James Demetriou

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 community sports leader James Demetriou

James is co-founder (with his son Tom) and Executive Chair of Sports Without Borders, a not-for-profit organisation that provides support for young people from migrant and refugee backgrounds who are involved or want to get involved in sport. SWB is auspiced by the Australian Multicultural Foundation Trust.

A highly experienced senior executive and educator/academic, James has worked extensively in the corporate, educational and not-for-profit sectors.

He was a former senior VFL player (1975-1976) and Director (1996-1997) of the Essendon Football Club, and was heavily involved with the AFL's peace team, a collaborative project that aimed to unite young Palestinians and Israelis through sports.

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

  • Nelson Mandela - for galvanising black and white South Africa by reconciliation not revenge.
  • Bill Clinton - for his innovative presidential terms which included spending on ICT and Biotech technology and creating ground-breaking research and products, balancing the US budget allowing for the US's most prosperous period, and his engagement of Asia.
  • Bob Hawke (and Paul Keating) for reforming Australia's financial system, consensus politics with unions-government and industry, superannuation reform, and creation of APEC.

What are the attributes you would consider to be essential to a leader?

  • Innovation;
  • Taking decisive action;
  • Taking responsibility and being accountable;
  • "Looking over the hill";
  • Discipline and leading by example;
  • Compassion empathy.

What are the barriers to new leaders emerging in Australia?

  • Lack of senior mentors and champions to assist young leaders;
  • Lack of funding by government to train leaders to be innovative and entrepreneurial;
  • The "old school tie" school system which ignores and is not sensitive to cultural diversity;
  • Mediocrity in corporate and government worlds due to lack of innovation and entrepreneurial education and lack of sensitivity to other cultures etc.

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

  • Get involved in a leading sporting club - e.g. - and AFL club at coterie or business level. Often leads to career opportunities, meeting mentors, etc.
  • Seek out mentors from two types of organisations - growing private business or successful public company CEOs.
  • Join a senior executive club or political party or young leaders' group - often the best place to meet like-minded people who have access to mentors etc. and are seeking to move into leadership. Also will allow you to meet people who know how to lead. One of the reasons the union movement and politics have been successful because the system has created an environment of mentoring and succession. The same goes for really good companies. They have people who champion and mentor potential leaders.

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

  • Need for discipline in the way you do things. My style, therefore, is one of leading by example and setting up structures that allow all staff to know what their role is. It's important that people know what they are doing and that they are respected for what they do. I walk the floor and ensure my staff knows that I care about them and their families etc.
  • Innovate the entire time - look over the hill always as you need to be in front of the pack. Almost all the things I have done in the past 10 years have involved looking over the hill and trying to anticipate or plan for the future that I want.
  • Show compassion and listen to and try to know the other person, whether they are your adversary or workers. It's often best to listen and learn as you do not know what the other person is going through. I have learnt to make adjustments to work and life balance for my staff, hence I often have had loyal workers. In return I expect them to do the right thing by me and the organisation.

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

Two men have been my mentors and I met them later in life. Much of my life, until 35, involved working hard to get educated, marry, have kids and build a career and work hard. Unfortunately, I often floundered and did not work effectively as I did not have a proper mentor.

Then at 35, I met Leo McNair, the CEO of Leigh Marden, who taught me the value of leadership and different styles of leadership. His style was hands on, walk the factory floor, know your staff and build a culture that is growing in the same direction and demands loyalty and honour.

At 46 I then met Bob Beaumont, one of Australia's most successful business angels and entrepreneurs. He liked me and taught me the value of leadership and a style which was listen-learn, be empathetic, think smart, do by example, surround yourself with smarter people than yourself and be disciplined. We always use to laugh that the most innovative people are disciplined people.

He also gave me a scholarship to the prestigious Anderson business school in UCLA which gave me great insights in US leadership amongst entrepreneurs in the USA - innovation and working smart is the only way to lead and stay in front of the pack. Also surround yourself with the best - somewhere in the world there is someone better than you so you must innovate continuously and lead by example.

One final thing that Bob taught me was how to think and how to look at problems differently. All good leaders always see problems and improvement differently to other people - you need to put yourself in the other person's shoes. He said that great leaders are often clear thinkers and are "ALWAYS LOOKING OVER THE HILL".

Thinking about your own leadership journey, what are you most proud of?

  • Assisting so many refugees and newly arrived children from the Horn of Africa, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Burma, China, Vietnam and Pacific Islands over the past four years to participate in sport as means of social inclusion. Hearing their stories and knowing that we may have made a difference to their lives and giving them a sense of belonging is very special to me.
  • Having been the first person in Australia to launch the first Learning and Life Centre (an education and community facility within an elite sporting club) in Australia and only the fourth in the world.
  • Being the first AFL player to play at Essendon as an Australian of an Hellenic background.
  • Having been possibly the first person, when a councillor at City of Coburg (1982-1985), to produce a full comprehensive council services guide for ratepayers in 10 languages. And being the first elected councillor in Coburg of a Hellenic background.

If you had a magic wand what would you change about community life in Australia?

  • If I had the chance to change something I would cut all funding to private schools as this degrades and devalues public schools because of lack of funds and resources and perpetuates class distinction in this country.
  • I seek a more compassionate and socially inclusive Australian society that acknowledges and accepts other people's cultures and believes that those people should be treated fairly, with respect, equally, and with dignity.
  • I'd also like to see the "we" rather than the "I" in young people's vocabulary and lifestyle - rid Australian youth of its self indulgence.

Published June 2011


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