Ken’s Last Lecture Transcript
When I was asked to give my last lecture, I didn’t like the idea very much but I thought I better go with the flow. Then my wife got into my ear, and said “you’ve got to make it funny, no one wants to hear one of your usual moralistic sermons. Make it funny!” And I thought how can I make this thing funny? What if I made it a Monty Python version of a lecture? Then I reflected a little bit about it. And I realised that all of you guys have had enough experience in the business and other faculties, of Monty Python versions of a lecture (general laughter).
So then I thought, what if I write a eulogy? What if I start with “We’re gathered here tonight to honour Ken, who fought valiantly for sixteen years against the virus of UTS bureaucracy, and died in agony after a brain aneurism exploded as a result of yet another life-and-death encounter with the dreaded virus.” Then I thought, “No. That’s too melodramatic. Bugger my wife; bugger Stefano; it’s going to be another moralistic sermon” (general laughter)!
First of all, a little rider – what I teach is that leadership is an extremely complex phenomenon. I don’t think it’s recognised in most business schools just how complex a phenomenon leadership is. The title of my presentation this evening is ‘Leadership: What have I Learned from Running the MBT for 16 Years’. It’s important to note that I’m referring to the context of an academic leadership role, and thus what I say may not apply readily to leadership in other contexts.
What have I learned over the past 16 years? The program started as the MDP and morphed into the ITMP … then the MBITM … and now the MBT. It sounds like a program that has an identity crisis every four years. When I thought about this, I realised that so it should be. In terms of what’s happening in the world, and the rate of change that is going on in the world, if we weren’t transforming the identity of the program, we would have a problem. We have to constantly be reflecting on the situation that we are operating in, and whether that situation is demanding something different from us in terms of who we are and what we are. So, we have been through a lot of changes but I think the changes have all been relevant; all have been directly related to the challenges that the program has faced, and that we face in trying to develop the innovative business leaders of the future – which reflects our mission statement.
My first point is that to lead and teach requires a commitment to other people’s development. In the beginning of my term, when I was trying to put the teaching team together, I tended to go for people with strong knowledge bases, as people to be put in front of a class. But over the 16 years, I’ve learnt is that it’s not enough to have a strong knowledge base. It’s essential but it’s not enough. You have to care about someone else’s learning if you’re going to be a successful educator. This is absolutely crucial. So what I’ve learnt to do over the years, is to constantly search for people who have both strong knowledge bases, current knowledge, and who care about others’ development. This has led to all of the lecturers, except for myself, being industry based. All of them have excellent knowledge bases and all are extremely good educators. That’s what has really made the difference. And if we think about it, that’s exactly what leadership should be like. Leadership is all about developing capabilities in other people. If that’s not happening then leadership is failing. In this respect, I think that, in general, organisations are failing badly in the domain of leadership. What I see, and what I hear from students, reflects a situation where ‘leadership’ has degenerated into people looking after their own interests and failing in their responsibility to care about the development of anyone else.
When I talk about caring about other people’s development, I’m not talking about a soppy notion of caring. Genuine caring may, at times, include a confrontational element. If someone is not taking themselves seriously – if they’re not engaging in the process with the right levels of commitment – then it’s up to the leadership to confront that person in a way that is empathic on one level and confrontational on another level, to shake them up. Intelligent caring is process whereby we understand that we are intervening or confronting a person for their benefit and the benefit of the collective of which that person is a member. It is not something that you do to attack or to humiliate someone else. The last thing that genuine leaders want to do is to destroy the confidence and capabilities of any members of their team or organisation. Intelligent caring refers to a difficult task that requires time, energy, thought and skill that someone would not take on if they didn’t care. The leader has to confront in such a way that the confronted person is able to accept the caring intent that frames the confrontation. In this respect, how the act of intelligent caring is prefaced, is crucial. One of the things I often say to the person, as a preface, is “I don’t have to do this. I
can turn a blind eye, I don’t have to confront you. It’s difficult: I don’t have to invest this energy and time and so on in this process. I’m doing it because I care about you, and I care about the way you’re behaving, and the way you’re behaving is contrary to your own interests and those of your organisation”. If you get that right, the person’s defences drop, and they start taking on board whatever you have to say in terms of that confrontation. I’m going to embarrass a few people now. My good friend Sanjay Srider, who is sitting in the front row, and who has gone on to enjoy a stellar career, took my subject as his first subject in the program and was all over the place. He was coming from Frenchs Forest to the lecture; arriving late and falling asleep – or looking like he was falling asleep. After about 3 weeks I went to him – in an act of intelligent caring – and said “Sanjay, I honestly think you’re wasting my time and your time, and I think you should just bugger off!” That, he claims was the turning point in his leadership career; the point at which he started thinking about his behaviour and his commitment to what he was doing, in a different way. It’s caring but it’s caring in a different way to that generally connotated by the word. There is another example, and the person isn’t here, thankfully. About 3-4 years ago, I start the first session of my subject and I see a girl I didn’t recognise, typing everything I’m saying down into her computer.
