Simon Longstaff

As part of our monthly segment, Our Community Leaders - Great Australian Leaders in Focus which features the thoughts of some of Australia's great leaders, this month we feature Dr Simon Longstaff AO.

Dr Simon Longstaff AO

Dr Simon Longstaff AO is the Executive Director of the St James Ethics Centre. A former student and lecturer at Magdalene College, Cambridge, Dr Longstaff has a Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy, with research centring on related questions arising in the areas of political philosophy, ethics and the philosophy of education. Dr Longstaff was inaugural President of The Australian Association for Professional & Applied Ethics and is a Director of a number of companies. He is a Fellow of the World Economic Forum and a member of the International Advisory Committee of the Foreign Policy Association, based in New York. His first book, Hard Cases, Tough Choices was published in 1997. He is currently preparing a second on the role of conscience. Dr Longstaff serves on a number of committees and is a Director of Our Community.

Our Community: Who do you consider to be the great leaders of our time, and why?

Simon Longstaff:
  • Sir John Monash. He was a man who believed in moral courage. He was a great leader in a military sense but he never stopped being a citizen. I think it was really important that he always maintained a notion of citizenship rather than being swept up by things.
  • Gandhi - for being just a standout leader because he was never tempted to embrace the politics of exclusion and his commitment to non-violent engagement was not only markedly effective but showed just what it was possible to do.

Our Community: What are the three attributes you would consider to be essential to a leader?

Simon Longstaff:

Moral courage is the first. It's the ability- in whatever role you happen to occupy - to stand true to the things that you believe to be right and good. That's what ultimately inspires all people I think more than anything else.

The ability to be reflective and to do so to escape the chains of unthinking custom or practice. Truly great leaders are constructively subversive individuals who refuse to accept the world as it is given to them and refuse to accept or take established patterns of behaviour and systems and structures and instead ask "why" and ties them back to some deeper structures or principle which allows for evolution or revolution to take place.

I don't know what the words are to describe this but I think great leaders are able to sense on three levels.

They have the ability to hop in the helicopter and see the overall picture while simultaneously being in the submarine and picking up the undercurrents and they are also able to live there in the moment as well.

They operate on three levels but they do it simultaneously - they have the overview, they pick up the subtle undercurrents and they get a feel for the moment.

Our Community: What are the three greatest barriers to new leaders emerging in Australia?

Simon Longstaff:
  • An apparent lack of hope about the possibility of affecting change and that emerges from a couple of different places:
    • From the perception of the unwieldy complexity in the world and the size of the problems that have to be addressed. That feeling of "how can I do that?" It's a forgetting of the ways that individuals and groups can make change.
    • The unfortunate tendency of people in power to tell us just to be realistic. Don't dream big, don't think you can change anything, just keep in your place.
  • The preference for a quiet life. We are disinclined to challenge. Despite the myth of us being antiauthoritarian we Australians knuckle under to authority more than most. You can see it with all the rules and regulations that surround our lives and our compliance with them. That compliance nature can be stultifying for leaders or potential leaders.
  • Lack of appetite for risk. We tend to prefer a comfortable existence rather than putting ourselves on the edge such as speaking out against a perspective; it can be physically challenging ourselves. The preference for a quiet and secure existence is the deeper reason why when a tall poppy pops up we don't always like it because it exposes our own lack of imagination and engagement.

Our Community: What advice would you give to a potential leader to take them to the next stage?

Simon Longstaff:

Just ask why. It's the notion of the constructive subversive - to be prepared to ask why. If it seems wrong, challenge it. Don't be afraid to challenge or to change.

Our Community: Nature/nurture - are leaders born or bred?

Simon Longstaff:

They are not born. There's the big capital L leaders that occupy roles which gives them status as a leader and then you have countless people who are leaders that may never have a formal position.

I don't think even think the Capital L leaders are born to lead. I think they grow into a role and people that other people most admire often find themselves suddenly in a position where they have to take up the mantle of leadership and they grow into it. Some extraordinary individuals just pull themselves up entirely from their own bootstraps.

I do think it is something which you can prepare yourself to do.

Our Community: What do you consider to be the three top leadership issues facing the nation?

Simon Longstaff:
  • To inspire in our young people a sense of idealism and hope. We tend to crush it out of people rather than inspiring it.
  • Resolving the issue with our indigenous situation. There is a huge potential in us doing that in terms of the ease with which we find ourselves living in this land.
  • Sustainability. Whether or not we can find a way to prosper and as a prosperous nation assist others with their development whilst not placing an ultimately fatal burden on the land.

Our Community: What insights have you gained personally on your leadership journey?

Simon Longstaff:

Don't take yourself too seriously. There's clearly a moment when your own resolve and relying on your own self confidence is important but that's very different to poncing around and expecting yourself to be universally admired.

Our Community: Who have been your own leadership mentors and how did they assist in developing your own leadership style?

Simon Longstaff:

It sounds like a real cop-out but there have been so many different people and that's the truth. I find I pick up clues from different people. Sometimes they can be very large ones but I have not had the one person who has been an overwhelming influence. It's a case of lots and lots of people in so many different ways.

Published November 2005