Check out the latest insights on the Centre for Optimism Blog - Learn More

Victor Dominello on Optimism and Positive Leadership

"What makes me optimistic? Life itself. It is a great joy to wake up, watch the sunrise, and have a day with loved ones. We're here on this planet for a microsecond, in real terms. It's a gift; it's a joy, so I'm optimistic about enjoying life to the fullest."
That's what makes Victor Dominello optimistic.
I had the honour of interviewing Victor on optimism and positive leadership as he joined us online at The Centre for Optimism.  Victor Dominello is the NSW Minister for Customer Service and Digital Government, Minister for Small Business, and Minister for Fair Trading. My experience with Service NSW has been terrific. So I wanted to ask Victor what makes him optimistic and ask him to share stories of success, challenge, opportunity hope and optimism with us.  Victor will be retiring from politics at the 2023 election. Reflecting on his time as a member of parliament, Dominello joked he didn't like politics but "enjoyed the policy. I enjoy the reform; that's what inspires me to be around great people."


Victor Perton: Victor, everyone who visits the Centre for Optimism gets the same question. Victor Dominello, what makes you optimistic?

Victor Dominello: "What makes me optimistic? Life itself. It is a great joy to wake up, watch the sunrise, and have a day with loved ones. We're here on this planet for a microsecond, in real terms. It's a gift; it's a joy, so I'm optimistic about enjoying life to the fullest."

Victor Perton: At the Centre for Optimism, we've just led a week of joy and optimism with a Finnish organisation called The Art and Science of Joy, and you nailed it. Those who are optimistic experience more joy. 

People are curious about you, Victor. Politics is a tough game, and many campaign managers and advisors operate in an atmosphere of pessimism and cynicism. How do you maintain your personal optimism in such a tough game surrounded by many cynics?

Victor Dominello: Great question, Victor. I've got several sayings or quotes that I try to live by. One of my favourites is from Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people."

In politics, there's a lot of gossip, quite frankly. There's also a lot of talk about, oh, this is what happened at the football. This is what happened here or what happened there, the event type thing. 

But it's the ideas that are really inspiring because when you get politicians or anybody in a room to talk about ideas, that's when you really elevate. And because generally people are good people and they want the best, they want a better future, and even if they see a dark future, you can say, well, how do we make that brighter? And that's the realm of ideas.

So if you want an optimistic forum, talk about ideas because I can guarantee you if you keep talking about people; eventually, you'll get back down to what he said, what she said, what they're wearing, and it's pretty small stuff.

Victor Perton: (Laughing) That's why I wear bright orange spectacles. It's much easier to wear optimism upfront. We've got a great question from one of your fans and one of our fans: "My question to the minister is to ask how he led a culture of optimism from the political level to people on the ground during the bushfires and then Covid. Victor was always present in the tough times with his colleague Andrew Constance. At the same time, he had a very public case of Bell's Palsy. But throughout this time, Victor remained optimistic, present and available." Leanne wants to know how you, as an individual, communicated that culture to the people working with you and the community.

Victor Dominello: Oh, well, Victor, from my perspective, I know me. I know what I'm going through. I know my journey. Even through the Bell's Palsy, sure, it wasn't fun, but I know many people in far worse circumstances than me, and they never complain. 

So I get inspiration from the people in wheelchairs, from the people who are blind, the people that don't even get the public attention that I get, that are doing it far, far harder, with a far greater smile. They are the true inspirations; I'm nothing. 

Bell's Palsy was a scratch compared to what people go through. I know people with Bell's Palsy that had permanent disfigurement. I got lucky. So many more people are worse off than me, and I draw inspiration from their optimism and positive attitude.

Victor Perton: Yesterday, I chaired the task force on positive leadership, which brings together quite a few people from across Australia and elsewhere, both in government and the private sector, and people are yearning for positive leadership in their workplaces. Dominic Barton, who was the head of McKinsey, says every great leader he's ever met is infectiously optimistic. 

You've seen a lot of great leaders, and you've worked with leaders. Who are the ones who've inspired you to levels where you inspire others?

Victor Dominello: That's a broad question. The premiers I've worked for: I've got to do my job in the ministry, but I see firsthand, whether it's Dom or Glad, how hard they worked, particularly during the pandemic, like extraordinary. 

And if you do not have a sense of optimism, it's very hard to wake up in the morning, let me tell you because they are challenging times. 

