Petrina Dorrington 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 speak to Kids Under Cover Executive Director, Petrina Dorrington.

Petrina Dorrington

Petrina has a background in hospitality and tourism, having managed the Inland Queensland Tourism and Development Association, before beginning work at Kids Under Cover in October 1997 and now is a member of the Board of Director.

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

Petrina Dorrington:

  • Nelson Mandela - had what must have seemed an impossible dream of a non-apartheid South Africa in the 1950s - this at a time when the power of the apartheid government was at its peak, and in an era in global politics which was unenlightened - McCarthyism in the US, White Australia policy and Aborigines with no vote in Australia. He pursued this dream determinedly and turned it into reality 40 years later.
  • Bill and Melinda Gates - the world's biggest philanthropists. Have focused their enormous wealth on supporting initiatives aimed at curing the leading problem health issues in third world countries. Could easily have kept on empire building instead.
  • She's not famous but… Elsie Dorrington - my grandmother. Took control of her own destiny in getting out of an unworkable marriage when it was frowned upon to do so and went back to work managing a home for intellectually disabled young women. She became the first female councillor in the Shire of Mornington, with little resources (she hand-wrote her own how-to-vote cards). She also initiated a number of social welfare schemes in the Shire.

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

Petrina Dorrington:

  1. Communication skills - must be able to inspire with words and deeds in a way that transfers the vision of the leader into the individual and ultimately collective vision of the group.
  2. Empathy - great leaders have an instinctive feel for what it is like to be in the shoes and minds and hearts of the people they are with. They use this knowledge to communicate their messages more effectively, understand the motivations behind the actions, and detect the changing winds of people moods.
  3. Patience and Determination - Because life never goes according to plan.


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

Petrina Dorrington:

  • Apathy - Mass media such as TV has had a lot to do with this. When life becomes difficult and stressful or there are confusing issues to sort out it is often the case that people de-stress - aka "zone out", "veg out" or "tune out" in front of the TV. For many this occupies hours of their days. This passive mode where actions occur at a distance by other people on the TV has the effect of making people more apathetic while at the same time reducing the time they might have spent in active mode actually doing things to improve society.
  • Cynicism - It is often said that a cynic is a failed romantic. The romantic side of Australians likes to believe that we are the lucky country where anything can be achieved. The flip-side is that if personal achievements don't occur, if life gets hard, then cynicism sets in. And it's much easier to cut 10 tall poppies down than help grow one new one. Hence this favorite national sport becomes an epidemic.
  • Fear - Mass media has figured out that fear sells perhaps even more so than sex. If an editor has to decide which will grace the front page - a major triumph in science or a graphic car accident - we all know which will win. While fear is a natural, healthy emotion that protects us and has helped us to evolve as a species, if there is an over-emphasis on it through the mass media, the end results can be community destroying. Hence the rise of gated communities in the US , the mandatory detention regime for refugees who look different to us, etc.

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

Petrina Dorrington: Take risks, praise lavishly when it's due, provide constructive feedback when things go wrong, have fun!

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

Petrina Dorrington: Leadership qualities are in everyone. Parents are leaders, as are teachers, netball coaches etc. Leadership should not be seen as the domain of people in the public eye - politicians, business people, sports heroes - but as an everyday activity that is the responsibility of everyone to engage in. If there is an accident and someone arrives and gets straight to work helping the injured and clearing the danger, that person is in leadership mode to the people they are saving. Similarly, a parent who is faced with a difficult decision about a child who wants to go to a teenage rave party. So leadership qualities are innate, but we need to understand them and learn how best to use them and keep refining them through constant use.

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

Petrina Dorrington:

  • Detention centres. These should be abolished in favour of Refugee Centres. If people are found to be guilty of a crime, these are what prisons are for. But until then, they are innocent and should be treated with dignity and respect. When our children grow up, they will say "Why did you let this happen?"
  • Encouraging a philanthropic culture. The boom in house prices and the stockmarket has made many people richer than they would have thought possible a decade ago. Part of this newfound wealth should be directed towards helping others; not through taxes where decisions on how it will be spent will be decided by bureaucrats in treasury, but by the people themselves about issues in their community or globally that they feel passionate about. In many countries, philanthropy is part of the everyday culture. We have quite a way to go in Australia .
  • Education.   The windfall surpluses that the Federal and State Governments now enjoy should be directed where they will provide the greatest leverage for Australia - education. Spending $3 billion to provide better phone access or $3 billion to our schools and universities.  A no-brainer.

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

Petrina Dorrington: Anything is achievable if you are passionate, determined and willing to learn from others. Things that seem impossible to achieve are possible if you keep chipping away.

Building a team of staff who are as passionate as I am has been critical. This involves giving people opportunities to be creative and to make their own decisions about what they do with their role within the organisation. You can't achieve anything without support, so I always give credit for successes to those who deserve it. I also admit when I have made a wrong decision.

It's important to create a work environment where people don't feel pressured to keep their family issues at home. This includes enabling staff to take time off at odd, unscheduled times during the normal working week. I introduced a nine-day fortnight to provide my hardworking staff with a better quality of life. I've found that instead of losing productivity, staff work very hard and with even more commitment and enthusiasm as a result.

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

Petrina Dorrington:

  • My partner Lex , who keeps believing in me on the days when I don't! I couldn't survive without his support, advice and encouragement.
  • Ken Morgan , founder of Kids Under Cover - his passion and enthusiasm are infectious. He made me realise that ordinary people can make the impossible possible.
  • All my close female friends - they are an amazing group of women with diverse interests who have been supportive, insightful and instructive whenever I have needed them to be.

Published October 2006

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