of the message is just as important as the message itself because it can help or hinder the communication of the content.

And that’s also the point. We believe strongly in the importance of personal responsibility and individual action but we acknowledge that we can achieve nothing in isolation. We need communication to make connections, find likeminded people, find people with opposing ideas, to bounce ideas off each other, to come up with new and different ways of acting. Even just gain energy from sharing the burden of a difficult task. The thing that we all cherish is the group of people we have met on this program; the Sydney Leadership 2013 cohort who now know all of each others’ blind spots and vagaries as well as strengths, guest speakers who we only encountered briefly and the SLA staff who have also done their fair share of baring their own souls as many of us have bared ours.

What have we learnt and what do we take forward? That exercising leadership is about knowing when to step in, when to step back, when to step out and when to hand the work over to others. That you have to learn to act despite your doubts. That no system is perfect and that much can be gained from imperfection. That we stand on the shoulders of others so we had better make sure our own shoulders are worth standing on.

That Guy has a neverending supply of dad jokes, that Rebecca can be relied on when the chips are down, that Andrew Fraser is always good for a helpful metaphor, that most people aren’t at all like you think they are when you first meet them, that wisdom is not the sole preserve of the over fifties (Alison), that Sue Findlay will say the things that need to be said. I could go on…

I could talk about the extraordinary contributions of all of our cohort but that would take a long time and keep us from the bar which is quite frankly un-Australian so I’ll return briefly to the inspiration of two great speechmakers.

We think of Martin Luther King, and we challenge ourselves to keep dreaming. Because meaningful social change takes time and if we don’t pick up our part in it now the great gains that can be made will only be further delayed.

There is another speech that I think bears contemplation at this time. And it comes from a famous Australian insult generator, he of the wet lettuce and the feral abacus. In his Redfern speech just after the Mabo decision, when many were certain that it would spell the end of property security in this country Paul Keating gave a speech in which he acknowledged how much we had failed as a nation. Failed to imagine how we would feel if the dispossession visited upon Aboriginal peoples were visited upon us. Failed to act to change the injustices since that moment. He challenged his audience to be honest with themselves, to imagine the situation of others as if it was our own, to imagine a better world and then to act on it.

And if we don’t do that we’ll look back on opportunities like inclusion of people with a disability, combatting climate change and all of the other things, great and small that we believe require action. We’ll look back on those things in fifty years’ time and wonder at the missed opportunities and conclude that our shoulders weren’t worth standing on. So let’s get out there and act, and allow ourselves to throw in the odd creative curse and the odd stumble to prove that we are still Australian.