Carlton Quartly: Expanding knowledge of leadership beyond the experience as a senior government official

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Carlton Quartly

Carlton’s initial motivation for the program was to expand his knowledge of leadership beyond his experience as a senior government official.

“I’d been working in mental health in the NSW Department of Health, and in 2012 when the NSW Mental Health Commission was established, I was seconded across to this new Statutory Agency to build the organisation from the ground up. .   I quickly became aware that the usual levers of change for a government agency -  policy  funding, performance, regulation, were not available to the Commission, and I had to think about out different ways to bring about change and transformation to the mental health system without the usual formal  power. Through Sydney Leadership I learnt not just to expect people to have different perspectives on problems and issues, but to welcome these differences, and the importance of engaging with all these perspectives.”

After he completed the program, the Commission was working on the vexed issue of medication and mental illness.  The role of medication in recovery from mental illness is complex and often polarising. Initial investigation showed that conversations about medication were largely initiated by Pharmaceutical companies, researchers and clinicians, and that there was little evidence of participation by the people who take the medication or those who care for them. The Commission decided to bring individuals from all these groups together to form an Advisory Group.

“It got really tense at times in some of our meetings. Consensus was not about agreeing, but developing a deeper understanding of the issues. Previously I would have closed the heat down, would have seen it as unhelpful and tried to avoid the conflict.  Now I’ve learnt ways to regulate the heat a bit and I’m more comfortable allowing a group to sit with the discomfort.

“I’m also more OK about sitting back, not always being the ‘in-control Chair’ - being more of a facilitator.  By including mental health consumers and their advocates in the room, we found a way to rebalance the discussion about medication. The process wasn’t about providing new content but about letting new ideas emerge from the group; we had a very fluid agenda for those meetings.

“We wrote a report ‘Medication and Mental Illness’ after this process.  It was launched by the NSW Chief Psychiatrist who talked about his own learning during the project, and I saw this man’s personal growth as significant validation for the process.”

Carlton found that the first day of the Sydney Leadership Program pushed him hard and the exercise to find a  learning ‘buddy’ to work with over the coming months, was one of his toughest challenges. 

“My fear of rejection, fear of getting it wrong – I found this an excruciating place, this challenge around connection. I felt confronted by the huge risk of getting it wrong.  As it turns out it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and my buddy and I have forged a close friendship and we continue to meet monthly and support each other.”

“Over the period of the Sydney Leadership program I was reminded of who I could be, and that my strength comes from what is in me and not from the formal authority designated through a position.  I learnt that ‘being a leader’ is a fluid process. As a person I am someone who naturally fades to the background, but can take up leadership role when required.  It’s not always about being the loudest voice.  One can be quiet and impactful, and a position on the organisation chart doesn’t equate with an ability to inspire people.”

 “Sydney Leadership helped me understand that people aren’t afraid of change, they’re afraid of loss.  And given that we’re wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, we often try to hang onto things it might be better to let go of.  70% of transformations fail because leaders fail to change themselves. If we can work out what to hold on to and what to let go of we can open the way for innovation.  But this requires transformational change, cultural change, and this takes time.  So we have to find a way to meet the demands of time, and additional investment if we’re to achieve the conditions we need for effective transformational change.”

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