The Leading Partnership News

Finding identity in small things

posted 7 Apr 2020, 03:31 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 7 Apr 2020, 03:38 ]

I am what I do

Last Monday after uploading the previous article in this series, ‘Decision-making under pressure’ Michelle, our Office Manager and I, packed up our office and handed in the keys.   More than a month ago I could see where the pandemic was headed. We needed to get our costs down fast and rent was our largest fixed cost after wages.   By 3.30pm I’d packed the last boxes into my car. I took a deep breath, allowed myself to feel the wave of emotion that welled up, and drove home. Many people here and overseas far worse off than me of course, but I felt quite raw. For 20 years The Leading Partnership had an office in North Sydney. We were not operating out of home or holding meetings in a coffee shop; we had a place of business to call our own. I’ve come to understand the degree to which having a commercial office defined me and defined our business. I suspect I am not the only one at this time who is coming to a new realisation of how much my self-image is tied up in what I do, or don’t do, professionally. Formerly busy people are sitting idle; compulsive travellers are staring at the walls and plotting their escape; University students who once had jobs to cover their living costs suddenly have no income and are moving back in with their parents; sports people who train their bodies for clashes with other teams or competitors are now pumping iron for what? Parents who don’t see themselves as teachers are upskilling in the national curriculum, while teachers who never wanted to work for the School of the Air are doing just – without even applying for the job!

It is so easy to go into default mode and find our meaning and identity in what we do, particularly if society sees what we do as important and valuable. When that is taken away, or new challenges intrude into our lives over which we have no control, who are we? What is our identity? What value do we have?

I do what I am

The opposite to defining ourselves by what we do professionally, is allowing who we are as people to guide our priorities and activities. I do what I am, rather than I am what I do.

In the late 1990s, when considering making the transition from regular employment to becoming a consultant and business owner, I spent many hours thinking about my personal purpose, what I felt I was put on earth to do. I actually have my own statement of purpose. In January each year I sit down and review my annual plan, which is based on that purpose, and set new goals and foci for the coming 12 months. It’s a well organised ritual.

The word ‘purpose’ has as its root a Latin term meaning ‘object in view’, ‘intention’, ‘aim’, or ‘by design.’  Purpose is the reason we are called into being - the design for which we are intended, the way we make meaning in our lives. There are individual, organisational and community benefits to be had from setting aside time to discover, explore, challenge and deepen one’s personal and collective sense of purpose. Firstly, operating from a deep sense of purpose is energising and engaging – human beings want to lead meaningful lives. Those functioning ‘on purpose’ are typically more focused, more open to possibility, and less concerned with barriers and blockages.  Secondly, the developmental experience of living out and journeying towards our personal purpose brings us closer to friends, colleagues and family.  Finally, purpose connects us to that which is beyond ourselves and the everyday world – it puts our lives in perspective and invites each one of us to serve some greater idea, principle or end.

Over the past decade or so discussions around purpose and meaning are re-entering professional bounds.  We are overcoming stigmas that considered such conversations as vaguely religious and therefore out of bounds amongst well brought up adults.

Despite having thought about purpose for two decades, despite carefully structuring my priorities and activities so as to act from my core life purpose, the past weeks have destabilised my sense of self. I am now pretty much through it – at least for the time being.   Writing about this process helps.

Finding identity in small things

At a time when major industries such as tourism and airlines are on economic life support, and the arts and sports sectors have shuttered up, society is functioning off the backs of some of our less recognised and poorly paid citizens.   We now have the eyes to see some of the invisible people in our midst.   Shops are open because shop assistants and shelf stackers, who are on or close to the minimum wage, keep going to work.   Aged care facilities continue to be manned by an underpaid, often immigrant workforce who care for our elderly and frail despite legitimate fears of Covid-19 having a disproportionate impact in aged-care facilities.   Buses, trains and ferries provide ongoing public transport for those who need it because key staff keep turning up.   Parents are speaking with new-found wonder of the skills and dedication of teachers who have worked 12-hour days getting lessons on-line.   Fresh from supervising home classrooms for a couple of weeks, some parents have even come to recognise that their kids are as ratty as their teacher said they were!   Nurses and doctors are working long hours under high pressure while in some countries, retired health workers are volunteering to come back to their jobs during the pandemic  - talk about operating from a deep sense of purpose…

Leaving aside the toilet-paper wars and other petty nasties, in the midst of an unwanted crisis we are carving out a new-found sense of community and collaboration. Governments and Unions are partnering with employers to solve massive, unforeseen problems while political ideologies have been unceremoniously ditched because they are useless in the face of a pandemic. A National Cabinet is moving quickly to ensure state, territory and national interests are as aligned as they can be. Nothing is perfect, mistakes have and will be made, but remarkably, we are not falling apart.

In all of this, there are opportunities to find identity and meaning in small things: a kind word, a thank you to a person whose work we’ve never before noticed, a phone call to a friend, a Zoom meeting between grandparents and grandkids, reading a book for an hour in the late afternoon or the opportunity just to stop and smell the roses. What a wonderful autumn Sydney is having, for example, it’s just beautiful!

The ‘small people’ of our society – the poorly paid, the unemployed, the elderly, immigrants, the disabled and those who care of them, the pay cheque to pay cheque households where there is never a dollar to spare – are used to finding their meaning and identity in small things. They often have little choice. For many of us - the professionals, the newsmakers, the well remunerated, the much-travelled -  finding meaning in small things is best seen as a work in progress.

Let’s keep working on it.

Philip Pogson FAICD

April 6 2020.

Philip has been a company director, Chair and business owner for more than 20 years. He consults and advises on strategy and governance across a range of business sectors.


Decision Making Under Pressure - It Never Was Easy

posted 29 Mar 2020, 16:05 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 29 Mar 2020, 16:09 ]

The view is perfect in the rear-vision mirror.....

As many commentators have observed, the Covid-19 crisis presents the most difficult and comprehensive set of global challenges since World War II. Governments, health systems, companies, not for profits and communities are struggling on a daily, even hourly basis to come to grips with a constant stream of disruptive change occurring at every possible level. In the face of this crisis there has been relentless criticism in some quarters of government and company decision-making, often from an ill-informed or ideological perspective. As one cartoonist quipped, social media experts on bushfire fighting appear to have done PhDs overnight and morphed into virologists and population health gurus!

On a serious note, it is important for us to understand that some poor decisions will always made in a crisis. The longer this pandemic goes on, the more bad decisions will be made. It is hard to make good decisions at the best of times, it is even more difficult to make sound decisions under constant pressure, when you don’t have all the required information, where the full range of possible impacts of each decision are not known and when you are personally over-extended. 
I would also point out that it is rarely the case in a crisis that strategic options fall cleanly into baskets labelled ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It is more often the case that the only options available are unpleasant ones. Your job as leader is to decide which of several bad or unpleasant options you choose and for what reasons. For example, do you completely close down the country now and cripple the economy or slow the economy down more gradually and possibly see more people fall ill? Lives will be lost either way. How many lives are you willing to give up or save and at what economic and social cost? Only an armchair critic would see these as simple, clear cut decisions.

That is why hindsight vision is perfect…

Leaders as decision-makers
The role of leaders is to make decisions and judgements.  Jack Welch, the famous CEO of GE once said, “80% of decisions can be made on the spot, 20% can’t. Wisdom is knowing the difference.”   I have great sympathy, even compassion for our Prime Minister, Premiers, business and community leaders and folk such as Chief Health Officers. They have many difficult decisions to make and not enough time to make them in. I believe that they have put in place an enormous range of effective policies and strategies in a very short period of time and made some very tough calls along the way. They have made some poor choices as well – that is life in a crisis. In the end, you make the best decisions you can based on the information available at the time. 

