I’ve known Victor Perton since he was a lively Liberal MP interested in approaches to regulation that were more promising than the standard reg review boilerplate of the time. Neither of us made any progress on that score and reg review remains its ineffectual self.

Now comfortably out of Parliament and doing various things, he asked me to be a guest on his website Australian Leadership, something I was a little apprehensive about. The term has a bland positivity about it – the kind you use in media releases alongside words like “enhance”, “sustainable” – and yet it’s a political word. Leaders are generally given the things that politics needs to be about – power, money and social prestige. I guess that’s inevitable – and in that sense good – but if that’s the case then our notion of leadership should come very closely associated with how it’s held to account – which it doesn’t seem to me it is. There’s also a growing practice of leaders as insiders. Monash Uni picks the three kids from every school in their catchment area that they determine are best qualified to be part of an insiders club which is given special offers to study at Monash complete with their own club – where they can meet …. each other. It’s a strange idea, particularly in an educational context, that the people at the front of the queue should get additional and exclusive help.

The Henley Club is a self-started operation of a similar kind. Here’s it’s blurb:

The Henley Club is a private social club based in Melbourne, Australia. Our members come from diverse backgrounds with the shared values of being interested and interesting, and represent the future of Australian leadership. Members are connected through other members to all of the major clubs, groups and associations around the world. For emerging leaders, membership enables rapid growth of personal and professional networks.

I think you get the drift here. A groovified old boy’s network ideologically updated with diversity, self-starting and interestingness. I was invited to the Henly Club for a function (I’m too old to be a member if I wanted to be.) and I met some fun, indeed interesting people. In many ways a big improvement on the old boy’s network, but that’s pretty academic if you’re not in the club. I’m broadly supportive of Groucho’s approach to clubs.

In any event, I didn’t want to burden my answers with all this freight so set about answering the questions as best I could – trying to avoid cliché. In case you’re interested, the result is below the fold.

Victor PertonNicholas, what do you see as the unique qualities of Australian Leadership?

Nicholas Gruen:  Very hard for me to say, as I don’t know enough and I’m wary of rehearsing clichés. I think Australian culture is down on formalities of superiority. Note how often the American press addresses their President as “Sir”. That doesn’t happen here. So that’s a plus.

On the downside, we’re a strikingly conformist culture. Australians are keen to get on with each other and so often agree too quickly and think direct disagreement is rude.

In Australia, officials are amongst the most helpful and pragmatic. On the other hand if you push-back against them, in a lively but not necessarily confrontational way, they’ll often take offence. I note when I’m in the US or pretty much anywhere, I can push back and question things more without people taking offence.

Good leaders need to find a way around that.

Victor PertonNicholas, what do Australians want of leadership?

Nicholas Gruen: I spent 3 years at the Business Council of Australia, and my generalisation about the leaders we get is that rather than being chosen for outstanding intelligence – though most were intelligent people – they were people who others felt comfortable being led by. That meant they were not eccentric or particularly unusual, they tended to get on well with others and be respected as competent and capable.

Victor PertonNicholas, what are your favourite stories of Australian leadership?

Nicholas Gruen:  He’s probably slipped from view in the last decade or so, but Weary Dunlop has to have a special place in our memory. Australian leadership as humility. As one Australian historian argues, each of the nationalities captured as prisoners of war by the Japanese formed their own kind of society which was a microcosm of their culture back home. Brits tended to form class hierarchies in their huts, Americans markets – with cigarettes as the currency – and Australians formed communes of mateship and mutual aid and enjoyed the lowest mortality rate of all the nationalities.

Edward Broughton

I like to honour and remember Captain Edward Broughton – born in New Zealand but that counts as Australasian anyway and he spent a lot of his time here. He was in charge of my father’s unit of refos in WWII and was one of the first Australians to really respect those men – for their humanity and their talents. Being Maori, he had great empathy for their dislocation, their status as an ‘other’ in the society they found themselves in. As he put it “You and me, we’re the same”. Cyril Pearl describes him thus:

He was a half-caste tattooed Maori. At the age of 16, by falsifying his age, he . . . served in the South African war. Fourteen years later he fought with the Maori Battalion on Gallipoli, was mentioned in dispatches, and commissioned. After the evacuation of Gallipoli, he served in France, and with a Russian regiment. Having overstated his age for the Boer War, he understated it by 16 years to fight in World War Two.

This is what one Dunera boy said about him on his death in 1955:

Keenly intelligent, well-read, endowed with a superb sense of humour, completely untainted by any racial prejudice… deeply interested in human beings, he did not only gain immediate respect and obedience, but also the love and affection of the unit. He enjoyed hugely being at its head, learned and meticulously respected Jewish customs, and was immensely proud of the unit because of the splendid work it did, humbly unaware of the fact that it was only he who could have turned these people into willing manual labourers. … He engaged in incessant publicity war on our behalf and fought hard to have our status changed, only to be booted out by the Army eventually. After being shoved around as flotsam and jetsam for many years he managed… to make us feel like human beings again. He restored our faith in man, as something more than 92 per cent water and a few chemicals. He was a scholar and a gentleman.

One day I’d like to endow a prize named after him for some act of empathy done by an Australian for others in the previous year!

Don Dunstan is one of my favourite political leaders of all time – others being Churchill and Lincoln. Dunstan was a progressive culture warrior at a time when that was long overdue. Uncompromisingly his own man, in a conservative, blokey culture he was known to wear tight pink shorts around town and recited Sappho at the Adelaide Zoo in the original Ancient Greek. He unleashed a torrent of modernising and liberating reform at least a decade ahead of its time. He was also a person of high political principle. Against all the whispering that he was gay (he was), he never lied about it and even proceeded with gay law reform. He had a celebratory defiant kind of fun about him as well. When some nutter predicted the end of the world (was it from a tidal wave?) on a particular day, he held a party on Glenelg beach that afternoon! When there was a bank run, he turned up at the bank with a megaphone to calm nerves.

A lot of the stories of racism tackled in the AFL particularly I find very moving. My team – Collingwood – often features as the bad guy, and then somehow redeems itself – or so I’m hoping. I can’t tell you how much I love the picture of Nicky Winmar lifting his Guernsey to the Collingwood outer and pointing to his skin as if to say that it’s colour is their problem. He likes it. Then Allan McAlister made some stupid and highly offensive comments about it. I think McAlister was genuinely mortified at what he’d said – actually came to see how wrong it was and the upshot was a range of very successful initiatives starting with the indigenous all-stars matches.

But the Age reported this episode eight years before Nicky Winmar’s great stand against the outer:

“As Jimmy Krakouer, near right, the mercurial North rover, prepared for the first bounce, Collingwood ruckman David Cloke ran by, tapped his head and delivered a message. What he said was surprising given the culture of the time . . . . Cloke told Krakouer he could not control what was said from the other side of the fence, but if any Collingwood players resorted to racial abuse, Krakouer should tell him, and he would deal with it.”

That’s leadership. Quiet, unassuming, decent, powerful, effective.

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Stephen Bounds
5 years ago

Nice insights Nicholas. Really enjoyed reading this.

5 years ago

Interesting response Nicholas – thanks – also direct and to the point.

Not sure if it’s coincidence, but I’ve heard 2 recent speakers on leadership use words like character and draw upon older traditions than the current management nonsense. Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.