“What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been sent by the special needs department – you have someone in the class who has a learning problem”
“Who is it?”
“We can’t tell you”
So I thought, “OK. Let’s go with the flow”. And then the first assignment came up. About three days before it was due, a student came up to me and told me that he couldn’t meet the deadline for the assignment because he had a learning disability or whatever the phrase was.
“Hang on now”, I responded, “have you looked at our mission statement for the program? What do we say on the mission statement? We say we’re trying to develop the innovative business leaders of the future. Can you be such a leader if you can’t meet deadlines … if you have to make excuses for yourself in various situations? Can I destroy the brand of this program by letting standards slip because I feel sorry for you? I can’t do that. I can’t disadvantage everybody else who co-owns the brand of this program because of some degree of difficulty for you – you’re going to have to meet the deadline or leave the program”.
Well, a few days later, someone from the administration sent me a message – accusing me of being hard, and all sorts of things, because the girl who was doing the typing took this back to whoever it was that she was working for. But I was not going to budge on this issue. He delivered the assignment on time, and it was a very good assignment. I don’t remember the exact mark but he got around 75% for it. One year later, he wrote me an email, telling me that it was a change point in his life. He now accepted responsibility for things and was proud to tell me that he’d met the deadlines in other subjects, and at his workplace. I’m not sure if previously he was manipulating the system or whether he just lacked confidence in his ability. If I hadn’t confronted him, I don’t think that he would have changed. The point I’m trying to make is that it’s not easy to intelligently care. You’ve got to be very, very careful about how you go about the process because it’s not about destroying the person – it’s about building capabilities in that person which that person, at that point, is not recognising as needing to be done.
At workplaces, unfortunately, I don’t see many leaders who are acting in the best interests of staff; or who even care whether their staff members are developing or not. It seems that most people in this world are primarily serving their own interests and needs. It’s a sad state. Recently I’ve introduced into my leadership subject, a really good article on Alex Ferguson, the coach of Manchester United who achieved incredible success over 26 years. Recognised as possibly the greatest sports coach of all time, the article outlines his leadership philosophy and practices, and one quote is worth reading out:
Always take the great pride in seeing younger players develop. The job of the manager, being the coach, like that of that a teacher is to inspire people to be better. Give them better skills, make them better people and build character. Never give in. If you give in once, you will give in twice. If you give young people your attention and opportunities to succeed, it’s amazing how much they will surprise you.
He goes on to say that, as a manager, you play different roles at different times. Sometimes, you have to be a psychologist, sometimes a teacher, sometimes a father. In the MBT, often I’ve had to play that role of mediator as well, between students and the administration, or
between staff and the administration, in various situations. So you’re taking on multiple roles; all of which are oriented around the development of other people.
He talks about ‘stepping out of the bubble’ – the bubble being a situation where he dominated every training session and controlled the whole show, until one day one of his assistant coaches said to him “I don’t know why I am here, because you do everything.” He thought about this and, at first, denied it. He went home and reflected further about it. The next day he came back and said “You’ve got a point”. He relinquished control of training sessions and took on much more of an observational role in other processes. Always there, always present, but observing rather than exercising overt control. He says:
I became more aware of a range of details and my performance levels jumped. Seeing a change in a player’s habits or certain difficulties or enthusiasm allowed me to go further with him. Is it family problems? Is he struggling financially? Is he tired? What kind of mood is he in? Sometimes, I could even tell if a player was injured when he thought he was fine. I don’t think many people fully understand the power of observing. I came to see observation as a critical part of my management skills. The ability to see things is key. Or more importantly, the ability to things you don’t expect to see.
