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Margaret Gardner AO on Leadership: "Anyone who’s any good is generous"

“All leaders have ambition. However, I’ve never gone anywhere, I wasn’t fundamentally committed to what the institution was or could be. That has driven me. This gives me a passion for what I’m doing. The passion comes from caring about the outcomes for the institution. I am an optimist like most leaders; that goes with the territory. If you weren’t an optimist, I think you’d give up.”

So said, Professor Margaret Gardner, AC, who will be appointed the 30th Governor of Victoria.  Margaret will commence her term on Wednesday, 9 August 2023, after concluding her role as Vice Chancellor of Monash University.

Back in 2018, I interviewed Margaret on her insights into Australian Leadership.

Victor PertonMargaret, what are your favourite stories of contemporary Australian leaders, particularly people you've worked with?

Margaret Gardner: Having worked for much of my life in academe, the best leaders I’ve worked with have not necessarily been Australian, but have been people who have come to Australia. You wouldn’t call them Australian leaders in the sense that they grew from the Australian culture; rather, they are people who have led in Australian universities. They came from many backgrounds. The one thing they shared was that they were all academics. 

There are some things that academic leaders share no matter where you go. University cultures are quite genuinely global in nature, and attachment to the openness of knowledge is common across all of them. I have never worked with an academic who did not share that broad commitment to the openness of knowledge. Support for education centres on enabling others to find that excitement and that opportunity and that discovery and love of research is also tied to the love of discovery. Those things defined all of the leaders I admired, irrespective of the culture they began their education in or in which culture they led. 

One of the first academic leaders I worked with was Professor Pat Weller AO who became Dean of the Faculty, which is now called the Griffith Business SchoolPat was educated in Oxford but completed his PhD in Australia. Pat carried what you might call “traditions of education” that were much, much older than anything in Australia, and much older than Griffith University – which was then brand new. But Griffith was also deliberately at that time a place where you could decide everything anew. Pat was vitally interested in the world of politics and policy, and that was an interest I shared. I thoroughly enjoyed working with Pat because he was committed to ideas, to excellence and always prepared to try something new. 

Griffith University was where I was given my first opportunity in a leadership role. Pat appointed two women as deputy deans, one of whom was me, even though we were not professors and did not have lots of leadership experience. I worked with him and alongside him for years. He built research team after research team, he encouraged researcher after researcher. His openness to experiment, his openness to the world, and his very supportive way of building the team around him brought the joy of discovery to the Faculty. 

Pat was a person who was always prepared to say to you, “Why don’t you just try that?” referring to the opportunity that you thought might be beyond you or would really never come your way. It was Pat who suggested that I apply for a Fulbright postdoctoral fellowship. I had not thought of applying and without his encouragement, I wouldn’t have considered it. But I did apply and was successful. Encouragement of others is wonderful in a leader. 

I worked for some years with Professor John Hay, now sadly dead, who was then the Vice Chancellor of the University of Queensland. John was an exceptional leader for a great many reasons. Like Pat Weller, he was sharp in intellect and analysis. John was also very strategically bold and tough, prepared to make the call, and then back the call when needed. Pat and John both demonstrated a rare ability to combine a strategic assessment of what needed to be done with the toughness to follow through with it – to be prepared to go out and blaze a path – which was deeply inspiring. 

John was also a man of literature and the arts, and he brought all that excitement with those fields to his role. From John, I learned a lot about what was possible. You could pitch ideas to him: “We should do this for these reasons,” and if the idea was persuasive, he was prepared to back you. To have the confidence that the leader will back you is invaluable and a key quality in a leader. 

I’ve observed many examples of exceptional leadership. I think the truly remarkable thing is the variety of ways exceptional leadership can be demonstrated. But anyone who’s any good is generous. Leaders who make the biggest impact are generous in outlook and generous in how they work with others. It’s not just that they back others (and sometimes take the heat involved in doing so), but they back the decisions, as well. That’s what you see in the good ones. When people won't do that, not much happens that's good.

