The Leading Partnership News

The Art of the Trade-Off

posted 31 May 2020, 20:11 by Michelle Stewart

Trade-offs are part of life

Anyone who has conducted a personal or business negotiation, reached any kind of deal, or made an agreement with another person, knows what a trade-off is. Given the above sentence describes just about all of humankind, the reality is, we have all made trade-offs even if we do not recognise or use the term. 

A trade-off can be described as a situation in which we attempt to balance two apparently opposing and, at times, equally attractive outcomes. A builder, for example, might face a trade-off between doing a job accurately on the one hand and doing it quickly on the other. Parents constantly trade-off freedom and independence for their children with their child’s safety and well-being. Independence and safety are both important. Going out for a few drinks with friends involves trading off how much we drink in the evening with how we want to feel in the morning!

On a larger scale, think of the complexities involved in managing water allocation across Australia’s vast Murray-Darling Basin river system. How do we trade-off the value of water extracted for cotton irrigation in the Darling River’s headwaters, versus water for downstream graziers and townships, versus environmental flows for wetlands and other river habitats? How much water do we think should get all the way to the river mouth and flow into the sea? On what basis do we decide who gets more and who gets less in any trade-off?

In an ideal world, a builder does her or his work to the required standard AND quickly, each of the Murray-Darling river’s stakeholders gets all the water they want, and excessive alcohol does not cause a hangover. After all, ‘win-win’ is typically seen as the best possible outcome in any negotiation or business deal. The problem is, we do not live in a perfect world. As a result, the Art of the Trade-off is a fact of life.

Risk management involves trade-offs

As discussed in my recent blog on risk, managing risk involves trade-offs. That is, establishing what degree of risk an individual, community or organisation is prepared to accept at what financial and other costs and/or impact. It is virtually impossible to eliminate risk without totally ceasing activity. If there were no vehicles on the road, there would be no car accidents. If we shut down hospital operating theatres, there will be no surgical errors, but more people will die from untreated ailments. That is the trade-off.

At the everyday level, I suspect most of us accept the kind of trade-offs I have outlined. At a societal level, I contend, our capacity to articulate, discuss and implement effective trade-offs has atrophied dangerously over the past 20-30 years. This undermines the future of democracy in Australia and elsewhere.

Everyone can be a winner, can’t they?

Australia has gone for nearly three decades without enduring a recession. As a result, there is a widespread view that we can address (or fail to address) difficult challenges without trade-offs and without any particular group or section of society losing out. We can all be winners all the time. 

For example, as I write, the New South Wales government, which is facing an enormous budget deficit due to the corona virus, has announced a 12-month public sector wage freeze. Although applying to all state public servants, including politicians, it has been pointed out that three important groups of state employees - health workers, emergency services and teachers – will be affected. These three groups, it has been rightly argued, have played an enormous role in dealing with the recent drought, fires, floods, and the current pandemic. The state government’s trade-off offer is that there will be no forced redundancies if a wage freeze is accepted. On the surface of it, that seems like a fair deal. But fair to whom? 

In response, some commentators have pointed out that a wage freeze will have a disproportionate effect on struggling rural and regional areas. Others have suggested cutting capital projects such as new sporting stadiums or museums instead. The fact that building new stadiums also employs people seems to have escaped analysis. 

It is not only a matter of what economic value we place on the people or projects that get the money, it is also about our underlying personal and societal values. That is, how we balance (trade-off), justice, equity, and accountability with economic sustainability, thrift, and prudence – two very old-fashioned terms!

The easiest alternative to governments articulating, discussing, and addressing difficult trade-offs with citizens is to borrow more cash and ‘kick the can down the road.’ This solution is tried and true. It is what we have been doing in Australia for 13 years. Afterall, the last Commonwealth government surplus was back in 2007-8. Since then, as a nation, we have been living on credit. That is, on borrowed money. With next to zero interest rates, borrowing to enable us to do everything we want surely makes sense. Perhaps it does. But there is a trade-off involved. We are saddling future generations with our debt. Consciously or unconsciously, are trading off the well-being of future taxpayers for the well-being of those living now.