Yet some in our community do not seem to recognise that policy and strategy formation in a crisis is not the same as in normal times. Some critics can only examine the motives and practices of our national leaders through their pre-existing political lens. Conservatives support conservatives and progressives, progressives. Anything done by ‘the other mob’ is always wrong. Others allow their rusted-on cynicism and prejudices to dominate their interpretation of events. They see their role as pointing out other people’s flaws and inconsistencies whilst rarely drawing attention to their own. 

If I was a senior leader in our society now, I would crave a bit more encouragement, compassion and support from the community. Personally, I believe it is better to let history – and the inevitable formal investigations that will take place  – provide the expert commentary. The passing of time and the application of more objective criteria will allow deeper insights to emerge, enabling us to learn from this crisis and apply that learning to the next such event.
Returning to decision-making, no matter how much information and analysis one has access to, leaders are called to make timely decisions. In this, I believe we can learn from General Eisenhower’s approach to one of the most difficult decisions of the 20th century.

The toughest decision of the 20th century?
On the evening of June 4, 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, chaired what has been called ‘one of the most important councils of war in military history’. Allied D-Day plans for Europe were in place, enormous amounts of equipment and people had been irreversibly committed to the task. The largest invasion force of all time was equipped and waiting.  Failure at this point would have set the Allied forces back years and perhaps changed the course of WWII.  Yet the weather in the English Channel was atrocious.  The purpose of this late evening meeting was to give the final ‘go – no go’ order upon which thousands of lives depended. After hearing the best available scientific weather forecasts and engaging in deep discussion it was now up to Eisenhower to make the final decision.

His biographer writes:

‘He (Eisenhower) was obliged to weigh not only the decision itself, but the longer-term impact.  There was utter silence in the room, the only sounds to be heard were the wind and rain pounding Southwick House.’ Beetle Smith, (an English General who attended the meeting), later wrote that he was awed by “the loneliness and isolation of a commander at a time when such a momentous decision has to be taken with full knowledge that success or failure rests on his judgement alone.’’’ 

As history shows, Eisenhower rose to the challenge, took what proved to be the correct decision and the invasion commenced the next day. Another writer commented, ‘It was Eisenhower’s moment of trial – and he responded with what can only be called greatness.’ Some might say Eisenhower got lucky, but then luck follows the brave!

Analysis and synthesis
In common with many of today’s leaders, Eisenhower had available to him the very best information and analysis that money could provide – in this case, the combined might of the entire Allied war effort. Yet, no amount of data could actually take the decision for him. Eisenhower alone had to sift, weigh and synthesise the data and make the best judgement he could. That is what it is to be a Supreme Commander. This extreme example illustrates a key principle: analysis alone cannot create synthesis. As leader, Eisenhower’s role was to create a coherent whole from the parts presented to him, not break down the data into even smaller pieces in the hope that somehow the truth would spring forth from amongst the fragments.

Analysis is the process of systematically assembling and logically treating data and information so as to solve a problem or yield a result that is reasonable and defensible. Over time, the process of analysis has been codified into approaches that segment problems into manageable steps. The scientific method is one example of codified problem-solving, as are trademarked rationales such as ‘The McKinsey Way’ or the Microsoft software development process.

In contrast, synthesis has its origins in a Greek word that originally meant ‘to place together’. Great synthesisers seem to generate an instant conception of the whole and in the process ‘place the pieces together’ in imaginative and creative ways. Synthesis and intuition are closely related. Intuition is, according to scientist William Glaser, ‘a not fully self-conscious application of knowledge and experience.’ Originally, intuition referred to ‘spiritual insight’ from the Latin intueri which meant to ‘consider or contemplate’ or ‘to gaze upon attentively’. Good analysis is more of a science whereas synthesis, or intuition, is an art. Just because synthesis is an art it does not mean that it cannot be cultivated. Good musicians transition to greatness through ongoing practice and performance. 

Leaders get better at decision-making, including decision-making in a crisis, through taking timely decisions, not falling into inaction.
New ideas or options (intuitions) are often created in the subconscious when the brain is allowed to burble along in the background not while we are bombarded with reams of data. This is why bad decisions and poor judgement are rife during a crisis – the brain becomes overloaded. The art of good judgement in decision-making draws on both analysis and synthesis, on a capacity to understand the whole as well as constituent parts. Developing a capacity for good judgement requires us to systematically develop our imagination and draw on the imagination of others.  

Being our best selves in the current crisis
Like Eisenhower on the eve of D-Day, the greatest leadership challenges involve making effective judgements in the face of incomplete information and ambiguity. Great decision-makers learn to speedily weigh up data and analysis and move into synthesis.
Relatively few individuals will be major leadership players over the coming months, most people will only have an impact on immediate friends, business colleagues and family. For the latter group, in which I include myself, taking up the challenge of being our best selves in the current crisis requires us to make personal decisions as to where and how we can make positive a contribution. 

I ask two things of us all: firstly, that we each seek to lead as best we can wherever we find ourselves; and secondly, that we encourage and support those making the big, tough decisions. These women and men are human too.

Philip Pogson FAICD, March 2020

Philip has been a company director, Chair and business owner for more than 20 years. He consults and advises on strategy and governance across a range of business sectors. 

Week Two Update

posted 22 Mar 2020, 21:11 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 22 Mar 2020, 21:12 ]

What an extraordinary week we have had!

Unprecedented times
The times really are almost unprecedented. I suspect we have to go back to World War II (WWII) to find a parallel to the kind of national and international disruption, pain and suffering we are facing at the moment. Both my parents were born in 1931. Their early childhood years were thus at the tail end of the Great Depression. They entered their teens in the midst of a global war of awful violence and human misery. It was hard. There was rationing and the possibility of invasion. Brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers went off to war or were seconded to work in war industries. My dad is the youngest in his family and one of his brothers, my uncle, fought in the Pacific and survived. The point is, they came through as did the greater majority of Australians of that generation. We are their heirs. We will also come through and rebuild on the other side. Some reflections follow that I hope are encouraging.

Lead when and as we are able
Whatever our role and status, now is the time for us to exercise leadership in any way we are able. I don’t necessarily mean “Big L” Leadership: few of us will be called to be a Premier, Prime Minister or a CEO. I am referring to the leadership opportunities that come our way in everyday life. Over the next weeks and months we will need people right across our community who can acknowledge uncertainty but think clearly, respond with compassion and remain task focussed. As a business advisor and school Chair, I see teachers, business people, University staff, health experts, friends and family acting this way already. On the flip side, these are stressful times. Our way of life has changed with a violent lurch and we are not sure where we are lurching to. For myself, I am working on being aware of, and not ignoring, my own anxiety and tiredness. I am also keeping up and expanding while I am able my exercise routines and making sure I have a list of things to do that I enjoy.

Avoid blame and finger pointing
Beyond a certain point, spending our energies pointing out what others are doing wrong, where they are acting inconsistently or not meeting our expectations is not productive. Leaving aside those in the health sector, we should keep in mind that our Premier, senior ministers, business and community leaders and Prime Minister will be working extraordinarily long hours under exceptional pressure. These people are human and thus imperfect - just like us.  They also have families and loved ones they will be hardly seeing and no doubt worrying about – just like us. Now is not the time to fight arguments on social media and relentlessly criticise others, particularly those with “Big L” leadership roles. Now is the time for our community to seek unity and goodwill and ensure that the majority of our citizens, including the poor and needy, come through this as best they can.

