Sir Gustav Nossal

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 one of Australia's greatest scientists, thinkers and community leaders - Sir Gustav Nossal.

Sir Gus Nossal AC Kt CBE, Emeritus Professor, Melbourne University

Sir Gus was born in Bad Ischl, Austria in 1931 and came to Australia with his family in 1939. He studied Medicine at The University of Sydney and, after two years' residency at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sir Gus moved to Melbourne to work as a Research Fellow at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (the Hall Institute). Sir Gus was knighted in 1977 and made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1989. He has won many awards both locally and overseas for his work. Over the years, Sir Gus has served on dozens of community committees and Boards, was deputy chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and was named as Australian of the Year in 2000 for his achievements in the fields of science and the community.

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

Sir Gustav Nossal:

  1. Nelson Mandela - he demonstrated the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and oppression, and he highlights the dignity present in every person.
  2. James D Watson - Watson and Crick's discovery of the structure of DNA has revolutionised biology and medicine. Yet we are only at the beginning of the understanding of the human body and untold medical benefits are still in store.
  3. Dame Joan Sutherland - men and women do not live by bread alone! The arts and the humanities are ineffably important and I chose Dame Joan as symbolising what is best in Australia in these fields.
Our Community: What are the three attributes you would consider to be essential to a leader? And Why?

Sir Gustav Nossal:
  1. Integrity - no matter what the field of endeavour, the capacity to espouse values, stick to them and to be recognised for so doing are essential qualities.
  2. Vision - a leader must know where he or she is going and vision, in that sense, is a mixture of imagination and creative intelligence. Only if a person knows where he or she is going will others wish to follow.
  3. Determination - leadership almost always requires effort. An imaginative person without drive can inspire others in flashes, but for a leader to be successful in the long run it is important to sustain effort. This means drive and determination.
Our Community: What are the three greatest barriers to new leaders emerging in Australia?

Sir Gustav Nossal:
  1. 1. The Tall Poppy syndrome - it is part of our wonderful larrikin tradition to cut down Tall Poppies. People who are too ambitious (except in sport) are looked at askance. Very hard striving at school work, for example, is not regarded as cool. Let's try to preserve the egalitarian tradition while giving more encouragement to the intellectual superstars!
  2. Our geographical remoteness - the great leaders all seek to play on a world stage, and this is difficult when we are so far away from the other great centres of learning, particularly those of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. That is why we have to struggle just a little bit harder to get noticed.
  3. Our disrespect for politicians - unquestionably, Australia badly needs great political leaders but this is hard to achieve if politicians as a class are reviled and despised. There is, of course, a chicken and an egg situation here but we must try to get more good young people into politics.
Our Community: What advice would you give to a potential leader to take them to the next stage?

Sir Gustav Nossal:
Believe in yourself, work hard, avoid undue arrogance, remember to learn something every single day.

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

Sir Gustav Nossal: There is certainly a significant genetic component to leadership but unquestionably education, the home environment and encouragement by peers also make a vital contribution. In this as in so many fields the answer is one hundred per cent nature and one hundred percent nurture!

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

Sir Gustav Nossal:

  1. Not enough talent within politics.
  2. Insufficient generosity both at the personal and the national level - we need more overseas aid as aproportion of GDP, more philanthropic giving by individuals and corporations.
  3. Independence in culture and policies. There is too much of a tendency to copy the United States and we are at risk of becoming a derivative society. This must not happen as in fact robust individualism has served as very well and there is the possibility of creating a uniquely good society - if we have the strength and the will.
Our Community: What insights have you gained personally on your leadership journey?

Sir Gustav Nossal: I have learnt that it is possible to achieve at an international level from an Australian base. I have learnt that it is important to be generous to colleagues; very few achievements are made alone and so much depends on collaborators, networks and people one has influenced. I have learnt that it is better to praise than to punish; my leadership style believes that you get the best out of people when they feel cherished and sustained. I have learnt that it is better not to be arrogant, vain and proud; if you push yourself too high you will encourage others to try and pull you down!

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

Sir Gustav Nossal:
  • Sir Macfarlane Burnet, my scientific mentor and teacher, who recognised certain qualities in me and encouraged me to address big problems in science and to have confidence in my ability to solve them.
  • Sir Colin Syme, distinguished lawyer and businessman, who served as Chairman of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research Board and helped to introduce me to the commercial and financial world of Australia, to broaden my outlook and to remember the crucial importance of absolute integrity.
  • Dr Joshua Lederberg, my scientific collaborator at a very young age, this American Nobel Laureate had a brilliantly fast mind, an amazing memory and a huge grasp of the broad new thrusts in biology. He lived completely at the cutting edge, was not afraid of high technology and introduced me to many of the scientific leaders of the United States, thus preventing me from thinking parochially.

Published October 2003

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