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Leadership Recipes


Defence Estate and Infrastructure Group 

Annual Leadership Conference Canberra

Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM President, Australian Human RIghts Commission


I first wish to acknowledge the Ngunnawal people who are the traditional custodians of this land, and to pay my respects to Ngunnawal Elders past, present and emerging. I also acknowledge any Indigenous guests present today.


Thank you, Geoff Camp, for the warm welcome. I am very pleased to be here today to speak with you, the leaders of Defence’s Estate and Infrastructure Group.

As you now know, I am the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission—an independent agency within the Attorney-General’s portfolio.

Although, as a statutory office-holder, I am not ‘in’ the public service, I feel most definitely ‘of’ it. And although based in Sydney, I do have family roots in Canberra through my mother, whose father was one of the first Canberra agency heads. They moved to Canberra from Melbourne when Canberra was little more than a country town surrounded by paddocks.

I thought I’d begin today by telling you a little about myself and about the Australian Human Rights Commission, including the work we do with Defence. Then, in keeping with this conference’s focus, I’d like to share some of my own experiences and insights on leadership.

The Australian Human Rights Commission

I came into the world of statutory office-holding after a long period in the academic world as a law professor. I then spent ten years at the Australian Law Reform Commission, including seven as its President. I have now been President of the Australian Human Rights Commission for 18 months—and those 18 months have been an intriguing voyage of discovery.

I have come to understand that much of what the Commission does is not well understood by the public, and I am making it my mission to open up and expand the understanding of the enormously significant role of the Commission as Australia’s national human rights institution.

As presently constituted, the Commission comprises myself, as President, and the 'magnificent seven'—seven other Commissioners as statutory office holders, in the areas of: 

  • Human Rights
  • Aboriginal and Torres Islander Social Justice
  • Children; and 
  • the four Discrimination Commissioners in the areas of Race, Disability, Age and Sex.

The Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, has been most actively involved with Defence. Some of you may have met Kate and members of her team.

The Commission's 'mantra' is that human rights concern 'everyone, everywhere, everyday'. Our statutory responsibilities include:

  • education and public awareness
  • discrimination and human rights complaints
  • human rights compliance
  • policy and legislative development.

We are very busy on all these fronts—and we have been discharging these responsibilities since 1981 (or 1975 if you count the work in relation to racial discrimination under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975)

Each chapter in the Commission's history has had two distinct roles in common: the promotion and the protection of human rights. 

The promotion aspect is performed principally through education, advocacy and advice:

  • to the Government, much as you would provide here in Estate and Infrastructure Division, through briefings to parliamentarians, government departments and agencies, and cooperative projects—like the work we are doing with the ADF
  • to Parliament, through submissions and evidence to Parliamentary committees and the tabling of reports, and
  • to the broader community, through educational resources, community advisory groups, consultations, events and awards.

The protection of human rights is focused largely on the world of individuals, expressed through the complaint handling functions of the Commission. Complaints usually start with just a phone call or email—some form of contact— by, on average, 15,000 people a year, individuals who consider that they have been badly done by in one way or another, and businesses just trying to understand their obligations. About 2,000 people pursue the Commission’s formal complaints process—one that is based on conciliation. Only a tiny number of these ever end up in court; and most participants, both those who complain and those who are complained against, are very satisfied with the professionalism of the process and its outcomes.

The Australian Human Rights Commission and Defence

The Commission works closely with the Australian Defence Force and Department of Defence. Indeed, through our collaboration, we have been fortunate to meet some exceptional individuals with a commitment to make Defence the most capable, and the most inclusive, organisation that it can be.

The relationship between the Commission and Defence goes back to 2011.

This was when Liz Broderick, former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, undertook a review into the treatment of women at the Australian Defence Force Academy (ADFA) and then in Defence more broadly.

The Broderick review traversed some very challenging cultural issues at a time when the Australian Defence Force (ADF) was under immense scrutiny. It also led to strong relationships between the Commission and Defence’s respective leaderships.

Following the review, Defence asked the Commission to continue its work to help embed cultural reform. At that point, the relationship between Defence and the Commission evolved, shifting from a review to a collaborative project. That collaboration between Defence and the Commission continues to this day.

As an independent body with expertise in human rights and anti-discrimination policy, the Commission is uniquely placed to work with Defence and provide advice on issues relevant to the cultural reform agenda.

The work our organisations do together builds on Defence’s own initiatives— notably, the First Principles Review and Pathway to Change.

Within the Australian Human Rights Commission, we have a team dedicated to the Defence Collaboration and the projects we undertake are developed in close consultation with the Defence Groups and Services.