Look to and plan for the future
As I noted in the first paragraph, WWII came to an end as did WWI and the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919. Humankind is resilient and creative. We can choose to be our best in a crisis, or chose the opposite. As I said last week, The Leading Partnership is open. If we can assist in any way just ask. If you can’t pay that does not matter! Money is not the object, beating the crisis is. My email is:
In closing, take care. Best wishes to you and your loved ones.
Philip Pogson FAICD
On behalf of Stuart Jones GAICD and Office Manager, Michelle Stewart

This photo is of the island of Kvaloya in far northern Norway.  I took this picture on a visit in 2018.  It was summer, just before midnight, and this is about as dark as it gets!  (enjoy....)

Everyone needs a strategy - preparing to bounce back post Covid-19

posted 15 Mar 2020, 20:11 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 15 Mar 2020, 20:18 ]

“Everyone has a strategy ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” (Mike Tyson)
Mike Tyson is not widely seen as a business guru and in any case, this is a pretty confronting statement evoking the worst of toxic masculinity. Some context might be helpful. The Tyson quotation is actually the first sentence in a significant book titled ‘Strategy: a history’ by world-famous strategic studies academic, Sir Lawrence Freedman. In writing a history of strategy, Freedman’s contention is that no strategy is any good unless it can withstand a punch in the mouth, that is, a big shock.
Covid-19 is that shock, the unwanted punch in the mouth for Australia and the world. It will hit us economically and socially. But now is the time to plan to bounce back once the worst is past. Some thoughts follow.
We are open for business and willing to help – don’t worry if you don’t have the budget
Firstly, The Leading Partnership is open for business while following health advice re hygiene and social distancing. We are here to help in any way we can – whether or not you have the budget to pay. My personal purpose is ‘to act as a creative force to enhance the lives of others.’ I do what I do because its my vocation not because I get paid. So if you want to talk anything over formally or informally, please call and make a time to catch up. Conversely, I am not too proud to say we might need help. We are a small business with limited means and don’t have the deep pockets of major consulting firms.
What can your organisation do now?
1. Plan for the future
It is inevitable that there will be some kind of economic downturn post-Covid-19. It is counterintuitive, but now is the time to think about where how you are going to bounce back in 6 or 12 months’ time. ‘Never waste a crisis’ has never been more applicable. It looks like many of us will have extra time on our hands over the coming weeks so let’s use that time well to re-think and re-position for the future. Drawing on our 40 years’ consulting experience, and some major turnaround projects, we would love to help in any way we can.
2. Bring forward projects or objectives that need to be done but are on the backburner
Projects like board reviews or products reviews can be brought forward. We are set up to do comprehensive board reviews on-line and via phone or video hook-up. Again, if cost is an issue, please talk to us about it. I am sure we can find a way ahead. It’s better for morale to keep things moving and keep your people active and engaged – whether on-line or face to face - rather than to fall into reactive mode.

3. Look after your people, look after yourself 
Pandemics are all about physical health but there is and will be a mental and emotional toll. The Chief Health Officer has just said that he expects the impact to last at least 6 months. Freelancers and casuals will be very badly hit financially in this environment, but even those with jobs risk depression and anxiety. We also need to pay attention to our own health and well-being as leaders and to that of children, the vulnerable and the elderly. It’s a crisis so let’s practice kindness and empathy rather than panic and selfishness. We are in this together across Australia and around the world.
All the best,
Philip Pogson, Stuart Jones and Michelle Stewart
The Leading Partnership
Philip Mobile: 0412 459 156

School educators as leaders - and the art of deviating from the norm

posted 8 Mar 2020, 21:06 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 8 Mar 2020, 21:08 ]

"All children start their school careers with sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think." Sir Ken Robinson

"For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men (and women) how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain." Dorothy L. Sayers

Vision attributed to: 
<a href="">School photo created by freepik -</a

School educators as leaders is one of a series of articles I have written on leadership over the past two years. Previous topics include governance as leadership, artists as leaders and the need to lead ourselves and not wait for the “perfect boss” to come along. This article is arguably the most important as it involves children, who are our society’s future leaders, and teachers, a profession that in our country is increasingly beset by mind-numbing process and bureaucratic nonsense. What right do I have to make these assertions? I am chair of one K-6 school and am on the board of an independent start-up school that is commencing in 2021. I meet regularly with a peer group of low fee independent school chairs. As a board director I sign off on endless reams of mandatory education policy. I also hold three tertiary-level education qualifications. I am part time and unpaid but am not ill-informed. The following thoughts are my own.

Teachers as leaders
Teachers are one of the least recognised leadership cohorts in our community. Day in, day out they stand before our children and strive to create an environment that stimulates those before them to learn. Not that children only learn in the classroom, but since the 1870s when mandatory schooling started being introduced around the world, teachers have become the group of adults that children spend the most time with apart from their parents. For many of us, a teacher is the first person outside the family home that we come to admire, emulate and even quote verbatim. In my case, that teacher was Miss Hole, the legendary teaching-principal of Moss Vale Infants school. Miss Hole was strict yet kind, fair and generous. She taught generations of children to read and write in her no-nonsense style. Miss Hole believed we could all learn and so we did! She lived into her 90s and still rode a push bike around town in her 80s. 

Teachers exercise leadership in so many ways: they impart knowledge, encourage interest in sport, music, science, reading, drama, dance and much more. They are often mentors and counsellors to their young charges and advisors to their parents. Does this mean that all teachers are perfect? Of course not, I am talking in generalities not specifics. I simply wish to highlight the leadership and service attributes of the teaching profession and to celebrate their immense and varied contributions to individual, family and community life. 

The bias against educational creativity
If teaching is not in crisis, it is on the verge of one. Although the “greying” of the profession, driven by Baby boomer teachers retiring, is coming to an end, new teachers do not stay in the job. Between 40-45% of teachers resign withing their first five years, a very high attrition rate. Teaching is in theory a profession. According to the Professionals Standards Councils, a profession is “a disciplined group of individuals who adhere to ethical standards. This group positions itself as possessing special knowledge and skills in a widely recognised body of learning derived from research, education and training at a high level, and is recognised by the public as such. A profession is also prepared to apply this knowledge and exercise these skills in the interest of others.” Being a professional generally means being granted autonomy and acting with minimal supervision, although in some cases such as high-risk engineering projects and medicine, structured peer to peer supervision is put in place. Yet the evidence I see almost daily in interacting with teachers and school executives, and in dealing with the myriad governance and regulatory demands that weigh down our schools, is that Australian teachers have less professional autonomy than ever. 

As our young people continue to drift ever lower in knowledge and application in comparison with their global peers, Australia seems hell bent on being more and more prescriptive in regard to: 1. What teachers teach; 2. How they teach; and 3. What aspects of student learning are measured and reported. Leading nations such as Finland have done away with centralised curricula: we have become more centralised and prescriptive than ever. There is, I believe, a very real if at times unconscious bias against educational creativity and curriculum innovation. Schools dealing with regulatory authorities are advised by those in the know to submit bland, compliant documentation so as to minimise complications and maximise the chance of being “waved through.”
Nationally, our state and territory education systems have drifted to a mediocre middle ground. The leadership skills of our teachers and educational leaders are atrophying or being sucked dry in endless compliance exercises. Am I exaggerating? Perhaps, but talk to a teacher and you may be surprised by what you hear. How do we break our addiction to educational monotony and entrenched mediocrity? How do we put teachers back in a place of leadership and autonomy? Should we back massive innovation, small scale experiments or both?

