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If You Think Something is Possible You Might be Right: Hugh Macfarlane

"If you think something is possible, you might be right. If you think it is not, you will certainly be right. These odds make the choice to be optimistic an easy decision."

That's what Hugh Macfarlane told me when I asked him what makes him optimistic.

Hugh is the Founder & CEO of 

Hugh Macfarlane: "Leadership in Australia is subtle and egalitarian. It is also inspiring and needs to be encouraged."

In that interview, Hugh told me:

‘Leadership’ is a term used loosely.

 For many, it is used as a proxy for ‘management’, perhaps even ‘upper management’, or in a governmental context, for ‘policy’, and perhaps ‘policymakers’.

I am a literalist so it won’t surprise you to know that I think of leadership as one who leads, and by implication, that others follow. In that literal sense, leadership is inspiring in that it is egalitarian. No more so than in Australia, where egalitarianism is so deeply ingrained that we take for granted, that cutting down ‘tall poppies’ is not just fair and reasonable, but a shared obligation.

For this latter reason, leadership is often also subtle. I see subtle and egalitarian leadership all the time and find it inspiring. Leadership is a spontaneous email to colleagues from one of the team that just found a clever new tool or a workaround to a pervasive problem. Leadership is someone organising a roster of birthdays, without being asked by ‘management’ so the team can make a workmate feel special.

Our ‘tall poppy’ mandate means that we expect leaders to lead without pomp or ceremony. Hence my reference to leadership being subtle. Retired General Sir Peter Cosgrove is a favourite amongst Australians because although in this case a leader who also had authority, he exercised that authority gently.

I’m a marketer, and am so in an era where content marketing is king, unlike an earlier era where marketing meant clever creative bought from creatives for hire, and rarely created from within. This forces the management, who are not always the leaders, to create content. Certainly, they may hire external writers to translate their thoughts into coherent copy, but the story in the era of content marketing is now far more home-grown than was the case when a clever image and a three-word tag line was usually outsourced.

Marketers use the term ‘thought leadership’ loosely when describing the character of the content that ought to be created. Again, I revert to my literal tendencies to argue that a thought leader is one who leads thought, not someone who writes.

Leading thought requires a leader, who may be the CEO or may be the most junior person in the business, to literally lead thought - to have thoughts which challenge a status quo or belief. When religious leaders – whether the Pope or the Imam of a suburban mosque – argue a view that we disagree with, we take issue. Sometimes publicly. But the faithful return to worship.

When a thought leader argues a view that we disagree with, we unsubscribe. Following, or continuing to follow is optional and transient.

Thought Leadership, therefore, requires the leader of thought to lead persuasively. Leading is a new mandatory. If the thought leaders of a business (again, this may not be management) fail to lead the thoughts of their market and those who influence them – bloggers for example – then they find their market asking for features or pricing that are different from their own. In an era where content marketing is the most powerful way to shape what the market thinks they need and from whom, then genuine thought leadership is critical.

Our intellectual modesty in Australia contributes to many CEOs feeling they don’t have a story worth sharing. This is fine because thought leadership is not about sharing stories necessarily. And thought leadership is most certainly not about arguing the merit of your products over another’s. That’s spruiking. There are many ways to lead thought, and these same CEOs always have more opinions (thoughts, values) than they think.

In his popular Ted Talk ‘Start with why’, writer Simon Sinek argues that the most powerful and resonant messages are those that get us as the recipients to buy into the dream (the why), more than we do the path (the how) or the tools (the what). Perhaps his best example is Dr Martin Luther King’s rousing “I have a dream” where he sold us on his vision. How would we remember his speech had he told us “I have a plan”? Or even “I have a following”.


Now I’ve set the bar too high.

Do we have to have thoughts of the scale and skills of the range of Dr King to lead thought?

Most certainly not.

I’m building here to a plea.

Australian leaders, whether they are also owners, managers, governors, or not, have a greater need than ever to share their leadership widely and well. The gentle redirect from a seasoned board member to a CEO is a powerful form of leadership. If a private and narrow form. That same board member sharing the ‘red flags’ she looks for in a board to others in a public forum is showing another.

The junior accountant who writes about transparency in supplier negotiations is also a leader of thought, at the very least when he shares his views in a blog, a social media post, a chat with accountant friends over lunch, or a grand speech at the annual industry event, is a leader.

Leadership in Australia is subtle and egalitarian. It is also inspiring and needs to be encouraged.

Read more on Infectiously Optimistic Leadership


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