Those projects have included extended research projects examining barriers to diversity in specialised work streams such as Air Force Fast Jet Pilots; Navy’s Marine Technicians and Maritime Warfare Officers. The Commission has also conducted ‘cultural temperature checks’ in Army Brigades, Training Establishments and Headquarters.

Our work examines issues around gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, race and diversity, and the impact of alcohol and social media on the cultural reform process. We provide policy advice on issues of workplace culture, including flexibility and navigating integrated team environments.

Our methodology involves quantitative and qualitative analysis. To understand the issues and develop effective recommendations, we visit nominated bases and units to consult with Defence personnel. Responses from Defence personnel are central to our work. Since the Collaboration commenced in 2014, we have consulted with over 2,200 Defence personnel.
Much of our work results in reports and recommendations to the Defence Senior Leadership Group. We strive to provide practical, achievable recommendations to realise desired outcomes.

One example is our Fast Jet Pilots Report, which looked at barriers to gender diversity in this highly specialised work stream. While some of our recommendations related to technical and operational issues, others involved a step-by-step approach to changing the culture of this profession.

Change is often tough. As humans, while we may be confident in the moral imperative to change for the better, initiating and staying with the process can be hard. Learning things about ourselves we would rather not hear is harder still. And acting on these learnings for positive change is perhaps the hardest of all. Defence is to be commended on its willingness to engage in these processes. We look forward to increasing our work with the Defence Groups and invite your suggestions on how the Commission can support your critical work and work environment.

Currently, the Commission is also piloting a new leadership program with Defence, called the Inclusive Leadership Network. Participants are from the three services as well as Estate and Infrastructure Group, Defence People Group and Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group.

The Inclusive Leadership Network’s objective is to equip emerging leaders with the skills and confidence to embrace diversity and to harness the benefits diversity can bring to Defence. The network meets six times over the course of a year, learning from public and private sector experts and developing strategies to give effect to Defence’s cultural reform agenda. Participants complete a 360 degree leadership skills assessment followed by a one-on-one leadership coaching session.

The program will be running again, beginning mid-2019. Nominations will open in the coming months and I encourage you all to consider participating.

Thinking about leadership

I’d now like to offer you some of my own thoughts on leadership.

I understand that the First Principles Review has delivered some significant changes to Defence, including the creation of the Contestability Division. These changes mean adapting the work you do, as the leaders of Estate and Infrastructure Division.

Such changes can be challenging, so the leadership advice I would like to offer aims to be simple, practical and grounded. It also incorporates the key elements of the ‘cultural intent statement’ in the Pathway to Change strategy to achieve cultural change in Defence and the ADF.

There has been an enormous amount of ‘theorising’ about leadership— identifying leadership styles and types; contrasting ‘transactional’ and ‘transformational’ leadership;[1] about ‘authentic leadership’;[2] and about evaluating leadership. There has been a great deal of ‘popular’ literature as well—like Sheryl Sanders’ book, Lean in—Women, Work and the Will to Lead[3] and lots of stuff you find in airport bookshops.

The Australian Public Service definition of leadership draws upon the concept of ‘adaptive leadership’, which is defined as a ‘practice, not a position’, ‘not a theory’. It is the practice of mobilising people to tackle tough challenges and thrive’.[4] Conceptualised in this way, leadership is what people do, not the position they hold.[5] Contrasting ‘management’ and ‘leadership’, the adaptive approach offers ‘a set of tools and principles that can be applied to work through specific challenges and periods of change’.[6] This approach to leadership is also the essence of Pathway to Change.

Before I start, one more thing you should know about me—I like to use metaphors and similes that have a kitchen flavour to them. (And we have just finished lunch, after all).

So—let's talk about soufflés

Making a soufflé is pretty tricky. It involves timing, good ingredients, technique, and patience.

Workplace morale is like a soufflé. Difficult to ‘bake’ and so easy to destroy. Morale, like soufflés, must be tended carefully.

Good leadership is also like making a soufflé. You handle them too much, they don’t rise. The analogy here is about micromanagement. Too much intrusion crushes the rising. Too much attention, perfectionism, can make the soufflé flop.

Timing is everything in soufflé baking. Good leaders are not time wasters. Let’s tease these thoughts out a little.

Good leaders are not micro-managers

How do you know if you are one? In the Harvard Business Review on 11 November 2014, Muriel Maignan Wilkins, co-founder of a boutique executive coaching and leadership development firm, published a list of ‘signs’:[7]

  • You’re never quite satisfied with deliverables.
  • You often feel frustrated because you would’ve gone about the task differently.
  • You laser in on the details and take great pride and/or pain in making corrections.
  • You constantly want to know where all your team members are and what they’re working on. You ask for frequent updates on where things stand.
  • You prefer to be cc’d on emails.

I will add an extra one: ‘you love to ‘reply-all’ to emails’.