The art of deviating from the norm: Richard Gill and the Richard Gill School, Muswellbrook
Towards the end of February 1978, I met a remarkable man, musician and music educator: Richard Gill. For the second half of my teens all I wanted to do was to study music. I practiced day and night as a classical guitarist. Unable to study HSC music at my local rural high school, I took theory lessons on the side and bluffed my way into the Music Education course at the then NSW Conservatorium of Music. My theory was so poor when I was accepted that I had to enrol in an intensive tutorial week before the rest of the students arrived. In those days Richard taught ear training and took several choirs amongst other subjects. He was, of course, a force of nature, several forces of nature in fact. The man was dynamic, talented, opinionated, loud and passionate. His love of knowledge and learning was so real you could almost touch it. Even when Richard was wrong, he was interestingly wrong! 
If there were agreed norms for tertiary music educators of that time, for the most part, Richard gleefully ignored them. He did so from 7am to midnight each day and all the hours in between. He pushed himself and he pushed us. For several years he and I lived in the same suburb of Sydney and often caught the train to and from “The Con” together. Richard had a legendary gift for relationship and for remembering names. I was but one of thousands of musicians and school educators over the decades that he encouraged, tutored and, at times, berated – in a well-meaning way! We remained in touch over the years and even though I left music as a profession in my late 20s, he also knew my musician wife, so we kept up through her. But he never forgot my name. He rarely forgot a name. 

The point of these memories is not to write yet another homily to Richard but to build on his example. The purpose of education is not to passively achieve mundane norms, comply with centralised precepts and slavishly document everything one does as a teacher or administrator. The purpose of education is to excite, challenge, expand and go beyond. This does not mean teachers and educators are unaccountable and do not need to ensure their charges learn the basics, but rather, to ram home the fact that the basics are just that - the very minimum. Nobody criticises a leading surgeon for having lower infection rates and higher survival rates than her peers. We do not train our engineers to barely meet the most basic standards when designing bridges and roads. Why then would we encourage anything less than excellence and over achievement from our schools and those who teach in them? Why would we choose to dull the hearts of those whose passion is to teach and fail children who enter their school years with “sparkling imaginations, fertile minds, and a willingness to take risks with what they think." (Ken Robinson)

I know for a fact that Richard detested centralised curricula and control and had a marked distaste for standardised testing. Perhaps he overstated his case at times, but the rationale behind his distaste was correct in my view. Norms are an abstract concept. The average does not actually exist. So why not encourage deviation from the norm as the norm?
Ever the risk taker, just before he died, Richard Gill gave approval for his name to be used in founding a new school in Muswellbrook, in the Hunter Valley three hours north west of Sydney. He also gave his blessing to his long-term friend and former student, Kim Williams AM, as founding chair and to the appointment of several other directors, including myself. Although he was already very ill, Richard dialled into our first board meeting. His passion for the new school was palpable. I found it hard to hold back my tears knowing that this slightly raspy, enthusiastic voice with its unique inflection and boundless energy would soon fall silent. For good reasons, he wanted this school, his school, to be different; it is our job to ensure it is.

The vision
The vision for a new arts and music school in the Hunter comes from Muswellbrook Council and its Mayor, Martin Rush. Council has been very generous in supporting and encouraging the school, the board and staff. Richard Gill School is not for profit, independent, non-denominational and non-selective. We will open our doors in February 2021 under the leadership of recently appointed founding principal, Chris English. It will be 43 years that month since I met Richard Gill. Chris is a Hunter Valley boy born and bred. He pitched for the job of founding principal with a passion and creativity that knocked our socks off. Chris has big shoes to fill but is, I believe, up to the job. It is important to remember that school education in this country does not need more Richard Gill clones. It does, however, need more leaders who, like Gill, are innovators, experimenters and appropriate risk takers. And we need educational administrators, boards and communities to encourage and reward those bold enough to chart new paths.

Our curriculum will focus on music, movement and STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). Richard himself drafted our school philosophy aided by Kim Williams. In that philosophy he emphasises the leadership role of teachers and his belief that they should hold the maximum level of autonomy possible within the school. As we at Richard Gill School believe teaching really is a profession, autonomy and accountability go hand in hand. We exalt both.

It is our vision that over time Richard Gill School will become a place for young teachers to learn, experiment and grow. We aspire to be a part of a rising cohort of schools that set new standards of excellence – and norm deviation. In doing so, we hope that a whole generation of schools and teacher-leaders will rise up with a passion to break the rules for that highest of high purposes: the true and deep and enduring education of our children.

Philip Pogson FAICD, March 2020.

Philip has been a company director, Chair and business owner for more than 20 years. Alongside the music enterprises he runs with his wife, he consults and advises on strategy and governance across a range of business sectors. He is chair of one K-6 school and sits on the board of another. The views in this article are his own and do not represent the position of any organisation he is associated with.

Artists as leaders – celebrating the role of heroic antiheroes

posted 16 Feb 2020, 16:06 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 16 Feb 2020, 16:09 ]

Leadership’s unlikely candidates

In 1995 painter Arthur Boyd was named Australian of the Year for his “extraordinary contribution to Australian art and his great generosity to the Australian nation.” Particularly admired in the UK and Australia, Boyd is so celebrated that one of his tapestries is on display in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra. In 1993 he gifted to the nation several thousand artworks from his personal collection. He also donated to the Australian people his property, Bundanon, on the Shoalhaven River near Nowra, several hours south of Sydney. Bundanon is managed by Bundanon Trust as a not for profit artists’ retreat complete with accommodation, galleries and concert venues. Those who visit cannot but be inspired by the scenery, the artworks on display and the generosity of the artist in signing away something that must have been precious to him and his family. 
Boyd was an unlikely figure to make Australian of the Year. He was not given to public speeches or pronouncements. As I remember it, he kept a low profile during his 12-month term. If he was alive today, I imagine he would not contemplate presenting a TEDx talk about art and would be even less inclined to opine on leadership. But Boyd did lead in and through what he did best – making art. In the 1950s, his “Love, Marriage and Death of a Half-Caste” series of paintings was inspired by, and pointed to, the plight of Australian aboriginals who until 1967 were not considered to be Australian citizens. Unfortunately to my mind, artists like Boyd are rarely featured in leadership development programs or cited in the broader community as examples to emulate. This serves to highlight shortcomings in the way we think about leadership in our society.

Expanding our concepts of leadership

Outside the close-knit world of the arts that, to be honest, many people find impenetrable, there is little written about the role artists play as leaders in our community. Perhaps this is because few artists run major enterprises, employ large numbers of staff or lead a country. Frustratingly, there is no universally agreed best way to be an artist: no three easy steps to success. Some artists are hermits and avoid the limelight, others insist on loudly pointing out societal flaws – even those that embarrass and shame us. Some have a positive view of the world that is uplifting whilst others put forward a vision that is bleak and difficult to engage with, let alone comprehend. At times, writers such as Tasmanian novelist Richard Flannagan do become influential opinion leaders, as did Irish rockers, U2, but such examples tend to be the exception. Most, but not all artists, simply do not fit the heroic leadership model that so dominates and limits our thinking. They are more often anti-heroes, even “anti-leaders”. Chris Lowney, who trained as a Jesuit priest before taking up a global career in merchant banking with J.P Morgan, makes the following observations about the cultural stereotypes of leaders and leadership that dominate Western Culture. These include:

A leader is a person in charge – the one running a company, heading a government, coaching a team or captaining troops.
Leadership produces direct results - the most effective leadership behaviour produces immediate results.
Leadership is about defining moments – the decisive battle, the championship game, the new business strategy.