This is an aspect of leadership of which I see very little evidence in organisations. How many leaders are putting themselves in a position where they can observe events and situations and ask, “Why is this happening? … Where is it going? … What is manifesting in people’s behaviour?” If you’re caught up in the hurly burly of controlling everyday action, and shining your badge and counting your money, you’re not going to pick up the vital clues and cues that are necessary, I think, to be an effective leader.
On the issue of leading change, Ferguson says:
One of the things I’ve done well over the years has been to manage change. I believe you can control change by accepting it. This means having confidence in your people that you hire. The minute staff members are employed you have to
trust that they’re doing their jobs. If you micromanage and tell people what to do, there is no point in hiring them.
From my experience, and from what I hear about their workplaces from students, autocratic management styles are common practice in the effort of managers to ruthlessly control people and situations. It hasn’t happened this year in my leadership subject, but, over the previous three years, half the class has resigned from their jobs during the course of this subject. And when I’ve asked them why, they say, “the subject has given me the space to reflect on my life and I didn’t like what I saw”. They quote managers saying things like, “If you don’t like it, there’s the door.” That’s the level of caring! Someone popped into my office at 5pm this evening, apologizing for not attending the event tonight and wanting to say goodbye, and told me about the new job that she’s in, where there’s ruthless autocracy, and egos out of control. That’s what many people are having to live with. In this ‘moralistic sermon’ I’m trying to hold up a better picture as to how we could live as human beings in workplaces. I love the approach by Ricardo Semler, founder of Semco in Brazil, where he recognises the employment contract as a human one. As human beings, we have 70-80 years, if we’re lucky, on this planet. As an employer, he wants to know what an employee wants to get out of this time. He asks, “What’s your value proposition; what are you seeking? Challenge, learning, what is it that drives you? Then we’ll tell you what our value proposition is and every two or three weeks we’ll have an informal discussion – I’ll ask you, ‘Are we honouring your value proposition, are you getting what you need to fulfil your life, out of this employment contract? And we will tell you whether you are delivering the value that we are expecting from you in terms of the employment contract’.” Now that’s a far more humane way of looking at the employment of people as opposed to what I see and hear very often: “Once I employ you, you’re a commodity that I own and I can do what I like with you; I can speak to you however I like, treat you however I like, because I own you by paying you this salary that you get.” It’s a very different way of looking at things and the leadership implications are obvious.
Normally we make our class sessions interactive but it’s a traditional lecture tonight so you can’t shoot me down yet!
To lead successfully requires really strong sources of courage. What are your sources of courage? I keep going back to people like Martin Luther King, who said he only became a
good leader when he lost his fear of death. That was his source of courage. From the moment he knew that he didn’t fear death, he had courage. If you think about it, how many good leaders have been assassinated, crucified … you name it … in the history of the world? Good leadership is not popular. If I look to my journey with the MBT, my source of courage in the beginning was pretty easy. I came from a situation where I had strong networks in my own country, I was very fulfilled in the role I was running at that stage, so I made the decision that I will go for broke in this new venture because if it doesn’t work, I can go home. I knew that I had the capabilities to go home and be meaningfully employed again quickly. As time went by, those networks at home withered and new ones were built here. As time went by, my sources of courage had to change, and be reviewed in many ways. New relationships were being built and the growing success of the program became a source of courage to me. I realised that I had a power base that senior people were not going to mess with easily. My position got stronger and stronger as the program got stronger, and was increasingly recognised as a world class program, so I gained greater power and more courage to take risks. The point I’m trying to make here is that I’ve had to constantly reflect on my sources of courage because if you haven’t reflected on them, you’ll capitulate … you’ll back down under pressure. You really have to be fully aware all the time of what it is that you have in order to grow. I spoke to one person, who is here tonight, from my current class, and I said to him “what is your source of courage” – he had been discussing some of the problems in his employment situation. He said that his source of courage is his employability. He knows he can walk out of the job and walk into another one relatively quickly and easily. That’s a very nice position to be in. Many of us are not in that position – but it’s a fantastic source of courage in that situation.