Thirty years of economic growth has ingrained a deeply held view that everyone can be a winner, that difficult trade-offs do not need to be made or can be put off indefinitely. Put bluntly, I should be able to enjoy a high level of government services and pay a low level of taxes. Or I can avoid tax and offload my responsibility to others as many global companies and well-off individuals now do as a matter of course.

How should we allocate health expenditure: to the young or to the old?

Before all the blame is laid at the feet of the very rich and global corporates, here is another trade-off we have been avoiding as a community. In some estimates, a third to a half of the lifetime cost of health takes place in the final 2-3 years of an individual’s life. This is particularly the case for those over 80. Yet research consistently shows that the best return on investment for the health and well-being $ is in the first decade of a child’s life. How much are we willing to trade-off the well-being of the young for the well-being of the old? 

In asking this question I am not advocating that the elderly are of less value than the young. Both my parents are almost 90 years of age and I want the best of them and for others of similar vintage. All lives are of equal value. In a perfect world each and every person would have access to the healthcare they need, when and where they need it. But in reality, governments already ration healthcare and rarely admit it. Unofficial healthcare rationing is an easier course of action for politicians and policymakers than running fraught and emotional ‘trade-off’ conversations with citizens.

A future of tough choices

I am positive about Australia’s future and always have been. I am positive about the capacity of younger generations to lead this country well. However, I believe that at a personal, business, community, and societal level we need to re-learn the Art of the Trade-off. This applies to corporates, not-for-profits, boards, management, workers, and individuals. The start of this journey is being honest about the trade-offs that must be faced. 

Governments have learned to lie to us. They have learned to say that nobody will be worse off when a tough decision needs to be made. This is partly because all too often, that is what we want to hear. Some of the trade-off conversations we have avoided are now becoming pressing issues. Climate change, rising debt, water allocation, health equity, low cost housing, energy and public transport are but a few of the issues we have ‘kicked down the road’ but need to address over the next five years or even sooner. 

Trade-offs are inevitable and will inevitably be made. But let’s commit to getting better at talking about those trade-offs and to improving our capacity to make effective medium and long-term decisions. After all, that is what democracy, good management and sound governance is all about.

Philip Pogson FAICD
June 1, 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 and also co-owns and operates a music production and promotion business. 

What’s the risk?

posted 17 May 2020, 22:59 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 18 May 2020, 01:55 ]

Life has always been a risky business. The fear and concern generated by Covid-19 has served to surface the fact that there are widely varying understandings of risk across our community. There are equally broad views as to how serious risk can and should be managed or, to use the technical term, mitigated. Cost is always an issue in dealing with risk. Even as I write the debate is growing about cost and impact of managing the current pandemic. That is, how much should we spend for how long to protect how many people from catching the disease - and what impacts are we prepared to accept on our personal freedoms, livelihoods, and the broader economy. These questions are not recent: they have been raised across millennia. Talk of risk raises emotional issues, a point I will return to.

So, what is risk?   Some definitions are broad and others quite narrow. One states that risk is the potential for the uncontrolled loss of something of value. Another that risk is the chance of something happening that will have a negative effect. A narrower, more business focussed understanding sees risk as an ongoing or upcoming concern that has a significant probability of adversely affecting the success of major milestones.

Most risk definitions encompass two aspects: 1. Uncertainty as to whether or not a particular event will happen; and: 2. Loss, the notion that an event or occurrence will have unwanted consequences or result in loss of some kind. Embedded in the twin ideas of uncertainty and loss are the very reasons why it is not easy to get people to agree on what is, and is not, a risk. Firstly, individuals may have widely different views as to how likely it is that an event will happen, and secondly, they disagree on whether or not a particular consequence is acceptable. For example, a 30% risk of losing $1000 on an investment may mean little to a multi-millionaire but much more to a pensioner. A sixteen year old spending the day on the beach with friends is likely to have a different view of the risk of skin cancer than their parents or, indeed, to a dermatologist whose waiting room is filled with adults wishing they had ‘slip, slop, slap-ed’ when they were young! 