Few individuals fit this somewhat heroic model of leadership. As Lowney points out, most of us never motivate an army of subordinates, few of us have defining leadership moments worthy of note and even fewer everyday citizens can point to direct, positive outcomes of their leadership actions beyond that of immediate family, our workplace and friends. In summary, the model of leadership we most widely study and celebrate in our culture is one that is unachievable by the majority of people. In this sense, the humble artist is more like the humble citizen than we might imagine. That is, for the most part artists go about their lives with limited hope of career and financial success, let alone the influence and power these bring. Like the rest of us they simply do what they do as best they can and hope to have a positive impact.

Can we learn about leadership from artists?

Perhaps due to the fact that I originally trained as a classical musician, I have been inspired by art and artists since my mid-teens. I still read a poem or two every day and co-own a music promotion business that also records and releases CDs. Over the years I’ve continued to read and research much about art and artists. As I look at my bookcase, biographies of composers such as Bach, Messiaen, Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten and the Australian, Peter Sculthorpe, rest alongside books about poets Ted Hughes, TS Eliot and Les Murray. There is also a history of the famed Boyd family, of which Arthur Boyd was a member, a biography of Margaret Olley, the painter and one of the Russian novelist, Tolstoy. These tomes are juxtaposed with books on generals such as Dwight Eisenhower and John Monash, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer and political leaders Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Russian cold war leader Nikita Krushchev, Hitler and Angela Merkel. An uneasy mix some would say! But you don’t have to agree with a politician to want to understand them and their motivations; you don’t have to love war to learn about leadership from a general; you don’t need to be a scientist to be interested in how science works. Equally, wishing to comprehend how evil pervades a civilised nation does not make you a Nazi. You don’t even have to be a fan of art to be open to learning from artists. 

What follows is a short summary of what I have learned about leadership from a lifetime of being directly and vicariously involved with artists and art. My musings are diffuse but so be it: life is best lived through applying a limited number of principles to the many day to day actions and options available to us. The writer Amor Towles put this idea beautifully in his novel, “A Gentlemen in Moscow”: “We must all eventually adopt a fundamental framework, some reasonably coherent system of causes and effects that will help us make sense not simply of momentous events, but of all the little actions and interactions that constitute our daily lives”. 
One such framework follows.

A. Live a purposeful life
Living a purposeful life is a key part of what it is to be human. I believe we are hardwired to seek meaning, yet we often avoid the task and for good reason: it’s hard. Artists find meaning, joy and even solace in what they do and create. Yet being a working artist can be lonely, poorly rewarded and unrecognised. As an artist your ego and sense of worth are always under threat: one bad review, a poor performance or yet another funding rejection can be devastating. Months or years of patient labour may have gone into the very artistic outputs that are negatively or ambivalently received. On the upside, artists get to spend their time doing what they believe they’ve been put on earth to do. They focus their energies on that which they love, and everything else comes second - for better or worse. In contrast, so many professionals have commented to me, particularly once they hit their late 40s and into their 50s, that they wished they had done something more purposeful or meaningful with their lives rather than just being an “x”, whatever “x” is. It is often the case that the career alternative to the profession or career they chose was potentially more fulfilling but riskier and with a less clear pathway to success. Art is not the only way to construct a meaningful life, but it is a pointer to what makes life meaningful. This leads to the next two points in my framework.

B. Take a long-term perspective 
Artists can help us learn what it is to have a long-term perspective on the decades-long arc that constitutes a human life – in developed countries at least. It takes many years as a writer, painter, performer or composer to create a body of significant work. In this sense, most artists are the opposite of the much-vaunted heroic leader who produces immediate results. My wife, a classical musician, said to me recently that she hopes when she dies people may continue to play her recordings which represent 35 years of her life. The road to building a body of work is littered, however, with failure: much artistic output that is inferior is by necessity abandoned or even destroyed. Artists must also be open to a change of direction or focus in order to get better at what they do. I am certain it is tempting as an artist to continue to produce what people like and buy  –  even as the very artistic outputs that attract public interest become tired or second rate. 
What it takes to obtain mastery of an artform gives perspective to the twists and turns of the human life course. Orchestral conductors are said to reach their peak in their 60s, 70s and 80s, just when most of us have retired, or are preparing to retire; Picasso painted into his 90s and the guitarist, Segovia, was performing into his tenth decade; the painter Margaret Olley was similarly a late bloomer. Writer Clive James produced some of his finest poetry in the last years of his life while being treated for what would be a fatal illness. To this list I could also add the Rolling Stones who show no sign of ceasing to roll although aged well into their 70s. 
We all need to make short term decisions, but these decisions are best viewed from the perspective of our life-long goals, the reasons for being we believe make life meaningful. Put another way, we benefit from viewing our lives through the lens of the impact we want to make on the world and in the lives of those around us. Most of us will at best make relatively modest contributions to global well-being. Our focus will be more localised – a school, sporting team, a particular community group, our family, our role in the public service or place of employment. The practice of art has the potential to teach us that when viewed from the perspective of a life well-lived, each and every contribution we make can be significant and worthy on its own terms.

C. Seek insight and understanding 
The pursuit of insight and understanding has the potential create a more profound impact on our lives than simply growing our knowledge and fact base. Similarly, ancient philosophers viewed wisdom as that which is obtained through reflection on knowledge gained and experiences had. Wisdom is thus a (potential) product of age. I do not want to play knowledge and insight/wisdom off against each other but rather to point to the fact that art potentially gives us access to the depths of what it is to be human. Art summarises, and at the same time transcends, the everyday. Shakespeare’s sonnets elevate love in the same way that an Emily Dickinson poem helps us see daily mundanities from a new perspective; a simple folk song relating an ancient tragedy brings new insight to a contemporary event; a great novel transports us through time; a challenging art installation puts the boot into our complacencies, while coming across an unexpected sculpture in a public park can lift our spirits when we least expect. 
The kind of art that has a deep impact comes from a process of reflection and profound exploration of self, society, the natural world and the web of relationships that connect us. Art at its best points to that which is higher and better: the numinous. Again, I don’t wish to drive a wedge between the practice of a constructing a fulfilling day to day life, which is pervasive, and the relatively few transformative moments of grand enlightenment we experience: I am advocating for both/and, rather than either/or. We don’t need to be artists to commit ourselves to moving beyond the surface of things and seeking insights as to that which lies beneath.

D. Some artists emerge as conventional, even heroic leaders
Finally, there are artists who lead in more conventional ways. Similarly, some works of art actually change the way we view the world. For example, Picasso’s “Guernica”, although not originally a painting about war, has come to symbolise the horrors of war for millions as has Russian composer Shostakovich’s Leningrad symphony - written and premiered, as it was, in the shadow of Germany’s WWII invasion of his country and prolonged assault on the city of Leningrad. Across history musicians, actors and writers have stood up to despots, tongue-lashed community neglect of suffering, drawn attention to the blight of racism and publicised horrors such as the Holocaust and the Gulags. A limited number of artists have also become political leaders: writer Václav Havel, a political dissident under communism, was the last President of Czechoslovakia from 1989 until the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992. He was then the initial President of the Czech Republic from 1993 to 2003. Australian rock singer Peter Garret entered Federal parliament and rose to the Ministry while the world-famous pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski became a spokesman for Polish independence and was briefly that nation’s Prime Minister. As Foreign Minister he even signed the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. 
In closing, it is worth drawing attention to the power of hope expressed in art. Years after his senseless murder, many are still attracted to John Lennon’s unlikely anthem, “Imagine”. In listening to the song, it is my hope that some, perhaps just a handful, are doing what Lennon hoped they would do: imagining a better world. A few will go on to act on those imaginings…that too is leadership.