Wilkins’ advice, if you see yourself in such traits: get over yourself; let it go; and expect to win—most of the time. The problem with micro-managers, in my view, is that they obsess about the small picture and miss the big one.

And the big picture is where leaders need to be focusing when it comes to shifting culture.

Good leaders are not time-wasters

A tangible expression of this is that good leaders are good meeting chairs. What makes a good chair? For a start, setting a meeting time with a closing point, a clear agenda, and appropriate breaks. There is established practice for meetings and you need to be on top of this—the law of meetings is your ultimate backstop if you need it.[8]

The Chair is not there to be an orator, but the facilitator of the meeting. To do this well you have to keep the agenda moving, and ensure people have an appropriate opportunity for speaking. Listening, demonstrating empathy, and enabling open communications are key attributes. When you have a large or antagonistic group, taking the speaking order ‘through the Chair’ assists keeping order, and can act to defuse moments of potential tension and reinforce the Chair’s role as being in charge of proceedings. If the group of people are new to each other, then one technique for opening up free flowing discussion and encouraging participation involves quick introductions by each person, and then time reserved at the end for every person to make a final comment.

Putting the ingredients together

Good leaders build teams and see mentoring as a philosophy of relating

For a start, good leaders are inclusive. At the Commission, we see inclusivity as a key leadership trait. An inclusive workplace is one in which every member is empowered to contribute their diverse skills and experience.

Inclusive leaders are able to harness these diverse skills and experiences for the greater good of the organisation.

Good leaders are good mentors. They demonstrate mentoring: not as a specific ‘task’, but as part of a whole philosophy of relating to colleagues. This is not about seniority, but about leadership practice (which is what ‘adaptive leadership’ is all about). And it is about nurturing morale.

Mentoring starts with encouragement. Encouragement starts with knowing your team. It’s about knowing people; and valuing them.

Good leaders show respect

Respect is the foundation of a well-run kitchen. Everyone has a place and each place is important. Respecting everyone in a hierarchy models good behaviour. And, ‘what goes around, comes around’ as they say.

Respect is a core value in the ‘statement of cultural intent’.

Your team may have lots of ideas that are just like your own, but give them the space to say it, listen, and allow them to ‘own’ the initiative. In the December 2016 issue of the New South Wales Law Society Journal, Fiona Craig wrote a piece entitled, ‘Boss or leader: is there really a difference?’. ‘A boss TAKES CREDIT, a leader GIVES CREDIT’, she wrote—‘a good leader will make sure individuals get the credit they deserve for the work they do’.[9] Similarly, ‘A boss COMPETES with you, a leader SPONSORS you’.[10]

Even in small teams you can make the opportunities to build respect and show encouragement, modelling this behaviour whatever the size of the group.

Another way of thinking about respect is how you as a leader make your team members feel valued. This is perhaps the most critical element to stewarding cultural change and promoting inclusivity.

In every project the Commission has completed for Defence, Defence personnel continue to emphasise the importance of feeling valued, and how this boosts morale within a team. And it is the responsibility of leaders to cultivate this sense of mutual respect.

Good leaders convey bad news constructively

Good leaders are able to convey bad news respectfully. At times there will be hard calls to make and, indeed, bad news or critical feedback to be conveyed. I consider that the character of a leader can be seen in the way they convey bad news to a person who has ‘failed’ or missed out on something. Good leaders take personal responsibility for conveying the message and turning it into a message of encouragement. Conversely, I consider that the character of a person is demonstrated in how they take the message of missing out. ‘Spitting the dummy’ tells you a lot about a person; rather than seeking to understand the message and to learn from it, they behave badly.

How do you know if you can cook?

You can’t cook if you lack confidence—especially not a soufflé

Confidence is, first and foremost, trusting in your ability. Women (as a broad generalisation) tend not to ‘blow their own trumpet’ and show a lack of willingness to say ‘no’. ‘Back yourself’, says a book called, Women who Seize the Moment: 11 lessons from those who create their own success.[11] It’s a familiar sort of literature that you find repackaged in various forms, with common themes — sometimes with accompanying television shows. In writing the foreword to Sheryl Sanders’ book, Belinda Hutchinson AM added her own words of wisdom along similar lines in saying ‘speak up and be ambitious for yourself’.[12]

Confidence is based upon being purposeful. If you ask ‘am I good enough?’; or, ‘if I were good enough, someone else would suggest that I apply for promotion’ etc, then you will be unlikely to succeed.

Confidence is also about finding your own style.