The role of values and emotions

Values, emotions, and beliefs impact how we understand, perceive, and react to, risk. It is human for individuals to see ourselves as rational beings whose views are objective and thus correct. In fact, all of us interpret life through  our personal values and observe events with our unique set of emotional lenses.

In regard to the pandemic, for example, a values dichotomy has emerged which is expressed as the risk of death from the disease versus the risk to the economy from a shut down. Some would have governments focus their strategies on absolutely minimising the pandemic’s health impact on people. They argue that each and every human life is of value. Others claim that it is no good saving human lives if the economy is in ruins and thus unable to fund health and education services when the pandemic is over. The question is, how much are we willing to invest in minimising the health risk to individuals and at what risk to the economy? Or to be blunt, how many lives should be saved and at what cost? 

An even more acute frame than people versus the economy is the relative value of younger versus older citizens. In this rationale, it is correctly argued that the risk of dying from Covid-19 is disproportionately higher for the those over 70 years of age and otherwise frail. Given that the elderly and chronically ill have little economic value and have lived the greater part of their lives already, proponents argue, they should either accept the greater risk of death or be prepared to isolate themselves. The economy must go on. Some commentators and politicians have even said that it is selfish for the elderly not to accept that they are going to die in disproportionate numbers! 

Values and emotions have a deep impact on how we understand and act in regard to risk.

Risk concepts

Leaving aside the pandemic, there are several concepts that can assist in better understanding, discussing, and dealing with risk and, in the process, help answer the age-old question, ‘what’s the risk?’

Risk likelihood and impact

Project managers and board directors will be familiar with this 2x2 matrix that is often used in risk discussions. All organisations can use a framework such as this to generate insightful conversations about the 8-10 key risks the organisation faces and how they might be categorised or segregated. Risk segregation is an important concept as it introduces the notion that not all risk is the same. It is generally accepted that the most attention should be given to managing those risks that are likely to happen, and will have a high impact, followed by those that are less likely to happen but will have a significant negative impact if they do. As with all 2x2 matrices, this one has its strengths and downsides. It is helpful, however, in commencing the risk journey.

Risk mitigation

Once key risks have been segregated or categorised another set of conversations can commence around mitigation. That is, what can be done to lessen the likelihood and/or impact of an unwanted occurrence. Put another way, how might uncertainty and loss be minimised? There are at least four types of risk mitigation strategies. These include: 

risk avoidance
risk acceptance
risk transference; and: 
risk limitation

In a stock market listed company, insolvency is a risk executives and boards wish to avoid. As a result, strong risk avoidance controls are put place. This may be less so in an entrepreneurial start-up venture where the owner accepts a higher risk of insolvency.
The concept of risk acceptance acknowledges the fact that there are risks that individuals and organisations choose to accept. Walking down a street has its risks but unless the street is a known crime haunt, we accept those risks as minor. Risk acceptance is not the same as risk ignorance. Risk acceptance should be a chosen rather than accidental strategy.

Risk transference may be as simple as contracting an insurance company to take over all or some aspect of risk via an insurance policy. Insurers then bundle up their many policies and offload their aggregated risk through buying reinsurance. Modern insurance policies allow consumers to set their own level of risk. For example, a car owner agreeing to pay the first $500 of any claim. Outsourcing offers another strategy whereby enterprises can transfer risk. For example, choosing to outsource security services, payroll of even manufacturing.

Risk limitation is a common form of mitigation. To limit the risk of hacking, a company may have a policy of setting complex passwords. To minimise the impact of a computer systems failure, organisations implement off-site back-up processes. Similarly, wearing an approved face mask lowers the chance of infection during an epidemic.

