Robbie Macpherson

As part of our regular segment, Our Community Leaders - Great Australian Leaders in Focus which features the thoughts of some of Australia's great leaders, this month we feature Robbie Macpherson.

Robbie Macpherson
Head of Social Leadership Australia

Robbie began working with Social Leadership Australia - which is a division of The Benevolent Society - as manager of the Sydney Leadership program in 2000. Since then he has designed and delivered a range of innovative leadership development programs for people in the government, corporate and community sectors, as well as working as an executive coach in the corporate sector. Social Leadership Australia has also grown from delivering one open program for 30 people - Sydney Leadership - to delivering a diverse range of open enrolment and customised programs which, in 2009 alone, introduced more than 500 people to a new leadership paradigm.

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

Robbie Macpherson:
  1. Resilience. The work of leadership is really tough and therefore you need to be really resilient - intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and physically - to survive the challenge.
  2. The ability to work across difference. A leader needs a capacity to collaborate and to work across a whole range of very different stakeholders.
  3. The ability to learn and to help others learn. A leader has got to be a teacher and create an environment which allows others to learn and grow. To make any kind of meaningful social transition, all the different parties and stakeholders have to learn about each other. A leader can't come in and impose a plan from above. The solution has to be created collectively by all the different stakeholders.

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

Robbie Macpherson:

Our flawed leadership paradigm. We are stuck in an outdated notion that leadership is about hierarchy and power - very much the 'great man' (and that's usually a white man) theory of leadership - which is always going to be a highly elitist and limited view. The complexity of the challenges we now face requires a new way of thinking about leadership. We see leadership as mobilising people to face reality - both the tough challenges and the new opportunities.

Real leadership is a much more inclusive and collaborative activity. There are people right across our communities who don't have formal power or hierarchical power who are exercising leadership every day on tough issues - people who wouldn't necessarily identify with the word 'leadership' - but we continue to look to 'leaders' for the answers, and, increasingly, because of the complex nature of the world, those people fail to provide those answers and then we blame them.

We do it continually with our political leaders. Our expectations are out of control because we're looking for a messiah, and this is really unhelpful because it's a fantasy.

When we can start to think of leadership as an activity that brings about real progress in a community or a system, as an activity that can be done by anyone, then that starts to free us up.

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

Robbie Macpherson:

Apart from, do the Sydney Leadership program?!

Ask yourself, are you really interested in doing leadership work or are you just interested in bettering your own career? One is about personal ambition and the other is about trying to bring about real progress and improving things. To exercise real leadership you've got to challenge the status quo and that can sometimes be 'a career-limiting move'.

Real leadership is almost always a risky activity - and a thrilling activity - but it's not management. Leadership has that element of bringing about genuine progress and that means tackling the real, underlying issues and asking the hard questions. It's not the easy path and almost always it involves an element of real loss, or at the very least the fear of loss. We have a fantasy that we can make progress without any loss and I think that's unhelpful. Growth involves uncertainty and pain, and that's hard.

Our Community: What are the top leadership issues facing Australia today?

Robbie Macpherson:

I think there are two clear leadership challenges facing Australia today - the first one is around climate change because it's about the very survival of this planet and our future - and the second is around Indigenous issues, because I think it goes to the very heart and soul of who we are as a nation. We will never be at peace with ourselves until we fully reconcile with our first people.

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

Robbie Macpherson:

The discovery of a way of thinking about leadership which subverts the dominant paradigm. Stopping thinking about leadership as positional power and seeing it as an activity and a process.

Thinking about leadership in a different way - that it's not about the attainment of, and the holding on to, and the use of power, it's about mobilising people to face reality and take responsibility for the tough issues they face and find a way of working together to bring about real and fundamental changes. Ultimately it's about human progress.

Secondly, that it's almost inevitable that when you exercise leadership you're going to piss some people off. It's important not to be dismissive or blind to that but it's also important not to take the push-back personally, and to focus on the issue not the person.

Thirdly, you've got to both have a really strong purpose and what I call 'the courage of your doubts' - that it's okay not to have all the answers.

Leadership is a risky, tough business and that's OK - accept some of the thrills and risks involved but don't lose sight that it's also a joyful and thrilling activity.

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

Robbie Macpherson:

I've learned from so many different people, it's hard to identify individuals, because I don't think anyone has got it all.

My Mum and Dad. They would never use the word 'leadership', it is just 'in' them, it is just how they live. I've never seen my Dad look down on any one in his life and I've never seen him cower before anyone, and my Mum treated everyone like they really mattered.

My friend, Shauna, who was my boss and mentor taught me the importance of listening, deeply. She also believed in me at times when I didn't.

my old colleague and friend Paul Porteous, who introduced Adaptive Leadership to the Sydney Leadership program. He had incredible courage and integrity in his work. He helped me think about leadership in a different way and to think about the teaching of leadership in a different way - that we can't learn leadership using a traditional classroom and traditional curriculum, we need a learning environment which reflects the complexity and true nature of the challenge: a much higher level of experiential learning which is provocative and confronting - because so much of the learning is personal - and also that it's about building character and wisdom, and that's developed in real world.

I learn from my colleagues all the time.

Our Community: Thinking about your own leadership journey what are you most proud of?

Robbie Macpherson:

I'm really proud that Social Leadership Australia, through The Benevolent Society, is challenging hundreds of individuals and a range of significant organisations to think very differently about leadership - that the development of leadership is about building the capacity of people right across our community and organisations to exercise leadership in a different way.

At the moment we're working with an incredibly broad range of individuals and organisations, from senior executives at NAB to Deputy Assistant Commissioners of police across the country, to an amazing group of emerging Indigenous leaders across the country. In each case I see our job as helping them get clear and inspired about what contribution they want to make to better the world in some meaningful way, and then giving them some of the skills, networks, thinking and resilience to bring that about. I often think we're really tapping into the incredible human potential that often lies dormant. Most people do want work towards leaving the world in a better place, given half a chance.

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

Robbie Macpherson:

I'd prefer to avoid mentioning all those 'great leaders' like Mandela, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Ahn San Soo Kyi, not because I don't deeply respect what they've done but just because they are the obvious ones.

I'm more interested in recognising people that maybe don't usually get recognised. When we look at South Africa, we understandably focus on Mandela but I also think de Klerk played a critical role in that transition. That meant that he had to face the accusation of betrayal by white South Africans. They had not elected him to dismantle apartheid.

But he not only released Mandela but partnered with him in an extraordinary way to create real progress in South Africa.

Muhammad Yunus, because he challenged the idea of hundreds of millions of people being trapped in poverty, and challenged the assumptions that they were unworthy and untrustworthy of bettering their lives. Because he has helped empower many of the poorest people in the world - especially women - to give them the opportunity to progress their lives and their communities, by both philosophically challenging traditional ways of thinking about banking and finance and by matching that with a practical route.

And lastly I think Eddie Mabo was a great inspiration, for the way he unrelentingly pursued and challenged the notion of terra nullius right to the High Court and how, when won that case (sadly, after his death) he forced us as a nation to confront the big lie at the heart of our nation that we had come to an 'empty land'.

For me ultimately great leadership is about how you hold two things concurrently which often seem contradictory: on the one hand, a profound realism - you must never underestimate the reality of what you're dealing with - and on the other hand a deep sense of hope. Having one without the other is not helpful - you'll either be naïve or it'll leave you feeling cynical. We need real hope!

Published September 2010