Philip Pogson FAICD Director, The Leading Partnership
Philip studied music at Sydney, Sweelinck and Rotterdam Conservatoriums prior to entering management and business. Alongside his music enterprises, Philip is an active company director and Chair and advises boards and leadership teams on strategy and governance.
The Marais Project

Who reviews the bosses? Every board’s responsibility to evaluate its own performance

posted 29 Jan 2020, 15:21 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 29 Jan 2020, 15:46 ]

“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” – Marcus Aurelius

“Of all deceivers fear most yourself!” – Søren Kierkegaard

It is no accident that the quotes I chose to head this article are from philosophers – although Aurelius was also a Roman emperor and knew more than most about serious matters of state. Separated in time by fifteen hundred years, the message of Aurelius and Kierkegaard is the same: the failings and deceptions we see in others are likely to be replicated at some level in ourselves. This advice has particular application in the corporate world and applies equally to for and not for profit entities. Philosophers spend their lives looking inward, reflecting on meaning, motives and core principles whereas in corporate world, it’s the active, outcome-driven life that is valued; there is often little time for deep reflection.

In addition, the higher you go up the corporate ladder the more difficult it is to get accurate feedback on your performance. The reasons are obvious: it can be career limiting to speak truth to those in power, particularly when you are a board of directors and hold ultimate power over everything from capital allocation to executive remuneration. Boards can easily come to see themselves as above criticism and even above the need to learn and improve. Management, for the reasons stated above, will rarely hold a mirror up to the board or criticise its performance openly – although it is not uncommon for senior staff to fairly or unfairly hold jaundiced views of their board! In order to avoid self-deception, every board needs to have processes in place to give performance feedback to itself. That is the purpose of a board self-evaluation.

What is board self-evaluation?

Board self-evaluation is a collective commitment by directors to regularly reviewing their own performance in a manner not dissimilar to the way they go about reviewing the CEO. The difference being that the CEO is directly accountable to the board for her or his performance whereas the board is largely accountable to itself. Shareholders can of course remove a board or individuals directors, but any such action, and even how and when a meeting is called to eject directors, is governed by corporations’ law and the company’s constitution. For the large part, boards are responsible to themselves and must therefore hold themselves accountable through agreed processes.

Why should boards review themselves?

Boards should regularly review their own performance for the same reasons they review management. Just as no individual executive is perfect, no board is perfect. Every board can learn from reflecting on its successes and its failures, how it uses its time, what contribution it makes to the success of the enterprise and how it goes about taking decisions. Without reflection and evaluation even, the best boards fall into complacency or just start believing their own rhetoric. To paraphrase Kierkegaard, they come to deceive themselves.

Who conducts board self-evaluation processes and how should reviews be undertaken?

Board review and evaluation processes are not mandated in corporations’ law although companies listed on the Australian Stock Exchange (ASX) are strongly encouraged to review governance performance. The ASX Corporate Governance Principles and Recommendations note that “monitoring the effectiveness of the entity’s governance practices” is a key role of the board.

It is directors, under the guidance of Chair, who decide when and how a self-evaluation is conducted and who leads the process. For example, with the consent of board colleagues, the Chair may simply create a time for the directors to informally review themselves once or twice a year. Large organisations often have in place a governance committee that is delegated with facilitating the self-review task. In other cases, the board may retain the services of an external consultant or even a senior director from another organisation to conduct a more independent style review. Leading company chair, David Gonski, writes:

I believe that the idea of an external person appraising a board, say, every two years, is a good one. The choice of person is also important. That person should not just be a box-ticker, but rather someone who can look at the team and see how it might function better as a whole, rather than focussing just on technical governance questions.  It should also be an opportunity to ascertain directors’ view on how the board works.

It is recommended that directors adopt a self-evaluation policy that outlines how the board goes about reviewing their performance on, say a 3-year cycle. Year one might consist of an informal board discussion, year two each director responding to a set of questions from the Chair or the governance committee, while in the third year, the board may retain an external reviewer. Periodic engagement of a competent, independent reviewer will assist a board to identify and focus on its faults not just its strengths, as noted by the emperor-philosopher, Marcus Aurelius.

It should be remembered that an independent reviewer is not evaluating the board, the board is evaluating itself with the assistance and insights of the reviewer.  The distinction is important.

Should board reviews focus on compliance or performance?

The answer is “yes” but with a strong emphasis on reviewing the board’s performance in driving the enterprise’s vision, mission and objectives. As a company director and chair, I believe that governance reviews should primarily focus on areas where board effectiveness can improve and positively impact organisational performance rather than “nit picking” minor areas of compliance and policy. One key outcome of any review must be an agreed list of governance changes or improvements signed off by directors and supported by an explicit timetable for implementation

I have learned a great deal from taking part in board self-evaluations and from being invited to conduct external reviews. If you are on a board that does not regularly review its own performance, it is never too late to start.

Philip Pogson FAICD, January 2020.

Philip has been a company director, Chair and business owner for more than 20 years. He consults and advises on strategy and governance across a range of business sectors. 

Governance as leadership

posted 12 Jan 2020, 20:01 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 19 Jan 2020, 18:17 ]

“Everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” (Mike Tyson, boxer)

Several years ago, governance expert Bob Garratt published a book called “The fish rots from the head”, the colourful title having its origin in a Chinese proverb. The contents focussed on the role of the board of directors in company failures, misdemeanours and other poor corporate behaviour. I am not sure if it is anatomically correct to say that fish rot from the head, but the stark image reminds us of the importance of the head, particularly for humankind. The head is the site of the brain and therefore of thinking, reason and as we now know, the emotions – although the latter were once seen, incorrectly, as the province of the heart. If the body, that is, the company, is dead or dying, Garratt’s reasoning went, the head, that is, the board, was rotting first. Drawing on the Mike Tyson quote above, it is the board that should be foreseeing and planning for any metaphorical “punches in the mouth” that come the company’s way. Boards should provide leadership for the entities they oversee. But how does the board lead in such a way that it does not interfere, compete with or undermine management? There are no hard and fast rules to dividing up leadership roles between the board and management except to say that at any particular point in time, roles should be clear and documented. What follows are suggestions as to the areas of leadership that boards should acknowledge and pay particular attention to.

A. The board as the head

Experienced directors will be aware that under corporations’ law the board can delegate virtually any task to management, but it cannot delegate ultimate responsibility for the entity. The board of directors is the collective head, the overall leader of the company, a reality that all boards should embrace. This is why Garratt’s “rotting from the head” analogy rings true in concept whether or not that is what happens in nature. Even if management is the source of the “rot” (whatever the rot may be), it is the board that appoints management, then oversees and monitors their actions. The board may not be directly at fault for a major failure, but responsibility is a higher concept than fault. A board is responsible whether or not it is at fault. This is the reason why shareholders often vote to remove directors when things go seriously wrong in an enterprise. So, if the board is the head, the leader of the company, how does it exercise its leadership in such a way that it does not interfere with the role of the management team?

B. The board as the holder of the long-term vision for the enterprise

CEOs come and go but the board remains. Some would argue that directors also come and go – which is true – but only on rare occasions does each and every director get sacked or resign at the same time. It is therefore the board that should turn its attention to profitability, sustainability and other key areas over the longer term. In view of that reality, the directors should, develop an own a vision for the future of the enterprise that goes beyond that of the current CEO and her or his leadership team. In my view, that vision should be at least 10 years into the future.

Over the years a number of boards have commented to me that they were pleased with their CEO but that the board tended to respond to the CEO’s proposals in the absence of itself having agreed a vision beyond management’s typically 3-5-year horizon. These boards felt that management was de facto controlling the strategic agenda. In most cases, management was only controlling the strategic agenda because the board did not have its own documented view on the company’s long-range focus.