Differential risk
Differential risk refers to the fact that there are known links between one factor and another. For example, a person who is older has a statistically greater chance of being diagnosed with dementia. As a corollary, young persons have a lower risk profile for dementia-related illnesses. A town built on a fault line is very likely to have a differentially higher risk of being destroyed by an earthquake than a similar village elsewhere. Insurers use differential risk frameworks to price insurance policies in areas prone to bushfire or cyclones. A homeowner can limit the possibility of their house being damaged by a cyclone, and potentially pay lower insurance premiums, by building to accepted cyclone standards. 

As comedians say, timing is everything. It is often forgotten that risk can increase and decrease over time with or without intervention. The philosopher G.K. Chesterton observed: 

‘If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post.’

A small pothole in a road potentially becomes a dangerous crevasse if left to its own devices for long enough. Not visiting the doctor about chest pain could lead to a heart attack. Choosing not to pay for regular small upgrades of a key software program may result in having to invest a substantial sum to purchase a major new version. 
Perception and understanding of risk changes over time. Forty years ago, virtually no school did a risk assessment before taking a group of children camping in the bush. In 2020, whole manuals are written on the topic!
Risk is not static. Risk can and does change over time. Leaving a known risk alone rarely makes it go away.

Business and corporate governance circles often express a concern that too much attention is now paid to risk and risk management. This may well be the case, but then along comes the GFC or a massive bushfire season and society appears woefully unprepared. Equally, the possibility of pandemic is a low likelihood, high impact event – and Australia’s last major epidemic was the Spanish flu 100 years ago. In general, I believe a deeper and broader understanding of risk and risk management is a positive at an international, national, institutional and community level. A little knowledge of risk might be a dangerous thing, but zero understanding leads to disaster.

Philip Pogson FAICD
May 18 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 and also co-owns and operates a music production and promotion business. 

Scaling New Heights

posted 26 Apr 2020, 22:24 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 28 Apr 2020, 00:35 by Philip Pogson ]

The book of growth for small and medium size businesses

A significant percentage of business books focus on large organisations. In addition, they often draw their material from a familiar short list of likely suspects: companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. In days gone by it was the industrials: GE, Ford, Shell, BHP etc that dominated. Fewer academics and consultants turn their attention to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs). If they do, the result is often a “how to” manual rather than a thoughtful compendium of distilled reflections and wise advice. In addition, it is still relatively rare that the business exemplars and case studies provided are from Australia and the Asia Pacific region rather than the US. 

Scaling New Heights is a recent release by Craig Saphin. Saphin is an Australian senior executive cum coach and consultant who has worked in diverse roles across Australia, China and Asia – including a significant period of time as Executive Director of technology and HR services company, en Japan Inc., which is publicly listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Given Saphin’s diverse Asia Pacific experience, and his actual achievements in scaling up and growing enterprises, it is not surprising that this book does not follow the well worn path laid out by many of its predecessors.

Growth framework
Scaling New Heights draws together a range of research, personal experience and interviews with leader-managers in a 5-pillar structure:

1.    Business Foundations
2.    Sales Strategy
3.    People and Culture Strategy
4.    Strategic Marketing; and:
5.    Operational excellence

The pillars
The first pillar, Business Foundations, advocates for a strong focus on developing a concrete, long term vision for the business, something that is often lacking in SMEs. The owner/operators of small companies can struggle to get past day to day problem solving and achieving monthly stay-in-business sales targets. It is hard to find time to focus on where they want to head in the medium to long term. The reality is, all SMEs are busy. Most owners are pulled in many directions at the same time. The enterprises that grow don’t allow themselves the busyness excuse. They make time to think about and plan for the future.

Distinctiveness is important. There are some well made observations in the book about the naïve approach that even some large Australian companies take when expanding locally or overseas. Many set growth objectives despite not really understanding what will make them genuinely distinctive and competitive in a new context, country or culture. In this regard I enjoyed Craig’s interview with Arun Nangia who revealed that he regularly asks his leadership teams one penetrating question: Why will we win? It’s a great question and one that I will ask more often! Variations might include: what do we need to do to ensure that winning this year translates to winning next year (and the year after)? And: Who among our competitors could beat us - and what are we going to do about it? 

