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Foreign Policy Analysis
Paul Porteous | Adaptive Leaders for a Crowded Complex World | Dirrum Dirrum Conference 2014

Paul Porteous | Adaptive Leaders for a Crowded Complex World | Dirrum Dirrum Conference 2014


It’s just wonderful being here but also listening
to the two speakers beforehand because when we talk about leadership, there’s no
better example than people who’ve said “Look, I’ve went out there and
I’ve saw what was happening” And in both cases they didn’t say
“I’ve got it figured out and I know what to do” “This is y’know, here’s the answer” They both exhibit this tremendous capacity to say “I’m not sure, I’m gonna try and learn” And I’m really impressed with that because so often when we’re dealing y’know
we do a lot of work around the world, and when we’re dealing with difficult,
complex issues you often hear people say “Gosh, what do I do? I’m afraid, I don’t know” And I think, what an interesting sentence.
“I’m afraid, I don’t know” Now I’m not sure at what point in human history we got to the idea that not knowing
was something to be afraid of. I prefer to think that our leadership is around “I don’t know, but I’m not afraid” That is, “I’m prepared to go out and learn” “I’m prepared to go out and discover,
try and find out what’s really going on here” Because one of the biggest challenges we’ve got is a surplus of opinion and a surplus of solutions
and visions all over the place, whereas I think we need a lot more
learning and empathy. And I think the two previous speakers
just epitomized that so well, going into that space and saying “I’m not sure. I can see something’s not working.
I’m going to learn as we go along with it as well” Which is just a magic space to be in
when so many people are saying “No no, it’s alright I‘ve got the vision” Well if you’ve got a vision you really want
to think about, well what’s that look like? I mean is it really someone’s vision
that we have children in detention? Wars? Crumbling infrastructure? Inequality? You’d sort of hope not, but it sort of
of gives a sense of how shallow vision can be and how much we have to get into that space. As we’ve seen with those two
previous speakers with learning “Wow, I can see something’s not working” Too often we say there’s some problem
and we’re trying to fix it. A lot more challenging for us is the notion: No, that’s the system actually
working as it was designed. So our leadership becomes a lot more challenging
as we have to sort of, step into that space and actually challenge some of the assumptions, some
of the prevailing ideas about what’s going on. So to try and touch on some of that,
I want to talk to you about a place many of you might not know, I’m going to you a few examples along the way,
but I wanted to talk about Madagascar which is a place I spent almost three years in
as senior advisor to the President. Interesting country, it’s not just a cartoon,
it’s a real place. And ah, some of the bits of the cartoon mightn’t
have been accurate but it’s alright. It’s off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean,
has about the same population as Australia. So that’s quite a large country, very well endowed. Lots of people, very poor, about 85% of the
population lives on less than a dollar a day. And, Madagascar’s interesting because
it has many remote areas. And, one of the remote areas I was in, y’know, it takes like two days travelling by bus
and then another day walking just to get there. And it’s fascinating because it gives a little
insight into human nature, into what it means to actually struggle with some of these issues we’ve
just been hearing about from the other speakers, But I want to take it out of our own space and
put it into here. I was in a village, a remote village, and I’m
sitting in the hut with the Chief of that village and he’s ah, you know, I’m interested
in decision making, and so I say to him “Hey, how do you make important decisions?” Fair enough question. He sort of looks and me and says
“Well, the night before an important decision needs to be made, I go into a trance and I speak with the King from a thousand years ago
and he tells me the answer” And the next morning he comes out and says to the villagers “This is what the King said” And you know, it’s an ancestor worshipping
culture, everyone says “That’s great, the King has spoken”
That’s it, that’s the decision. Ok, I mean, they’ve lasted a few thousand years
on that basis so you can’t fault it, they’re probably doing better than the US Congress
or even our own Senate in a way. But they’re having a few problems because
in trying to connect them into the rest of the country’s infrastructure, the idea came up about building a bridge across a river
to help connect. And everyone’s saying “Yeah, this is a great idea” and [the villagers] say “Yeah ok, well,
he’s gotta consult the King” So that night he goes into his trance
and speaks with the King Next morning he comes out “No bridge” I’m like, what, he said
“Yeah, the King said no bridge” I’m like “Ah, but y’know, you wanted this thing” He said “Yeah yeah, but y’know,
that’s the decision” And of course, being a good Australian from
Canberra and elsewhere, I said to him “Well, do you have an appeal mechanism maybe” [laughter] King from five hundred years ago…? He’s like “Nonono, King from a thousand years ago, he’s the most important” Oh ok, what do we do? Anyway, I look down on
the ground next to me. Now this is out in the middle of nowhere, and here’s a full colour poster sitting next me. I was like, what, out here? This poster,
what’s that all about? And I look down, it’s a poster all about
good governance decision making. I was like huh? Y’know, integrity, consultation,
transparency, accountability, all these great words that we use
in public services in places like Australia. Out here in the middle of nowhere.