In 2013 the Chairman of BHP Billiton, Jac Nasser, wrote:

"In late 2010…the BHP board asked and debated this question: ‘If we had to choose three areas to put extra emphasis and time on, what would they be?’ 

The answer was people development, capital management and reputation. Under each of these categories we had further goals and decided that each that every year we would go back and stress-test if those were the right strategic imperatives for the and whether the action items underneath those goals were being met or needed to change from year to year.

I don’t think many boards do that type of self-reflection consciously. They may end up doing it around an event. But BHP feel that, just like it was important for the company to have strategic objectives, the board needed to have a similar framework." (Company Director Journal, May 2013)

It is interesting to note that Nasser believed that the BHP board needed to have its own strategic framework. If this is the case, I would argue that such a framework must take a long-term view, longer and more strategic than that of management. In fact, management’s strategic and operational plans should sit under the board’s 10-20 year strategic vision. I have worked with a number of boards to develop a 10-year vision for their enterprise. I recommend that such a vision be succinct and articulated in no more than 1-2 pages. The board is the primary owner of the high-level 10-year vision while management is the primary owner of the more detailed and specific strategic and operational plans. The term “primary owner” is chosen deliberately to reflect the fact the two plans should be aligned. As an aside, I have generally observed that prospective CEOs are impressed with boards that have a long-term vision, even if they do not agree with every aspect of what is articulated.

In summary, one of the most important leadership roles for the board is to ensure that they have vision for the enterprise that looks well past the term of the current CEO.

C. The board as the holder of the company culture and values

If the idea of the board owning the 10-20-year vision for the company is somewhat controversial, the role of the board in setting and monitoring company culture and values is perhaps more so. The discussion of the board’s role in culture and values is fairly recent in Australia and has its roots to some degree, I believe, in the outcomes of the sexual abuse and financial services Royal Commissions as well as the spate of high-profile corporate collapses of the last two decades. The final reports by the respective banking and sexual abuse Royal Commissions drew attention to real failings in the leadership of boards and governance bodies. There were examples relayed in excruciating details of situations where bad news did not “travel fast” to the board; where boards did not act or act decisively to right wrongs or drive necessary change and where directors failed intervene when management was behaving inappropriately or even illegally. Sadly, we can expect the current Royal Commissions into aged and disability care to deliver similar reports cards of governance and management failure. It is now regularly argued in governance circles that nurturing a strong company culture that emphasises fairness, compliance, accountability and transparency alongside high performance and profitability, plays a powerful role in regulating staff activities and articulating the desired positive behaviours organisations expect of their employees. The Banking Royal Commissioner, Justice Hayne, for example, did not call for new laws to keep rampant bankers in check, but for the enforcement of existing legal frameworks both by regulators and by boards. That is, a culture of accountability and compliance.

Just how boards go about setting culture and values, then monitoring adherence, is a work in progress. But the board as governors have a growing leadership role to play in the area of enterprise culture.

D. The board as exemplars of desired leadership behaviours

I have been a member of, consulted to and witnessed, many fine boards populated with directors of high ethical and professional standards and exemplary ability. I have also been privy to examples of the opposite. I’ve observed some directors and boards undermine, berate and even publicly humiliate management and express contempt for customers. I’ve heard some directors complain to each other in private about their CEO’s performance then award the individual concerned the highest possible performance review. In one case I had direct contact with, a CEO was sacked for poor results just two months after being formally rated 5/5 by the board! I have even seen directors at war with each other in board meetings demand that the executive team collaborate more effectively – these individuals were obviously fans of the “do what I say, not what I do” approach to leadership. These are clear examples of the fish rotting from the head. As directors, our role includes that of leadership exemplars to management, customers or those we serve in the broader community. As the former head of the Australian armed forces once said, “the behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you accept”.

Directors are not called to be perfect, but we are called to articulate and model the kind of leadership we wish to see as the norm, particularly if we’ve played a role in setting vision, culture and values in the first place.

Philip Pogson FAICD, January 2020.

Philip has been a company director, Chair and business owner for more than 20 years. He consults and advises on strategy and governance across a range of business sectors.


To Your Very Good Health

posted 8 Dec 2019, 18:44 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 8 Dec 2019, 18:50 ]

The state of the nation

Why am I writing about health? I have consulted in and around health for some 20 years and have a deep interest in, and have a relatively well-informed perspective on, human health and the broader health sector. One could say that health is both a professional interest and a personal passion. But health is not just a dominant sector of the economy nor is good health an end in itself. For example, a healthy nation is more economically productive on the one hand, and its population better able to participate in, and contribute to, important cultural and community activities, on the other. I also wanted to draw attention to the fact that despite Australia spending some 10% of its GDP on health, many citizens miss out on access to health services when and where they need them. Whole sections of our community suffer chronic ill health and die younger than they should, facts often directly related to where they live, how much they earn and their race. The benefits of the Australian health system are spread in an inequal way. This should not be considered an acceptable outcome.

It not only about the money – but we spend a lot

Australia spends a great deal of money on health. In 2017–18 total health spending was $185.4 billion, equating to $7,485 per person. $74B was spent on hospitals while two thirds of the total $s was funded by Federal and State governments. Millions, perhaps billions more is expended on vitamins, supplements and alternate treatment modalities. The good news is that Australia consistently ranks in the top 30% of OECD countries by key measures of health outcomes such as longevity.

But a healthy expenditure on health does not equal health outcomes for the Australian population as a whole, a fact I was reminded of this week when working with the leadership team of a remote aboriginal health organisation in Central Australia.

Who misses out in the health stakes?

The most recent estimates show that an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander male born in 2015-2017 is likely to live to 71.6 years, about 9 years less than a non-Indigenous male (who is likely to live to 80.2 years). An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander female born in 2015-2017 is likely to live to 75.6 years, which is almost 8 years less than a non-Indigenous female (who is likely to live to 83.4 years). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have 1.2 times the rate of cardiovascular disease compared to the rest of the population. Diseases such as acute rheumatic fever (ARF) and rheumatic heart disease (RHD), that are preventable health problems occur almost exclusively in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities. More than 90% of those suffering ARF are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander persons. Aboriginals in remote areas also suffer from diseases such as the eye condition trachoma which is virtually never seen in the non-Aboriginal community. (Figures from the Australian Indigenous Health Infonet)

Having an address outside a major urban area is bad for your health. Around 3 in 10 (29%, or 7 million) Australians live in rural and remote areas where they can face  a number of challenges due to geographic isolation, including difficulty accessing services. As a result, they often experience poorer health outcomes than people in Major cities. To put it bluntly, the more remote your address, the shorter your lifespan, the more likely it is that you smoke, drink to excess and don’t get early diagnosis for cancer. When you do get your cancer diagnosis you will travel further for treatment and get poorer outcomes than your city-based cousins! The statistics speak for themselves: median age of death in very remote areas is an astounding 67 years compared to 82 years in a major city. Something is not working. (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare)

LGBTQI and other minorities in Australia also suffer poorer health outcomes than the mainstream further reinforcing that fact that the benefits of our health care system are not equally distributed.

It there a simple cure?

Neither the diagnosis nor the cure for systemic health inequalities is simple. The causes are complex and if the solution was as easy as writing a prescription, the issues would have been addressed years ago. Systemic problems nearly always require multi-factor, system-wide solutions. In summary, I have no easy answers but my work in remote and regional Australia just prompts me to highlight the issues.