In a speech that Justice Roslyn Atkinson AO of the Queensland Supreme Court delivered in February 2016, she spoke of a lesson of leadership that she learned ‘very early on’, that ‘you are quintessentially yourself’.[13] She became ‘acutely aware’ of her own personal attributes, including her weaknesses and strengths. She seized upon this in giving this advice:

If you are an extrovert, you will be an extrovert as a leader. If you are by nature co-operative or collegial, you will be that as a leader. If you are a quiet achiever, then you will lead by example through your quiet achievements.[14]

Good leaders show constancy

Good kitchens are not run on kicking and screaming, tantrums and bullying. (Despite what you see on TV).

People need to know what to expect of you; and even before that, you need to know what to expect of yourself. You need to develop what I think of as your own inner gyroscope, a point of moral equilibrium of values—where you know that a decision is correct: your set of principles against which you can defend your judgments even to yourself. It provides you constancy.

And the more your gyroscope is tested, the more confident you will grow in your own judgment; and others will see that constancy in you, which is crucial to good leadership. It also generates respect. People may not like your decisions all the time — but so long as you know and feel confident in the ‘rightness’ of what you are doing, it helps the doing each day well to continue over a lifetime.

The title of Fiona Craig’s article, ‘Boss or leader: is there really a difference?’ was, of course, a rhetorical question. One example that is particularly apt in relation to what I am referring to as the inner gyroscope, is where Fiona says: ‘A boss leads from EGO, a leader leads from VALUES’: ‘Ego often gets in the way for bosses, whereas strong leaders work from a value base that is clear to their team. Where team and leadership values are clear and unambiguous, everyone knows where they stand, and what is expected of them.’[15]

I will add a bit of supplementary advice, or a PS, here. Really tough decisions are usually accompanied by what I call the ‘foetal 48 hours’. Any hard decision requires a moment of agony. But from long experience I can say that that agony is good; it is a formative part of the decision-making process. The foetal part of it lasts about 48 hours. Suddenly, a moment of clarity—and it’s behind you. If you build that into your thinking—it’s only going to last 48 hours and then it’ll be fine, it’s a good way of building your resilience strategies.

And there will be times when you have to make tough decisions; where it is utterly ‘your call’. With all the management and leadership training in the world, and lessons in dealing with difficult people, at times empathy runs out and hierarchy kicks in. This is where you will need your inner gyroscope, and faith in the foetal 48 hours!

Finally—Let's talk about the failed Pavlova

Pavlovas, and soufflés, are fabulous—but they are not entirely predictable. So, what do you do when the soufflé flops?

Well, with a pavlova, you can do something really creative. It’s been done before: the Eton Mess! Is it a failure or an exciting new dish? This analogy goes to the notion of what is failure.

When you are an ambitious person, you may feel that everyone else is doing so much more than you are and you are being left behind. My advice? Get over it. This is normal. These feelings don’t go away; they only get managed.

A final thought to leave you with. Don’t blame others: for times you think you have ‘failed’. Work out what your responsibility was in changing that situation and how you would ensure that it doesn’t happen again — to you or to others.

The most consistent thematic recommendation that the Commission has made to Defence over the course of our collaboration relates to leadership. Specifically, cultivating a sense of ownership and accountability in all leaders. Leaders are those who own failures, who revel in the process of turning failed pavlovas into new culinary creations. They create a role and a sense of purpose in each of their sous-chefs, so that the kitchen runs to time.

Each of you has the potential to shift the attitudes and behaviours in your own sections and teams. The question is how to add your flavour to the mix.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about the important issue of leadership. I wish you all well in your personal journeys as leaders in the Estate and Infrastructure Group and in Defence.

More speeches

More speeches by Rosalind Croucher.


[1] See the summary of this in APSC, Thinking about leadership—a brief history of leadership thought, 12. The link to the publication is found at: publications/thinking-about-leadership-a-brief-history-of-leadership-thought/adaptive-leadership, accessed 10 April 2017.
[2]Ibid, 13.
[3]Published by WH Allen, 2015.
[4]Ibid, 14, referring to Ronald Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (1994). 14. APSC, APS Leadership and [5]Core Skills Strategy: 2014–15 refresh, 16.
[6]Ibid, 15. 
[7]MM Wilkins:, ‘Signs that you’re a micromanager’, Harvard Business Review, 11 November 2014: 
[8]Like Joske’s law and Procedure at Meetings in Australia, Thomson Reuters. The 11th ed was published in 2012. 
[9]Craig, 43.  
[10]Craig, 43. 
[11] By Angela Priestly. 2nd ed 2016. 
[12]Ibid, x.  
[13]Hutchinson illustrates this in a number of contexts.
Women’s Speaker Series, Department of Defence, atkinson180215.pdf accessed 8 February 2019, 6.
[14]Ibid, 7. 
[15]F Craig, ‘Boss or leader: is there really a difference?’ (2016) 29 Law Society Journal 42, 43.

rosalind croucher

Rosalind Croucher AM, President

Commission – General