The concept of power is highly relevant to good leadership – you cannot lead effectively without power. The generation of power is absolutely crucial. However, the word ‘power’ has a slightly negative connotation in the English language. It smacks of abuse somehow. But if you think about it, you cannot do anything without power. Every human relationship has a power dynamic in it. We live with power – we can’t escape it in any way. The issue really is what do we do with it? Primarily, in whose interest is that power exercised? So we are coming back again to the value proposition of an educator and leader. In whose interest is whatever power you generate being used? Are you utilising that power in the interests of the development of other people or in the interests of your own self-aggrandisement and/or
career enhancement. It’s something one has to think through carefully.
To me it’s about the intelligent use of power – leadership is all about how power is used intelligently. You learn through experience about how organisations work and how institutions work. I’ve worked in universities for nearly 50 years now. About 25 years ago, I was on my way back to Australia (I was always going back to South Africa or back to Australia) and the HR Director of Johnson and Johnson in South Africa said to me “how do we keep you in this country? You’re so passionate about this country – how can we keep you?” I said “Look, I’ve worked in universities for some time. I’ll tell you how you keep me. You give me a huge foundation fund and sponsorship that enables us to get things going and you negotiate with the university that the sponsorship is entirely dependent on whether I report to a board of industry people and not through the line structure of the university.” I knew that reporting through the line structure would kill any initiative that I try to enact. I was happy to have our financial accounts in the university system so that they could be scrutinised as much as anyone wanted to do but anything that J&J put in and anything that we raised afterwards had to be under our control. I didn’t want to have to ask for permission to utilise that money. J&J went and did it! The university agreed, reluctantly. They wanted the money. One of the things that I had learnt from previous experience in universities is that the only power base that universities respond to is corporate power, because it’s all about money. So J&J set this whole thing up. The university hated me. What bureaucracies or functional hierarchies resent more than anything else is having somebody over whom they have no control. That’s exactly what happened. They had no control over me in that situation. We had a fantastic eleven years. After eight years, I learned another interesting thing. The Vice Chancellor, who hated my guts and wouldn’t shake my hand when he finally retired, was replaced by a new Vice Chancellor who after looking at what we were doing, held us up as an exemplar of the way higher education should be going. We were raising money; funding exciting initiatives; and dealing with the political problems of the country. We weren’t sitting in an ivory tower doing our little micro research etc., and I realised again that whoever is in the leadership position can change your fortunes overnight. We went from being the polecat of the university to the exemplar in literally six months. It opened my eyes to how power operates in society and how we need to manage power intelligently.
When I came to Australia, I couldn’t do the same thing. There is a much more
entrepreneurial culture in South Africa than here, and there isn’t the same tradition of philanthropy here. It’s very difficult to get money out of businesses. We didn’t have that sort of money to influence the university. So one of the things I’ve had to do in the MBT is to try to generate corporate power in a different way … and hence, Stefano’s and Rob’s comments about the work of the Board. We created a board that is independent, and outside the university. It’s incorporated; has a constitution; has its own bank account; and makes its own decisions. Recently, we had the experience in the university where Rob, as Chairman of the Board, sent an email which was copied to a member of UTS management, reporting on his visit to the new Provost. A member of management came stomping down the corridor to my office and said “Who does he think he is – that he can just go see the senior people in the university without asking my permission … and why did you allow this?” I said, “Listen, this is an independent board. It exists independently, and if you look at what they’re doing in terms of contributions to this program, you should be happy that we have this operation going. I don’t intervene in any of the decisions the Board makes. If I did I would only be able to intervene once – once I intervene and change the decision, then the whole notion of distributed leadership goes out the window. The person turned around and stomped off down the hall. Once again the issue is control; with the intrapreneur exercising a form of power that is beyond the control of traditional management. We’ve published papers on this process that we’ve been through over the last seven years. We’ve tried to document exactly what’s gone on, and what are we learning from this process of being intrapreneurial. An intrapenuer is an entrepreneur who is located in a particular institution because that institution can satisfy the value proposition that drives her/him. I’m an intrapreneur. I’m basically a risk taking person. I