But we always had to work together to say come on, we've got to get through this. We're going to get through this; we're going to get through this. So it's a tough day today, but it will get better. It's going to get better. So you'd have short meetings, long term goals. So we know that it's going to be tough for the next month, but we know that, in the proverbial sense, the sun will rise again. 

So working with leaders such as Dom and Glad during really difficult times they were pretty inspirational.

And then on the world's stage, again, I look at Zelenskyy and what he's going through in Ukraine; it's just extraordinary stuff. How he motivates his people is just extraordinary; it's inspirational. So from people like that, I draw great strength.

Victor Perton: He's very similar to you in many ways. I saw him interviewed by Fareed Zakaria. And Fareed Zakaria said, "How can you remain so optimistic in the face of evil?" And Zelensky said, "Because I believe in people. Not just the Ukrainian people, but the people of the world who are pressuring their governments to support us."

Victor Dominello: 100%. What did Luther King say? "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." 

And that's exactly right; I believe that. My favourite subject at school was history. I'm into technology and data and digital and all that, and I love it, I love it, but my favourite subject throughout school was history. I know we are so much better as humanity now than we were 100 years ago. And we're going to continue to get better, provided we put up the guardrails, and provided we continue to respect each other, have a dialogue. We will use data and digital tech to significantly and profoundly reduce suffering.

I remember one story, Victor, from when I was visiting the University of Technology, Sydney. A cousin had been involved in a horrific football accident; he became a quadriplegic. And back then, five or six years ago, they were measuring brainwaves; basically, it was data mapping. So if you did arithmetic in your head, this part of the brain lights up; the wheelchair would move forward. If you thought of a memory, another part of the brain lights up; the wheelchair would go back; if you thought of poetry, this, music, that. And I thought, wow, look at that. So technology is enabling the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the lame to walk. And we are just starting that journey, so I am optimistic.

Victor Perton: My son and I travelled to Sydney recently and needed to attend your service centre, Services New South Wales, in Wynward. People go into a government office with reasonably low expectations. We walked in, and the young man who called himself the concierge could've been a seven-star hotel. The welcome sent us to the correct queue. The woman behind the counter was efficient and helpful. So what is the secret to success in creating a government agency delivering services that not only provide it efficiently but deliver it with a smile and a sense of customer service?

Victor Dominello: I am proud of Services New South Wales and my agency more broadly. Yeah, it's extraordinary. The amount of times I hear something like this is just almost daily. The secret sauce is a positive feedback loop and a genuine dedication to the service of the person. These are not transactions that they're dealing with; they genuinely care about people. And what happens when you really care about people? People respond and give positive feedback, making the service people feel good and incentivising them to do even better. So it is this excellent positive feedback and aspirational circle that you rarely see. And I go into the service centres, and then I go behind the scenes and listen to what they talk about. How do we improve the experience? How do we make people even happier? It's so rare to see. Particularly in government, it's just unheard of.

Victor Perton: People attribute much of that to your leadership and those senior bureaucrats you've brought in. And it's a non-bureaucratic mentality, as you say. It's this feedback loop that says how can we continuously improve? Now, I know as a minister, and as a member of parliament, you get to visit lots and lots of organisations, like your cousin at UTS and brain scanning. You're retiring from politics; you've made that very public. When you are going to be reminiscing with your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, what are those stories of hope and optimism that really sit there in your head and say, gosh, this has been an exciting part of my life?

Victor Dominello: Can I rewind a bit and say I am just a small part of a fantastic team? Sure, I'm the public face, but my most important job is to get even better leaders than me around me. So I've got people like Em Hogan, like Greg Wells, Dave Morris before and William Murphy in the agency that drives the culture of optimism and customer experience. So again, I'm the minister, but it is extraordinary leadership from the team around me, so credit to them.

What would I do in a rocking chair? I don't spend too much time looking behind me. It's an indulgence. I'd rather be speaking to grandkids about the future, and wow, what's on the horizon? So again, I enjoy history but don't enjoy history from a transactional perspective. I enjoy history from a lessons perspective to frame what we can do in the future. So I don't think I'd be looking too far back because that's about me, and that's boring. I'd rather be talking about them and their future, and that's inspiring.

Victor Perton: That's brilliant. There was a woman who recently died aged 107 in Shepparton, and she was interviewed the year before by Current Affair. She said, "I never worry too much about tomorrow, because I know the sun's going to rise tomorrow. And I never worry about yesterday, because I can't change it."

Victor Dominello: Spot on.

