The Change Makers gleans insights from 25 prominent leaders, on the challenges and opportunities of leadership.

By Author Shaun Carney on his new book on leadership

Posted on February 28, 2019

Carney covered politics for The Age and The Herald Sun for decades and is now Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UNSW Canberra.

His latest work extends beyond the political sphere and goes in-depth with notable leaders across business, public service, the not-for-profit sector, education, sports and more.

The book was inspired by the McKinnon Prize in Political Leadership, a new non-partisan award which seeks to recognise leaders with the vision to break away from the populism and short-term thinking rife in contemporary politics. Two past Australian Prime Ministers, John Howard and Julia Gillard, were both on the judging panel of the inaugural award and both feature here.

Carney talked to The CEO Magazine about what he learned from the project and the state of leadership in 2019.

Having covered political leadership extensively before, what surprised you about leadership outside that space?

I think the risk aversion that is all too prevalent in modern political leadership. I’m not saying that’s a universal condition but there are two things: there is an unwillingness to admit to error and a tendency to not know about something unless it is convenient. There is also a tendency to avoid doing the really difficult things because you have too many constituencies to manage; the party room, members, the media and corporate stakeholders. That seems to inhabit politics.

Most of the people I talked to (in The Change Makers) put themselves out there and were willing to own up to their mistakes, use them and even highlight them. They were willing to more honestly account for their leadership.

The Change Makers book
Above: Shaun Carney’s ‘The Change Makers’ (Melbourne University Press)

Some of the leaders you featured really stumbled into their position. Did you find that this approach was just as common as people having carefully planned their career progression?

Very few of the people I spoke to ever imagined themselves leading this or that. In large part, they just found themselves in positions of authority or ownership. It was an idea or a passion for something which was driving them and that was impressive, I thought.

Someone like Simon McKeon (Chancellor of Monash University), he was just working at a merchant bank and got involved in various deals. He just spoke his mind and wasn’t too self-conscious about it. He enjoyed what he was doing and tried to be truthful in his dealings.

He actually spoke about the loneliness of leadership, where you do find yourself a bit elevated and it’s a bit windy. You’re the one that’s going to have to make the decision, no-one will make it for you. He reflected on that more than many of the others, who often talked about how important it is to have people around that you can rely on to get you through.

Are leaders made rather than being born?

I think that’s the case. It’s hard to be too prescriptive about these things, but in many respects, people just find themselves in a position of leading others rather than setting themselves to do it. There would be many people like that who are leaders but they weren’t the people I spoke to I suppose!

Many people find themselves (leading) because they care. I found that very encouraging. If you have a look through the community, I formed the view that leadership is in a reasonably healthy state. I don’t want to be too down on politics, but I do find that ambition often gets in the way.

Shaun Carney
Above: Author Shaun Carney

Some of the leaders featured in the book, like (Councillor) Vonda Malone and (Educator) Eddie Woo, were essentially pushed into leadership roles…

Eddie is a terrific example of a guy who just followed what interested him. His unique or peculiar understanding of how mathematics works and how it relates to the real world became a passion. You only really need to meet him once, as I did, to see why so many young people regard him as an incredibly effective instructor.

Someone like Lisa Alexander, who I found really, really impressive, she began as a schoolteacher and always loved sport. Then, it seems, she became the national netball coach almost as a way of understanding other human beings. She initially studied medicine and in lots of ways that isn’t that different, it’s about understanding the human body.

Lisa Alexander is an example of a leader who successfully changed fields. Do you see leadership as a transferable skill or are people better equipped to lead in a field they have grown up in?

Of all the people I talked to, few of them transferred that much. I tend to think people largely stay in their area and build up a body of knowledge and understanding. But there is some transferability. Where there are synergies, it seems a bit easier. Duncan Lewis, for example, was a career military officer who moved into national security and diplomacy. Alan Finkel was an engineer who went into being an entrepreneur, that sort of thing.

Largely though, I don’t know if people make great leaps. Someone like Ita Buttrose, who is now the chair of the ABC, started as a journalist. She is probably the model.

Duncan Lewis

Above: ASIO Director-General of Security, Duncan Lewis

How do you think new technology, especially the prominence of social media, has changed the demands on leaders?

That came up quite a bit, the social media chorus. (AFLW CEO) Nicole Livingstone went from being a champion swimmer to being in the media and then into being a sports administrator has used the web for all sorts of things. She said you basically have to block (social media) out when you need to because it is just too negative. (Appearance activist) Carly Findlay had a similar kind of story.

After talking to a lot of these people, my summation is that it’s definitely making it harder. Duncan (Lewis, ASIO Director-General of Security) said that it can make the world seem like a terrible place all the time because of the speed of, and access to, information. People will pile on from both directions and it becomes a nil-all draw where people just throw sticks.

I don’t know if this is just a phase we’re gong through or whether it will intensify, it’s hard to say. But you need to know when to not pay attention to it and how to harness digital communications. Dealing with the negativity is one of the biggest challenges for all leaders now in whatever field they’re in and it’s a brand new challenge, it’s only come up in the last ten years or so.

There is a lot of talk about authenticity in leadership now. Is this vital for leaders in 2019?

Yes, I think it is. People have a more incisive and insightful way of looking at you now because they’ve consumed so much information.

Authenticity means saying ‘I got that wrong’ and ‘I am daunted by this job sometimes, I don’t know everything’, that is important. The other part of authenticity is wanting your advisors, employers and colleagues to be learning and informing themselves and showing that you’re doing the same thing. You acknowledge that you’re not fully formed and that you’re progressing in the job as well.

Often, leaders can look like they’re frozen and they have a set of skills they have to use and then it’s like: ‘Oh, they’ve used up whatever they came here to do’. The leaders I spoke to live in their positions for a fair bit longer and that comes down authenticity, accountability and a degree of humility.

Header image credit: Ed Dunens