don’t know how I have survived nearly 50 years working in a bureaucracy … it’s nearly killed me … I’ve nearly experienced that burst aneurism! But, my value proposition is developing other people, seeing talent flourish. As an educator, that’s what I get the biggest kick from. It’s just seeing other peoples’ lives transform and blossom in various ways. To do that, I have to be inside an educational institution. Therefore, I’ve had to learn how to survive in this kind of institution and generate, as an intrapreneur, a whole lot of below-the-radar power bases and live dangerously. The power bases that you are generating are always below the radar. The university knew nothing about the board for many years; they vaguely know something about it now. Several years ago we had to get rid of our dedicated web site for cost-cutting reasons, so we had one of our members find a way to hang it off the UTS library
web site … it took them six years to discover it. We’ve had to do all sorts of things to violate the procedures and policies that are obsolete, stupid and ineffective. And then you have the rhetoric about we’re going to be the MIT of Australia – we’re going to be innovative and entrepreneurial but our policies, business-as-usual procedures, risk management routines, permissions regimes won’t change! It all becomes a pipe dream. Nothing innovative will happen. So we‘ve had to work under the radar.
When I think back, I’ve had to carry a lot of risks for the things that we have had to do here. I don’t know if I’d do it again, if I thought about it. It’s a burden that is put on one person and it’s unfair. The thing I’ve learnt from this, though, is that if you’re prepared to take on that burden, you have to always be seen to be acting in the best interests of the institution. The moment there is the slightest suspicion that you’re acting in your own interests, you will lose the respect that people have. When you have that respect all that happens is you get a little hand smack when they discover your website on the library site, etc. You just get smacked on the hand and there is forgiveness in the process. But if you’re seen at any time to be operating in your own interests, there could be a much more serious consequence. So I’ve had to be very vigilant because being human sometimes you’re tempted to elevate your own interests. I’ve had to make sure that all the time I’m acting in the best interests of the university, and that so too is the program.
One of the things I noticed soon into the process is that Australian universities are terrible at managing their alumni. As a consequence, they don’t get access to the benefits an active alumni community can offer. We’ve created what we call the MBT community now. I don’t know how strong it is now, probably about 1500 people. As I’ve said earlier, we’ve distributed the leadership. The point that I’ve made to the community is that you’re co-owners of the MBT brand. If that brand is important to you, then we have to all constantly attempt to enhance that brand. So how are we going to do that? I’m giving you the freedom to exercise that. It’s just blown me away to see what happens when people feel a sense of ownership in the process. To see the level of commitment, the passion, the energy, the ideas coming from these people – all of whom are in relatively senior jobs; most have got families; many renovating the kitchen or the bathroom at the same time as putting in the hours for the MBT program! They’ve got a lot on their plate. And when I see the commitment that they give to Board initiatives, I am amazed. For example, they’ve held an annual golf day for five
years now. Last year 83 C-level people played from 65 organisations. The Board raised $45k and they spent $45k. It has been a fantastic event. They’re taking the brand out to the world. At the university, we talk about external engagement and knocking on doors, and whatever, but nobody has any idea about what our community, our alumni and industry partners are doing in terms of enhancing this program. They’re not only enhancing the MBT, they’re enhancing UTS’s brand in the process. We have an event coming up in October which is going to be a humdinger! Jens Pistorius, sitting over there, … I’ve learnt so much from him … he’s fearless, he’ll phone Donald Trump or anybody else if he needs to. Jens came across this guy, David Marquet, who was the commander of a US nuclear submarine and apparently took it from being the worst submarine in the fleet to the best. After he retired he began making a truckload of money as a public speaker all over the world. So Jens gets in touch with him: “I see you’re in Australia in October – can you do something for MBT program on the back of that?” To cut a long story short, Jens got him to reduce his talking fee to a fraction of what it normally is. We then still wanted to align it to one of the principles I have – that we owe the alumni – I never want them to pay for anything, so whatever we do has to be provided as a free service. So we still needed money to get a venue, catering, etc. One of our alumna, Dave Allan, volunteered his services and soon set up an interview with PM Partners and the next thing we knew, we had $55k sponsorship for the talk. Jens, now with money in his pocket, goes to the maritime museum and he negotiates a visit through one of the submarines, and all sorts of other frills and fancy stuff, on that night, the 5th of October. It’s going to be one hell of an event. 