Victor PertonMargaret, you've lived globally and have travelled a lot. What do you see as unique about Australian leaders and leadership?

Margaret Gardner: I’m not sure that leadership necessarily varies particularly by national culture, but leaders are born of their circumstances and their history, and so there is likely to be some effect. Our leadership culture comes in part from our beginnings, although I don’t think we have absorbed the leadership elements of our indigenous cultures. 

To be an Australian leader, it helps not to take yourself too seriously, because people are looking more for the ‘what you do’ than the ‘who you are’. People misinterpret this and often call it ‘tall poppy syndrome’. Actually, it’s just about not taking yourself too seriously and having a sense of humour. 

I don’t think we’re a society that’s disengaged from authority, because in many ways we’re a very law-abiding society, but I think we’re a society that likes to poke fun. There is a fondness for larrikins. It’s not rebelliousness, so much as lightheartedness about how seriously you should take this world around you. We’re probably a bit blessed that many of us have had, for such a long time, such a peaceful and secure society, which is the sort of society that allows you to be lighthearted. That’s probably some of it, anyway. 

Being an immigrant nation, it isn’t who you are that’s important, it’s what you do and what you’re able to accomplish. I think this is basically true of leadership generally, that although you hold a position of authority, that does not make you a leader. It makes you someone who holds an office or a position that allows you to exercise authority in particular ways over particular outcomes, decisions, people. If it’s just “Because I say”, then that’s really not leadership. What we’re looking at is: What can you do? How will you do it? Will you do it in a way that properly acknowledges those around you? Will you do it in a way that says, “This is about the team”? 

I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re deeply egalitarian – I’m not sure how true that is of any society – but that our notion of leadership has egalitarian elements in it. Your engagement with and loyalty to the team, the trust that they have in you and the trust you have in them, is really important.

Victor PertonMargaret, what are Australians looking for from their leaders?

Margaret Gardner: I think people are looking for a sense of purpose. People wish to know that what they do matters. We’re not by any means a perfect society, but compared to the rest of the world, we have what looks like ‘not a bad life.’ I think that doesn’t take away from the need for a sense of purpose and it may increase that yearning. 

The thing about the sense of purpose is that it must be generated by leadership, not rely only on external circumstances to force it on you. If you’re fighting for enough food, the purpose is clear. If you are attempting to achieve a peaceful life in the midst of a war, purpose is foisted upon you by circumstance. I think it’s why people often see wartime leaders as their greatest leaders because it’s clarifying for people in terms of purpose. When it’s a war, the purpose is made clear for people, whether they’re good leaders or bad. 

If you look at Australian political leaders, you can see the ones who most people will argue have been successful, irrespective of political persuasion. Some are clearer at articulating what the bigger picture and next step are. For example, Bob Hawke was clearly a superb leader. He had an excellent Cabinet and wonderful ministers – a great team. There were many contributions made by the Hawke government, and it was a transformational period in the way Australia would shape its economy and regulate itself. Much of what happened in that period is still running right through the way we administer large parts of our economy. 

Paul Keating spoke with such clarity about the Asian century, about Australia’s place in the world – and only now and then do we hear our political leaders situate our future and place in the world. Bob Hawke’s government created a whole new set of ways of doing things in various ways over time, and Keating articulated that shift in the way Australia would see itself in the world so sharply. 

Bob Menzies was clearly also a brilliant and inspirational speaker and leader, and we in the universities have much to thank him for, but he was too early in my life to be a living memory. 

You get times when you get that sense of purpose from national leaders. They’re quite important times, I think, and you don’t get them frequently, and you shouldn’t expect them frequently. We are now in a time when the nature of world politics and the nature of the global economy are demanding those re-articulations of purpose, place, and the way we will do what we will do, and I think that’s what people are seeking and why the political landscape can feel fractured and unsettled. 

We’re in a very interesting time, and I think there’s a need for people to hear about new purposes, how those new opportunities open. 

Often I reflect on the 19th century when Australia was establishing itself as a new European settlement, and leaders appeared saying “Here are all these possibilities for a new nation”. 