A multi-multi-million dollar program by the international community to bring good
decision making to Madagascar. “Wow, how did it get out here”
I looked at him [the Chief] he’s just been talking to the King from a
thousand years ago, here’s this wonderful poster. I ask “What do you think of this poster?” He looks at me, looks at the poster and says “I don’t know. I can’t read.
They gave me this brochure as well” Argh. Multi-multi-million dollar program,
entirely meaningless when it hits the ground! The guy can’t even read it. Like, what’s going on. To try and help us understand that, cause
it connects into our previous two speakers as well, I like to think of issues like a river. In a sense, we see the Symptoms and Results
of something and think, it needs to be addressed, something needs to happen. And our tendency is to rush to Action, Strategy
“Quick, let’s do something, have an action plan” But we know from the major consulting firms that
about 80-85% of strategic plans never get implemented. They just end up
collecting dust on the shelves. And the reason is, further upstream are a whole
lot of Assumptions, as Matt [Pye] put it, ‘judgements’ that people make about
how the world works. And that’s informed further upstream
by our Values and Culture. If you think about if,
for this Chief, his assumption “If I don’t listen to the ancestors, something
really bad’s going to happen to my village. That’s no good” So his role, his values are all around
protecting his village. That’s a very honourable role. Is he going to give that up because someone’s
given him a poster and a brochure he can’t read? That’s just absurd. But someone’s spent millions
and millions of dollars doing exactly that. And we see this replicated all over the world,
in Australia as well. These projects that come in
“There’s a problem, quick, let’s do some action” That’s good management, we’re gonna call it
technical work. No drama. But leadership is more in this space,
it’s adaptive. It’s where we’ve got to shift
assumptions and culture. Often in a wider community, not just
the group you’re working in. When the system is the one that’s actually got
problems, that means we have to intervene into   our broader community to try and understand it. But too often we think our assumptions are the ones “Oh yeah we’ve got it figured out,
it’s all ok. It’s the others that have to change” And I was reminded how strong our assumptions
can be when I was at the opening of a runway in a more remote place in Madagascar and this guy
was quite cheeky and he’s great. And he came up to me and he said “What’s this?” I said “Well, it’s a tie” He said “What’s that all about?” I said “Well y’know, it’s a formal occasion,
we wear a tie like you might wear a sash or a hat or something, it’s sort of a nice identity thing,
it shows that we’re here” He’s going “Yeah? Wow. It’s got
this funny point on the end. Couldn’t it be round?” “Ya can’t have a round tie” “Yeah, why not?” “Well ya can’t” He said “That knot. That looks really tight” You can tell I’m on slippery ground here right? He says “You go around all day, with a funny
piece of cloth with a point on the end and a tight knot wrapped around your neck.
You guys are so weird” I’m thinking heh yeah, but you go
up to Parliament and find someone who’s not running around with a coloured piece of cloth
with a funny point on the end. But we just take it for granted.
We’re actually proud of it. Like you y’know “I’ve got a tie, I belong to this
group” We see it as part of our identity. Often these assumptions, these judgements we
have they’re like ties around our necks. They’re weighing us down but we don’t see them. So a lot of our leadership; how do we
question that, how do we look and say “Hang on, that doesn’t seem right,
we have to do more” And that adaptation becomes critical because in
nature, adaptation occurs through trial and error. It doesn’t occur through some organism suddenly
bouncing up and saying “Hey I can get legs and arms and
run off and evolve” It’s like, no. Thousands of little experiments,
some work, some don’t. We’re always testing, trial and error. We don’t
know. We can’t be afraid of not knowing. It’s just that we don’t know. So we’ve got to
really be out there, trying to experiment, what works, what doesn’t. Unfortunately in our culture, a lot of what
we learn is only the technical side. We think gosh, we’ve got a problem here. If we can
get the best experts to look at it and come up with the solution, then we only need to persuade
people, to sell it to them, say “Yeah, you’ll come on board, see the experts
have all said this is fine” That’s great if you’ve got a technical problem.