250 people minimum. Point is again – who has organised this? Anyone from the university? Me? Everything is being done by the alumni. Why are they doing it? Because they’re co-owners of the brand. They want the brand to be as enhanced as much as anyone. They’re giving us their valuable time and effort. Jens isn’t doing this on his own. He’s got a troupe of people in the community, who are mobilising for this event. There is a model here of how we could run higher education much more effectively and creatively than is the case with the traditional model that exists. Is it recognised? No. Why not? Because they can’t control it. It’s something outside of their control. “You are creating a precedent. What’s going to happen when you go?” You know the usual story within functional hierarchies. The fact that leadership is never an individual achievement is not recognised. Leadership is always a collective achievement. Nobody can lead effectively on their own. They have to mobilise other people; develop other people;
manage other people; build the relationships and liberate the intangible capital resources. Which leads to my next point.
From my involvement with the program, I’ve become aware that in the knowledge era, organisations are still managing people as if it’s the industrial era; micro managing people as if they’re producing widgets. Making sure they stay on the job and don’t go to the toilet too often etc., etc. In the knowledge era, however, it’s all about intangible capital resources. It’s about relationship-based resources. It’s about trust. It’s about passion. It’s about commitment. It’s about resilience; not giving up when you’re facing a problem. All of those things are relationship based. You get them for nothing if you manage people properly, and if you manage people badly, you get zilch. We withhold those resources from the organisation if we don’t feel that we’re appreciated and connected to the organisational endeavour.
I teach the leadership module in a construction management program every year in South Africa and it’s always a group of big burly guys with tattoos all over them, and I can see right from the beginning that when we start talking about this – and I can read their faces – they are saying to themselves “this guy is talking kak!” It’s not difficult to work out what ‘kak’ means! However, as we work through the module … I ask the question “So what are the resources you depend on?” “Plant, equipment, money….” Ok, so let’s assume that you‘ve got all the plant they need, all the equipment, all the money but you can’t trust your workforce and your workforce is lazy, it’s not committed to what it’s doing and people give up at the first sign of a problem. Are you going to succeed? And by the end of the week, they’re all starting to see that it’s about relationships; about how leadership mobilises those collectively held intangible resources that are generated and leveraged through relationships.
One of the things that has been evident to me for a long long time is that operational structure is crucial. I’ve already commented on the university structure where the organisation is structured as a functional hierarchy, with all these silos. In such a structure, you can have the best mission statement in the world but it will not be realised. The structure will just inhibit strategic execution. What we have had to do in the MBT, and one of the things that has really worked effectively here, from the beginning is create an agility that allows the program to be able to transform easily and quickly. If I look at the traditional way universities have offered
programs, you’d have full time staff members teaching on the program. If you look at the full time staff, most of them are there because they want to do research. They’re not really interesting teaching and developing other people; they’re there to develop themselves. Many of them don’t have the personal capabilities, the relationship capabilities to stand up and give an interesting lecture. Some of them really struggle with the language, it’s quite painful to actually sit in the class with someone who is struggling with a language that is not his or her own home language. Over the years we have become a business program rather than a technical program. We increasingly saw that we’re trying to develop business leaders who are tech savvy to lead organisations as opposed to producing CIOs in the world. With that transformation, the knowledge bases that were available in the school and in the faculty were irrelevant. So we started picking people from industry – people we knew who had great knowledge bases, as we said earlier, but also who are passionate about someone else’s development; who are true educators. Now, the structure here is quite interesting. Because I’m employing people from industry, and they’ve got lots of things going on in their lives, and they’re all in relatively senior jobs, I can’t ask them to teach each subject both semesters of the year. So we have had a rule from the start: teach one semester and use the other semester to refresh your material and to deepen your knowledge base. The other thing – in a fast changing world where we’re changing our identity quickly – is what happens when a subject is obsolete? I’ve been very open to input from our community as to what should and should not change in the program. If a subject is obsolete, in a traditional academic setting it’s politically difficult to take that subject away from that person, and re–energise it or create something new. With the structure we have, each lecturer is employed on a semester-based contract that is reviewed