Jane Schwager

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, we chat, this month, to Jane Schwager.

Jane Schwager AO

Jane has been at the cutting edge of social leadership in Australia for more than 20 years. She was Chief Executive of the former Nonprofit Australia, an independent organisation established to assist the nonprofit sector in Australia to be more cost effective and innovative. she was also the Chief Executive of The Benevolent Society, a major social enterprise providing innovative programs in high-need communities, and before that, Jane held senior positions in the NSW Government, where she was responsible for advising the Government on its social agenda across departments. Jane served on a number of boards, including Nonprofit Australia, Social Ventures Australia, Indigenous Festivals of Australia, The Taxation Board of Australia and the Sydney Medical Research Foundation.

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

Jane Schwager:

I think that Mikhail Gorbachev, Chou En-lai and Nelson Mandela would be among the three great leaders of our time. For me leadership is about achieving a vision which is bold, significant and changes the shape of history for the better. A bold vision also needs to be achieved in a way which aims to be peaceful and respectful of humanity. It does not preclude bloodshed but the vision for change must seek to minimise human loss.

All three men led major transformations of their countries, changing the face of history for the better without major collapse and revolutionary bloodshed. This was achieved in very fragile environments where the excesses of the current administrations were becoming destructive and tyrannical. All three men appeared to operate with a strong moral compass and with a level of humility which avoided the excesses of arrogance and hubris. All three put their vision well ahead of their own personal comfort and survival.

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

Jane Schwager:

  1. A bold vision and the capacity and skills to execute it.
  2. A strong moral or ethical framework, personal humility and an ability to put vision ahead of personal comfort and survival.
  3. Passion and a determination to never give up until a vision is executed.
I believe that these three qualities are essential to transformation. Leadership is about transformation.

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

Jane Schwager:
  1. The tyranny of mediocrity - like delivers like.
  2. A culture of restraint and control.
  3. A moral compass of 'us and them'.

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

Jane Schwager:

Fear is the greatest barrier - fear of rejection, fear of slander, fear of our own potential power - it is hard to turn back once a path is taken. Fear is about losing something - I like the Buddhist teaching of letting go of our grasping, needy natures. There can be a great freedom in pursuing this discipline and realising the more we fear and hold onto the safe zone we are in the more we suffer.

Happiness and leadership power to me is about living lightly and seeking to do good and not being swayed from the simplicity of this way of being.

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

Jane Schwager:

I do think some modelling is necessary as we develop. I also believe that certain temperaments seem to be driven to search and to make a difference. The two must go together in my view - otherwise the latter can build destructive behaviours.

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

Jane Schwager:

It worries me that there is an emerging complacency in Australia - a cosiness - that means people are reluctant to move outside their comfort zone. I believe this a dangerous zone and one where human travesties can happen and we run the risk of turning a blind eye. This is not a culture that nurtures leaders as they tend to be viewed as irritants that disturb the comfort zone we are all in.

I sense a culture which is less tolerant and more judgemental - this creates a climate of fear, of rejection, of us and them.

Difference and boldness must be valued and nurtured - otherwise it tends to be repressed before it emerges.

Our Community: What insights have you gained personally on your leadership journey and how have they impacted on your style of leadership?

Jane Schwager:

It is a lonely journey as leadership is inherently about taking the less travelled path. This is not about 'leading the charge'. It is about working with and through others and respecting and listening. The added value of leadership is a capacity to make sense of the trends and to skillfully steer a path which betters the human condition. Loner versus consultative dichotomies are far too simplistic when talking about true leadership.

Being true to ourselves and our vision is fundamental - even if it is a lonely journey.

Living lightly, openly and being happy are essential human qualities that need to underpin the boldness, the skill and the vision of leadership. We're all pretty clumsy players.

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

Jane Schwager:

No single person stands out. I tend to be a bower bird that collects something from everyone I meet - sometimes it's a way of viewing, sometimes it's a reminder to review our ethics, our moral compass, sometimes its about the creative process, sometimes its about the skill of diplomacy - so much to learn!

The most important lesson for me is that every interaction teaches us something and keeps us in touch with others.

My parents - with all their foibles - were my strongest mentors. To be loved and believed in provide such solid foundations. These give us a level of personal courage and a sense of place in the world.

Published March 2006