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Sir Gus Nossal as a great inspiring Australian leader

Our Australian Leadership Project draws excellent insights and wisdom on Australian leadership's strengths and fine stories and examples of Australian leadership. Several of our interviewees have pointed to Sir Gus Nossal as a great inspiring Australian leader and shared warm anecdotes and stories of Sir Gus's leadership. He is a leader's leader!  When asked, Dr Graham Mitchell AODr Paul Cooper and Professor Tim Flannery instantly named Sir Gus as the leading example of Australian leadership.

Dr Graham Mitchell AO told us, "Gus is a former director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. He is a global advocate and highly regarded spokesperson for medical breakthroughs emanating from Australian research. Gus possesses an uncanny sense of immediacy and global perspective. Sir Gus trained and gave a start to many a distinguished Australian scientist. He encouraged a bubbly cauldron of ideas and innovation. To Gus, all ideas are worthy of consideration and of being contested with respect and honour. Gus may vehemently challenge new ideas, but he would so respectfully make time to allow new ideas to be given a platform to be tried and tested. Sir Gus encourages and rewards teamwork, and he minimises bureaucracy. He is not a fan of too many rules, but at the same time he sets clear boundaries and expected outcomes. Scientists working under Sir Gus were expected to attend global seminars and conferences to contribute Australian intellectual property to the world of science and technology and to encourage a team representation of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. Sir Gus possess diplomacy skills in spades and is politically savvy. He can interact with a wide field of interests beyond his passion for science. An anecdote comes to mind during his time as Deputy Chair of the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council, during the John Howard era of government. He retorted to a journalist pressing for a comment on Prime Minister John Howard’s view of reconciliation. In reply to the journalist, Sir Gus confidently said ‘The PM is on a journey, and we should not criticise him until completes that journey’. Sir Gus has a keen sense for doing the right thing with impeccable integrity. I have always found Gus to be inspiring, uplifting and inspiring. Almost to a fault.

After 5 minutes with Gus, he would make us feel like our seemingly major problems were in fact not that significant. We left an interlude with him feeling like we could take on the world, far from feeling negative 5 minutes earlier. Gus is a very effective listener, with sound judgement. He is a proponent of continuous improvement and always encourages the team to not be afraid of failure. Think big. Sir Gustav Nossal entertained friends at his recent 80th birthday party with the following anecdote.

‘At 20 years of age, you think you will conquer the world.
By 30 years of age, you know you can conquer the world.
At 40 years of age, you have conquered the world.
At my 80 years, I have reflected and learned  that the world doesn’t care too much to be conquered."
Dr Paul Cooper told me, "When I was a young scientist, I was directly exposed to the leadership of Sir Gus Nossal.  On an early trip up in a lift with him, he introduced me to the janitor who was also in the very slow lift saying "Sam here has looked after us for 30 years and kept our institute impeccable. Without his care none of our experiments would be trustworthy". He showed that a great leader: 1 knows all the people on his/ her team - no matter how minor their role may seem to be; that everyone is worthy of respect; and,  that meritocracies will only be successful if they are SEEN to be merit based on all occasions.     At his Wednesday seminars he encouraged criticism of his work - so that flaws could be found and dealt with, before they became too hard to reverse. He showed me that a great leader welcomes critical thinking and finally, through his "open door" welcoming policy to all nationalities, he showed the benefits that a truly diverse workforce can bring.  Finally, he demonstrated that he could "walk the talk" - he was an active scientist and director of the WEHI." 

David Bowtell AO told us, "Of course in my sector I think of Gus Nossal. It is a number of years since he was the Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, when I myself was at WEHI. Gus is extremely impressive in his role as Director and continued to have senior global roles in health, including the World Health Organization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. What is impressive about Gus is his sense of vision, fairness, honesty, generosity of spirit and openness. He'd have your back and is a great mentor to the young generation. Gus is fully committed to the great causes of improving human health and well being. I think these are all admirable qualities that Gus encapsulates as a leader and a human being."

Doug Hilton told us, "Gus Nossal is just larger-than-life, he is ebullient. Gus gave me the best piece of advice ever eight years ago when I was considering applying to be Suzanne Cory’s successor. I went over to the medical faculty where Gus had his office and said: "You know Gus, I am worried that I can't do the job you did."

"Gus said, "Doug, my boy, make the job your own. I was different to McFarlane Burnett, and Suzanne was different to me. There is no recipe. Decide the things that are important to you and do them with verve. Don't worry if you let things go as you need to make the job your own." It was liberating advice."

2007 Australian of the Year Professor Tim Flannery said, "I recall Sir Gus as Head of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. He was an outstanding leader by any comparison, taking the time to really listen and in turn get the best out of people. Sir Gus has an enabling leadership style, encouraging people to follow his lead. They are motivated by him and want to follow his lead."

Dr Toni E Meath, principal of Melbourne Girls Grammar,  told me,  "In my life I have had the fortune of being inspired by many leaders. As a shy teenager it was definitely David Bowie, as he dared to be different, embraced diversity and was single minded in his pursuit of musical excellence. As a young adult, noble laureate Patrick White was a true inspiration. White was proudly Australian, spoke his mind and had a generosity of spirit that I adored. More recently, it would have to be Sir Gus Nossal, another proud Australian who is a national living treasure. I love his intelligent, joyful approach to life and I am always moved when listening to his carefully crafted speeches full of practical wisdom."

Dianne Jacobs shared her views, "Our finest examples of Australian leadership are when we see the bigger picture, take the difficult decisions and then act to improve our long-term society and lifestyle.  The way Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, working with Bill Kelty, initiated economic change. The way John Howard instigated gun control. The way Gough Whitlam visited China in 1971 or poured Daguragu soil into the hands of traditional landowner Vincent Lingiari. The way Anne Summers and Wendy McCarthy challenged gender inequality. The way Paul Keating saw the need for the Redfern Speech and Kevin Rudd for the Apology Speech to the Stolen Generations. The way Sir Gustav Nossal championed science and health."
Peter Papaemmanouil also cited Sir Gus as one his favourite Australian leaders too.
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