annually. It is an agile structure – extremely agile. It means we can stop subjects that are now “business as usual” subjects with nothing new about them or different about them, and we can stop them immediately. Furthermore, we can introduce another subject immediately into the process. If someone, as a staff member, is not performing, and I’ve had cases where the non-performance was because they couldn’t deliver it in a way that was beneficial to the students’ learning. One of the intangible resources that we’ve built from this program is that the resource of trust: students have learned that there is no penalty for telling me the truth; there is no penalty for giving me bad news. Very quickly, they’ll tell me if a lecturer is failing – I don’t sit in the classes – it’d take me years to find out something was failing. In the MBT, the feedback comes through quickly. If someone is
failing in terms of their attitude towards students, or their arrogance, or whatever the problem is, we can intervene very quickly and we can change the lecturer. This has enabled us to be very agile and dynamic in terms of the offering that we have to students and with keeping it up to date and relevant. My fear is that once I’ve gone, the bureaucracy will step in and, as there are people who are under-employed in the School, inappropriate staff will be press ganged into teaching some of these subjects. That would be the death knell of the program. So the Board will have to be vigilant and intervene to make sure that this type of thing does not happen.
I‘ve talk a lot about ego already. One of the critical things I’ve learned through this process is that to learn to lead effectively, you have to have a degree of intellectual humility. I had a very interesting PhD student, Grant Allen who is also a MBT alumnus who is living in London now. Working for Google he conducted action research on two teams at Google, both of whom had not innovated technically over the previous three years. One was in New York and one in Sydney. He was looking at the leadership practices within these teams and, especially, those that emerged through the action research process. It took three years for these teams to transform and start producing technical innovation. His primary finding was that social innovation precedes technical innovation. Both of these teams were dysfunctional because of competitive politics and inappropriate power dynamics that were being played out within them. When we analysed it, we realised that it is a fairly common assumption amongst most people that if you work for Google, you are the crème de la crème of the technical world. However to learn you have to concede imperfection of knowledge. Who’s going to concede imperfection of knowledge in the context like that? Everyone knows everything – the assumption is that you have to know everything if you’re working for Google. If you know everything, what’s there to learn? Learning is based on the assumption that there is something to learn in the first place. One of the leadership practices that emerged through the action research process (wherein power dynamics are scrutinised and transformed) we named the practice of intellectual humility. It was only when team members started to feel comfortable with the admission of imperfection of knowing, that the technical innovation started happening. The real learning started kicking in at that process. Politically very hard to do and, as I said, it took nearly three years and Grant Allen (an outsider) to facilitate that process. Google were amazing, they let him work between NY and Sydney all
the time to facilitate this process. As a consequence of the transformation of power dynamics, and the introduction of practices such as that of intellectual humility, between them the two teams have produced four stunning technical innovations. Another example is that of Stanley McCrystal – the head of the US Forces in Afghanistan – in a TEDD talk where he makes the point that he’s had to learn to be reverse mentored. Because, what he learned in the process of his military career is not what is happening in the field now. He’s sitting at the top but has no experience of what they’re doing in the field now, and especially no competence in the use of the technical media that they’re using for communication. He’s had to realise at this time of his leadership that he needs to be reverse mentored at times in order to lead successfully. That’s a brave position to take by someone who is the head of the organisation; to say “I don’t know some of the things that you guys are having to do – help me lead you in that context.” I had to do the same thing. My daughters, one of whom is sitting in the audience here, rolled on the ground laughing when they heard that I’d taken over the ITMP program. I’m technically challenged. I still type with one finger. I needed to exercise intellectual humility. Richard White helped me choose my first laptop, I remember. At that stage, I could try to ‘fake it to make it’ but I’d had too many experiences of people trying to fake it to make it and they didn’t fool anyone. Or else I had to own up and say, “guys, you know what’s going on here, help me.” This led to the embryo of the MBT Board and we put together a group of people to assist me lead the program. I said to them, “Tell me what should be here and what shouldn’t be here and I will make it happen” I didn’t have to have the knowledge. I just tapped into the knowledge of others and made what they recommended, happen. Ego makes this very difficult to happen.