The focus on sales and marketing, key planks for any SME with ambitions to grow, is welcome. Saphin approaches sales and marketing from the perspective and constraints of a small or medium business. I never got the feeling he was scaling his advice down from a Big Business playbook, for example, whereas several of the principles he lays out for smaller enterprises can readily be scaled up.

I was pleasantly surprised by the attention given to people and culture, and on developing in-house talent rather than automatically reaching for the external recruitment lever. This is an area of business success that is all too often glossed over in the SME literature. Saphin is a strong advocate for business owners investing in staff training and development, particularly for the under 35s. He recognises that development and training are are not one and the same: training is for skills acquisition while development is about one’s longer term career and focus. 
There are some no holds barred missives for new managers embarking on their leadership journey: 

"A new manager has to learn how to be selfish by treating their time as a valuable currency; trading the currency at pre-arranged times as much as possible."


The fifth Pillar, Operational Excellence, emphasises adopting efficient and effective IT systems and mechanising/automating key processes. There is sound advice for business owners and leaders around the necessity of acquiring the accounting and financial skills they need to enable the business to scale up. I have observed a reluctance among some would be leaders to get in and "do the numbers”, particularly if they come from an HR or non-accounting background. In reality, if you want to lead a successful enterprise you should know the numbers as well or better than anyone - with the possible exception of your accountant or CFO.

The operational excellence pillar is rounded out with sub chapters on risk and compliance, financial reporting and insurance. Saphin does not avoid the all important topics of how to structure one’s company – the various modes of incorporation, partnerships and joint ventures - and the advantages and disadvantages of undertaking mergers and acquisition versus driving internal growth. On the former, I am still surprised how little business owners and executives know about the available options for corporate structure, share ownership and governance – and how little thought they give to which corporate structure is most appropriate at what stage of their business development. A key question being when and how to bring independent directors onto the board, if at all. On this vexed matter, well informed is well-armed! 

Real life examples make for authenticity
When one gets to a certain age – Craig Saphin and I are of approximately the same vintage – there is often not much in a book like this that is genuinely new. It is typically how the author synthesises ideas, advice and research in new ways that provides the value - and Saphin organises his ideas creatively and effectively. 

I particularly enjoyed the relatively long vignettes (interviews) that were included in the book. The interviewees were refreshingly honest about their ups and downs as leaders. There was none of the ego and self-promoting hype that can plague business publications and make them feel inauthentic. 

I also appreciated the fact that successful women were featured, not just successful men, a balance that can still be missing, even in 2020.

In conclusion
Scaling New Heights can be read in a 3-4 sittings or on a chapter by chapter basis. Either way, it is well worth the investment. Although targeting SMEs, much of the content is readily applicable to larger enterprises. I found that I re-acquainted myself with ideas I already knew, but also learned some new tricks. What more could any of us ask of a business book?

Information on purchasing Scaling New Heights can be found at -

Philip Pogson FAICD
On behalf of Stuart Jones GAICD and Office Manager, Michelle Stewart

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. 

Mount Stetind in Northern Norway - Philip has climbed this (not quite to the top!)

By the way, what do I do now?

posted 16 Apr 2020, 17:37 by Michelle Stewart   [ updated 16 Apr 2020, 17:42 ]

By the way, what do I do now?

One of the challenges I have faced personally and professionally over the past 6-8 weeks is deciding where to put my time and effort. It has been very tempting to either fall into a stupor and do nothing or race around jumping from task to task. This is hardly surprising given the range and pace of change that has hit every aspect of our lives: health, finances, places of work, loss of employment, restrictions of movement, social distancing and much more. There has also been a spiritual aspect over the past days with churches and synagogues closed for Easter and Passover for the first time in 100 years and traditional family time and holidays disrupted. 