Some people think Australian history is boring, that there isn’t the story of history-changing positive leadership you saw in the American or French Revolutions. 

However, there was a lively dialogue on people’s rights. Australia was formed with visions of a citizenry more empowered than in the societies from which those migrants came to Australia. There was the creation of new institutions. The Australian ethos of it wasn’t who you were, but what you did. All those things actually date in large part to changes, which were sought in European culture at that time. 

I often feel that we need to reignite the feeling of experiment and boldness that we had then because there is still room for experiment and boldness! We have great bureaucratic innovators, but one doesn’t see quite the willingness to be prepared to say, “We could follow this bold new path because it would be consistent with what we think is a better life for our people or a better way of operating in the world”. We’re making smaller steps and smaller decisions than we need to, and you can do that and squander the very thing that was important to why Australia is where it is now.

Victor Perton: Beautifully put. Margaret, we have talked about people who were pivotal in your life. Who still inspires you? What are your inspirations? 

Margaret Gardner: I see so many different things in so many different people. I realize I might suffer from perhaps a peculiarly Australian trait, in that I’m not sure I really think about individuals as heroes; although I see people who do great things. 

I began by reflecting on two people who for me were really important at the time, and important I’m sure to many others, in which I saw things that I thought were big and generous and important about them, and lessons to be learned from them. What inspires me about those people is the things they did or the way they handled a particular circumstance or led a particular initiative. It may be a group of people but often mobilized significantly by one or two. 

May I say my own partner Glyn Davis is a master at this? The person who will cause the thing to happen, and in the end nobody is quite sure where it started because he doesn’t need to claim he started it but wants to make sure, with others, that it happens. That’s a skill you see infrequently exercised, one I’m in great admiration of, and I think is too often overlooked because we spend too much time looking for the hero who claims the heroic deed, as opposed to looking at what was accomplished and thinking seriously about how it happened. I see that happen quite frequently. 

I think it’s a superior leadership skill, which I wish I had. 

There should be more leaders who do that. We underestimate often how those in public service do just that. Terry Moran is an example. Not just his public sector roles, though of course he’s accomplished much in those roles over time, his ability is not dependent on his position. He has a personal capacity to mobilise people. 

There’s also the people who spend so much of their lives speaking out for those who have less opportunity to speak for themselves, or advocating for them, or finding ways to bring whatever their disadvantage is to the attention of others. They’re an important part of the leadership constellation. In the community, they’re often people who hold professional roles that give them authority in those frames, whether it’s medical or legal or political. They’re very important and without that advocacy, we would be a less generous and open community. 

If we’re talking about advocacy, I’ve watched Carol Schwartz and Elizabeth Proust do a tireless job of advocacy around women and gender and companies, which I’m sure probably felt at many points thankless, but they never backed off for a moment. That requires considerable determination and resilience. 

Then there are people who cause us to see the world in different ways and here I would say there are many in the arts who have profoundly reshaped the lens through which I have seen the world. 

To choose an Australian example, Miles Franklin is remembered in the Miles Franklin Award, and you realize that in her case she was a writer in many different ways. She was a journalist, and she pursued causes, and she jousted with the prevailing views in her times, and she didn’t do it just in Australia. In fact, through her advocacy and then through the award, you might argue she is preserving people’s ability to speak about the world more generally – how we might understand the world, as we always do, through the way people present it through writing. 

And finally if we consider people who accomplished things in their time and place that we can scarcely imagine being possible for them, I’d nominate the namesake of the university I have the privilege to be associated with, Sir John Monash. From circumstances that were not propitious, the ability to rise to deploy his abilities, his intellect, and to give effect to them in so many domains – many, many public domains for the greater good – was amazing. You have to say that was a pretty special set of accomplishments.


Margaret Gardner on Optimism and COVID "As I reflect on the end of last year, I recall farewelling 2019 with a sense of pride, excitement and optimism. Pride in all that Monash had achieved, excitement for what the next 12 months would bring, and optimism that we could excel even further through our education and research, and that it will have a positive impact in future."




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