Victor Perton: Victor, you touched on the world of data, and you touched on the world of brain scanning. Of course, from our perspective, we're always trying to understand what makes people even more optimistic. As you look into this future world of data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, and even better robotics, what are the things you see over the horizon in the next five to 10 years that will make our lives as Australians and global citizens even better?

Victor Dominello: In public life, I wanted to make a difference, particularly for the vulnerable and those suffering. I struggle when people suffer. I can deal with it in my own journey, but seeing kids suffer and other people suffer hurts. I want to use data, digital, and tech to reduce suffering and improve quality of life. So for me, health is the final frontier, and whether it's aged care or dementia, we can use tech for the greater good.

Can I say that we've got some more profound challenges, though? 

I can't be utterly one-eyed about the future and say, " Oh, there are no problems here. I've got authors that I follow on both sides of the spectrum. So I've got Yuval Harari, who's my favourite dystopian, and I've got somebody like Ray Kurzweil or Yuji Kaku, who's my favourite utopian. Now, we've got to make sure, and I believe in the utopia because I believe in the human, but we've got to make sure that we put the safety gates in place to ensure that happens. And provided we do that around privacy, security, transparency, ethics, inclusion, all the key metrics that make us humane, then the future is 100% bright.

Victor Perton: Spot on. In his February essay on the future of capitalism, Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers talked about realistic optimism, and it's one of the things that we foster. So even though there have been great successes by Pollyannas, if we've got an optimism grounded in reality and grounded in moving forward whilst making sure we're conscious of the dystopian possibilities, that's absolutely brilliant.

Read More: Optimism is Realism

Victor Dominello: Spot on.

Victor Perton: So, a broad question again, but you're optimistic personally, and you've got very well-informed reasons for being optimistic about government. So what makes you optimistic about New South Wales, Australia, and the world?

Victor Dominello: Well, again, using a quote that I really love is JFK's "We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."

There is that inherent challenge inside of each of us to do better, to aspire to better. And we want to do it on something other than some easy magic carpet ride. We know that the most inspirational figures in human history are those that toil away at a greater goal, a greater good. And again, the moon landing was no different. That was hard; that was so out there. But it took a lot of people a lot of hard work, no doubt working 24/7 around the clock, and a lot of risks, but look what was achieved for humanity. That captures the kernel of our trajectory as a species. We did not want to go to the moon to blow it up. We wanted to go to the moon to expand our minds and expand our horizons. And that's why, innately, we should all be optimistic. 

And even now, the things we're doing around tech are just extraordinary.

But you asked me what excites me. The stuff that we are doing with AI to identify cancers, the stuff that we are doing with AI in relation to mapping of the human genome so that we are starting to understand genetics and getting ahead of some really deep suffering, this is really promising. And again, by the end of this decade, hopefully, deeper into the next, we will have far, far more understanding of mental health. We've nailed the heart. The heart's a mechanical pump. The brain's a lot harder, it's a circuit board, but we're starting to understand it in ways we've never done before. So I'm very optimistic about this.

Victor Perton: Bill Gates has just been in Sydney and Melbourne. He often talks about the reasons for optimism and how we've defeated polio. We've halved the malaria death rate this century. We're starting to understand the causes of dementia and setting up better treatments. And, of course, heart disease and cancer, we're defeating cancers, and we've even got vaccines against some forms of cancer.

The Centre for Optimism has several hundred members and supporters in New South Wales, and they love you. So the last question I've got for you from them because they don't want to lose you is what's next for Victor Dominello?  

Victor Dominello: Whatever the universe wants. There's a saying, "I don't want to have a gold coffin", that wouldn't bring me joy. I want to continue on the public mission of being a champion for change, for positive change. I've got a lot of lessons and learnings to give, so hopefully, I can still be part of that public discourse, but in the real world rather than the political bubble. And again, if the universe wants me to do something more with this journey, I'd be grateful. I'll see how that plays out.

Read more on Infectiously Optimistic Leadership


Jeff Kerr-Bell:  "What a magically optimistic outlook Victor Dominello! What this adds to leadership in a time of massive transformational change surely tips the odds heavily in favour of successfully navigating this change."

Robert Masters: "Agree Victor. Despite the challenges it brings, living life to the full is based on optimism. It should be the basis of everyone’s approach to building a better future."


Keep up to date with the latest from Centre for Optimism

We appreciate any contribution you can make to help us spread optimism with the world
Give Today

Connect With Us

We love to connect with everyone who is ready to open up and share their optimisim.