On reflection, I believe that there are 4 areas we need to pay attention to now and into the future:

- Responding as best we can to the challenges we face moment to moment, day by day

- Preparing for the “new normal” post the immediate covid-19 crisis

- Looking out for friends, family, neighbours and the vulnerable 

- Mental, physical and spiritual self-care

My suggested priorities are not listed in order, we are best to move between them as needed and as we are able.

Respond as best we can

I imagine many of us have done just this in recent times – responded as best we can to the many unwanted and complex challenges that presented themselves. I have sometimes felt I should be doing more, particularly more in a 24-hour period, but chastising myself for not being on top of everything does not help. We now know we are running in a middle-distance race or even a marathon, not a sprint.

One wise mentor of mine, when asked what his leadership philosophy was, responded by saying: ‘I do the best I can and accept the results I get. I then try and do a little better the next time.’ There is a refreshing pragmatism in this view, one that speaks from hard won life experience. 

In the past weeks, this has often meant putting off until tomorrow that which I really can’t face doing today – the opposite of my pre covid-19 approach!

Prepare for the ‘new normal’

It is clear that life will not be returning to normal as we knew it back in February 2020. Life will stabilise again, but it will be different. Until the advent of a vaccine, money will be tight, many more people will be unemployed or under-employed, whole industries such as travel and air transport will face massive ongoing challenges, some regions – particularly those recently struck by bushfires – will be disproportionately impacted, retail, the arts and hospitality will struggle to bounce back, investment in health will be much higher and on-line meetings may be here to stay! There are and will be new opportunities to be had, but I have focussed on the challenges as I feel I must highlight the need to plan for a NEW normal. I cannot envisage a situation whereby the majority of communities, businesses, NGOs and individuals immediately re-commence life as we knew it once the restrictions come off.

It is almost impossible to offer blanket advice on the new normal except to encourage us all to develop at least 2-3 future scenarios. One scenario might be quite radical in a good and bad sense, another might be more moderate. Put another way, we have to try and visualise a radically bad future, a radically good future, a moderately changed future and hybrids embracing several combinations of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Let’s hope the nasty scenarios never happen, but in articulating them we are at least prepared mentally for the worst.

Look out for family, friends, neighbours and the vulnerable

I am sure that you have noticed that some people are coping well and some not. Some of us, myself included, are coping OK one day, and not coping the next. Stress and anxiety are running high so it should be no surprise that alcohol sales are up – alcohol has always been used to lubricate and self-medicate!

If we wish to exit the current crisis as a functioning society with functioning communities able to sustain functional employment, as many of us as possible need to reach out where we can to assist others. In recent years the term pastoral care has come into more general use. Once applying largely in religious entities, schools, workplaces, hospitals and whole communities now embrace the term. Pastoral care has its roots in the Latin root 'pascere' (to feed). In a Christian context, Jesus was described as the good shepherd (pastor) who took spiritual and physical care of his flock – a metaphor that was and is particularly powerful in agricultural societies.

I am amazed how grateful people are of a simple phone call. Just this morning I received an encouraging email from a colleague that in a moment lifted my whole psyche. Others have reported finding a gift package on their doorstep or an unexpected offer from a neighbour to assist with shopping or other tasks. In addition, it is so important that we do not neglect to support the frail elderly and disabled and those who care for them.

It is my hope that we emerge from this pandemic with a new-found respect for, and practice of, pastoral care across our nation and around the globe.

Mental, physical and spiritual self-care

Some would argue that self-care should come first – it is certainly not an add on. The more anxious, concerned or uncertain we are, the more likely that we neglect to look after ourselves. One wit recently quipped that she expected half of us to emerge from isolation overweight and the other half as alcoholics. A respondent immediately commented that he expected to emerge overweight and an alcoholic!

What a blessing that many of us can get outdoors to exercise, for example, which sharpens the mind and gets our heart rate going. I’ve read some great advice on mental health which includes avoiding too much negative media and taking time to stop, reflect and meditate.

Our spiritual selves crave nurture. How important then is music, poetry and the great spiritual works that are written for times just like these.

Philip Pogson FAICD

April 14 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 and also co-owns and operates a music production and promotion business.


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.
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