It is difficult to attract health workers to regional and remote areas, for example. Australia relies enormously on overseas trained doctors to fill positions in regional and remote areas where in some cases, they comprise the majority of specialists and general practitioners. Despite graduating more medical students than ever, Australian doctors do not want to practice in The Bush – a fact which in itself has multiple causes. Similarly, anyone who has worked in remote area health in Central Australia would have noted the large number of New Zealand nurses who swap the green grass of home for the wide brown lands of the outback! Long distances to travel to see health professionals, high levels of smoking, the expense of fresh food and vegetables and, believe it or not, lower levels of exercise, contribute to poorer health outcomes. In Aboriginal communities lower than average health has several overlays of causes but key factors include lack of access to health knowledge, cultural issues, language challenges, complex and ever-changing funding arrangements, distance, and the tendency of governments to act prior to consulting and to ignore the evidence they have often paid for. It was recently revealed that almost 20 formal reports had been commissioned into the spate of suicides and serious mental health challenges in the Kimberly region which governments appeared to ignore when grappling for solutions.


There should be no such thing as a health status quo

In closing, please, don’t settle for the health status quo, particularly if you are, like me, a city dweller. We need to remember that our health system’s benefits are not distributed equally geographically, socially or in terms of race, and nor are the outcomes. City folk are doing well out of the $185B. Finally, some of the very worst off in this scenario, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, are often marginalised socially and economically. It is not for me to speak for them, but I do have a role in ensuring where I can that their voices are heard, and their health needs addressed. We will be a better society if we lift our game.

Philip Pogson FAICD Director, The Leading Partnership

Stop waiting to be led: get on with leading! If only I had a great boss.....

posted 8 Oct 2019, 20:08 by Michelle Stewart

 “A truly great boss is hard to find, difficult to part with and impossible to forget.”


“A boss who believes in you and trusts you will make a huge difference in your career.”


If only I had a great boss!

One of the most unhelpful leadership concepts going around is the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect boss. As the real-life quotes above state (similar memes are regularly posted on LinkedIn and other forums), the Perfect Boss believes in you, trusts you and supports you. The Perfect Boss is wise, has great values, draws the best from you and invests in you. The Perfect Boss is there to catch you when you fall. Strongly implied in writings about the Perfect Boss is that we all deserve one and that when we find this man or woman we should sit at their feet for as long as we can. I have met many people over the years who are searching for the Perfect Boss. Then they find these individuals, they rave about them for a while, only to be disappointed. Undeterred, they start the search again. It’s interesting that so many people look outside of themselves for the perfect leader, an observation I will return to.

In my view much of what is written about the Perfect or Ideal Boss is wrong and unhelpful. It is based on premises that if adopted, will hinder rather than accelerate our growth as people and as leaders.

Firstly, the notion of the perfect boss is premised on an idealised view of leadership and what a leader does. The perfect human does not exist so neither does the perfect boss. It’s nice to believe that your dream boss is out there, and even more enticing to believe you deserve to report to such a person, but it’s a fantasy. Every individual you work for, or with, has flaws. Each one of us comes with strengths and weaknesses, even the greats. Winston Churchill drank too much and was a womaniser; Mother Theresa could be intransigent, myopic and overly demanding; Mahatma Gandhi treated his wife poorly; Nelson Mandela often failed as a parent. And let’s not start on the less than edifying off field behaviour of some of our sporting greats. I am not gratuitously rubbing the sheen off these and other amazing people in our lives – my own failures and flaws are myriad – I am simply pointing to the obvious fact that great leaders are great despite their often profound flaws, not because they meet some abstract leadership ideal.

Secondly, an idealised view of leadership can have the unintended consequence of creating a two-tiered view of leadership. That is, there is “Big Leadership” (Leadership with a capital ‘L’), which is the province of Presidents, Prime Ministers and Sporting Greats, of the Churchills, Gandhis and Mandelas of this world, then there is the rest of us. We don’t lead, we follow or just muddle about. Yet in reality, society only functions due to thousands of acts of “small leadership” (leadership with a lowercase ‘l’): the unpaid sports coach who guides and mentors a struggling team, the volunteer fire brigade members, the retired adult who safely shepherds children across a school crossing, the social worker who stands by an abused child, the anonymous public servant who acts to ensure a needy person gets the support they are entitled to, or the tradie who charges nothing for fixing the single parent’s faulty appliance. ‘Big L’ Leadership stands out, it changes history, starts and stops wars and pushes through nation building projects. Big Leadership demands to be noticed. But it is ‘small l’ leadership that makes our society function day to day in a humane way. Most of us, myself included, are ‘small l’ rather than ‘Big L’ leaders. Yet if we everyday leaders aimed to get just a little better at what we do week to week and month to month, not only would the world be a better place, but perhaps we would not yearn so deeply for the Perfect Boss/Politician/Business Leader…

Thirdly the search for the perfect boss encourages us to look outwardly rather than inwardly for leadership. Dee Hock, the founder of Visa Card, created a profoundly simple, non-ideological leadership model that has the capacity to revolutionise lives. Hock believed that there are four leadership tasks in descending order of importance: 1. Lead and manage yourself; 2. Lead and manage upwards (your boss, if you have one); 3. Lead and manage sideways to your peers (those of equal status but who do not report to you); and: 4. Lead and manage downward (your team).

Hock writes:

“The first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self; one’s own integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words and acts.  It is a complex, never-ending, incredibly difficult, oft-shunned task.”

Leadership starts not with the perfect boss but that imperfect person that is you and me. I have come across so many people over the years who have found their life’s purpose in finding fault. They find fault in everything from their boss, to their staff, their peers, governments, society, the courts and the school system, but rarely in themselves. The hardest person in your life to lead and manage is you. Yet if you and I seek to make a positive impact on the world, it is with ourselves that we should start. Its easy to be a top-flight employee if you have a top rank boss: everything falls into place. But it’s under bad or ineffective leadership that your character grows and personal resolve firms. Paradoxically, working under poor leadership makes us adept at making positive and needed outcomes happen despite, not because of, the traits of those above us.

The final flaw in the Perfect Boss model is so obvious that I am surprised more people have not pointed it out. Simply put, millions of people do not have a formal boss – so there is no point in them waiting around for someone up the hierarchy to affirm and support them. Think of it: your local doctor, lawyer, medical specialist or surgeon is just as likely to be self-employed or be an equal partner in a practice than to report to someone further up the hierarchy; the same for plumbers, non-executive company directors, freelance web designers or the wedding photographer down the road. Small business owners are typically their own CEO/MD and, if incorporated, a director of the company through which they run their business. Personally, I have not had an employer or boss for twenty plus years. For those in the circumstances I describe, there is no such thing as working for the “boss who believes in you and trusts you (and) will make a huge difference in your career.”  This is why Dee Hock’s insight is so powerful: the place to start is not with your boss’s strengths or flaws, but with your own character, temperament, behaviours and ethics. This does not mean that business owners and the self employed do not have mentors and those they admire in their lives, its just that they cannot rely on others to tell them what to do, pay them if they don’t earn enough money that week, or to protect them when they make a mistake.

In summary, wherever you are and whoever you work for, don’t waste time waiting around the perfect boss. Conversely, if you work for someone particularly uninspiring or unethical, seriously consider biting the bullet and moving on. Whatever our circumstances, its incumbent on us all to stop waiting to be led - and get on with leading.


Books, articles and talks about leadership should be ruthlessly sorted into two piles: those that are insightful and make us think and those that don’t. The former should be put in the “go back to” pile while the latter are best trashed. Which pile this article belongs in is for the reader to decide!

Philip Pogson FAICD, Director, The Leading Partnership 

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