Developing an internal locus of control – seeing yourself as responsible for the outcomes of your life – is, for me, the biggest step towards becoming a mature person. This is especially true when dealing with failure of any kind as, by asking yourself what you did to contribute to the failure – no matter what other people did – is essential for learning from the experience. In the program, many people have failed subjects. I had a guy the other day telling me that he’d failed Eng’s subject and now that he’s just passed Eng’s subject second time around, he wanted to know whether I can have the failure erased from his testamur and substitute the second (pass) mark instead. I said, “What you’re asking for is what we could call corruption. If we could do this, you know, nobody would ever fail. And so the value of your degree
would be diminished”. And he said “What happens if a potential employer says to me, ‘Have you ever failed a subject?’” I replied, “Why don’t you just be honest and say, ‘Yes, I’ve failed a subject but, you know what, I learned more from that than from any the subjects that I have passed’”. Just be honest and go out there and show that you are capable of taking this onboard and learning from it. When you ask yourself what you did that contributed to the failure, you start learning. If this leads to double-loop learning, where you search deep-down for the assumptions that you hold that led you to behave in such a way. In my personal life, I have found this extremely valuable. It’s not easy to unearth those assumptions; they’re subconscious and thus hidden from our awareness. It takes quite a lot of scrutiny and reflection to try and understand why one behaved in a particular way? What was it that was driving one to do so? Very often, you’ll find it’s something in your history that is driving the process. Once you’ve understood that assumption, then you can have more control over it. But while it’s operating subconsciously, you’ll repeat the behaviour again and again and again.
My final point is about a personal aspect of my learning from running the MBT. As an intrapreneur, as an academic, as a human being, I need recognition. And one of the things I have had to learn in the process of running the MBT is that, as an intrapreneur, as someone who is perceived as a threat to the system; someone who is not controlled by the system; someone is really a pain in the arse to the system; how can I expect them to recognise me? It’s a contradiction. If they’re going to recognise me, they’re going to have to concede some of the issues that they have cretaed. So I have had to learn that, as an intrapreneur, you’re never going to get recognition in the traditional way. As a human being, that’s painful. The second part of this learning is that the fulfilment I’ve got out of working on this program far exceeds any value that I could have got from recognition. The culture drives you to wanting recognition – “look at me, look at me, look at how clever I am or how powerful I am, or whatever”. My learning is that fulfilment is a much greater reward and often I have had to remind myself about that when I slip into feeling regret or anger that the recognition for what we have achieved has not manifested.
Finally, the last thing just to say is that I came to Australia in 1999 and I knew one person in Sydney. And so, I came to a place where I had no network, no community. I was a real
stranger beginning a new life at the age of 52. What has happened subsequently, and its again one of the unsung benefits of being an educator, is that through running this program, I’ve discovered a community of people who are incredibly generous, interesting, knowledge-rich, and dynamic. It’s been the best community I could have had anywhere in the world – and it’s come through teaching on this program. The other benefit is that this community is young. I turn 70 this year, and when you get old, you start getting cynical – and there is plenty in the world to get cynical about if you watch the news every night. Being a cherished member of this community, I have learnt to remain optimistic and to be enthusiastic about life. I’ve cherished the relationships I’ve had with our community members – all the coffees and the beers and the rest that we have enjoyed together. Through these relationships I have been inspired to stay young in spirit; to stay relevant; and to keep shaking my fist at death! I thank you all for that. It’s a real privilege – and a very unusual privilege – for someone my age to have access to people like you. I want to stay connected. I want to stay on the MBT Board. I want to regularly catch up with you guys as well. I’m going overseas next week for two months, and will be back late in August, so please don’t hesitate to make contact – just to catch up and help me stay young and help me stay enthusiastic about the world.