You want to build a bridge or a building, great. But those adaptive ones, those difficult issues
around values, discrimination, inequality, young people’s issues we’ve just been hearing
about, poverty and aid, that can become very difficult. Any of you who’ve been familiar with the Murray
Darling Basin will know that there was a lot of work done on that where authorities came in;
they got the best scientists together. They produced a plan and said,
“This is what can work” But they didn’t manage to connect with people
and their values. People and their identities. As in farmers. As in indigenous custodians
of the land. As in environmentalists. No no, we’ve got the technical approach,
now we just have to persuade people. Let’s see what happened in the community when this wonderful expert reports were
presented to the community as ‘the solution’ and let’s see how the community
reacted to the evidence. News Report: Environmentalists warn the cuts
to water usage don’t go far enough, while farmers fear they’ll destroy
Australia’s food bowl. When the first draft of the Murray Darling Basin
plan was released, this is how farmers in the New South Wales town of Griffith reacted. Farmer: That’s what [the plan] deserves.
Ya bunch of wankers. [laughter] Reporter: They fear, cuts to water allocations
of three to four thousand gigalitres a year would destroy communities along the river Paul Porteous: Isn’t that great. So if we go
ahead with good, technical,   nothing wrong with evidence, but it’s insufficient
when we’re dealing with communities. As we’ve heard from our previous speakers,
when you’re engaging with a community, you’ve got to learn, you’ve got to work out.
What are their values? What are the assumptions underlying that?
How do we go further, how do we understand? But how we actually look at problems
can be difficult. You see, if you saw this, you tend to immediately
go “Woah, that’s not good” And you’re not likely to respond by saying “Hm, I think we better have a committee meeting
next Monday to discuss this, and maybe look at what the evidence might be,
is this something else?” We don’t. We immediately know, our little
amygdala in our minds says “That’s not good, I’m outta here” Right? But for a lot of our difficult problems
our complex ones, our adaptive ones, we can’t react like that. Just during the fifteen minutes I’m talking
to you now, you think about issues like smoking and lung cancer, there’ll be at least five
people in the world who’ll die from lung cancer. And yet it took us almost
half a century to actually say “We’ve got problems and it’s dangerous” Does anyone know the last time someone
died from a spider bite in Australia? 1979. But that will cause you to flee the room. But tobacco, well that takes a long time to
sort out. Obesity, overweight. WHO figures suggest in the world, during the
fifteen minutes we’re talking now a hundred people will die. Alcoholism, same number, about a hundred people
will die in the next fifteen minutes. It’s like we have these huge problems but
our minds can’t grapple with them. So we sort of throw it and so it’s too hard.
And once we start on climate change, we’re still trying to talk about it and yet yet it’s supposed to be one of the
major issues that we face. So our leadership is often pushing against
that notion where people say “If it’s too hard I don’t want to know about it.
I’m afraid I don’t know so I’ll pretend it’s not there” And so, leadership can be pretty risky and I
like to look back at the origins of words so we can try and understand what’s going on. And “leadership” is interesting, it comes from
the Indo-European root, from tens of thousands of years ago. The root word is “Leit” L-E-I-T. And it means “To go forth,”
which is very encouraging “…to die” Now that’s a little less encouraging. Now they never tell you this when they say “You’re gonna come to a leadership program,
eh it’ll be great” The reason why is when you went into battle
and whoever was the leader would say “You, you’re the leader today”
Sorta like “Oh thanks. Where are all the arrows pointed?
Aw thanks guys, I’m the leader today” You’re actually expected to get killed off.
If you survived, you were made into a god. But so much of our leadership today gets turned
with this followership. It’s like “Yeah yeah, I’m just gonna get people
to follow me” I don’t get that. I mean, there’s students, there’s
kids, you don’t want your kids following you. Teachers don’t want your-you don’t want
to be following someone around “Hey, follow me over here. Oh wonderful yes,
now follow me over here” What’s that all about? You want people growing,
learning, enquiring, understanding. And during that process they’re going to make
mistakes. And as a parent, teacher, uncle, yourself, you’ll make mistakes too. There’s times we’ll make mistakes,
we’ll pick ourselves up “Wow, what did we learn?” That’s the model of leadership we need
to take, that curiosity, that learning. We know how to do it in our families but we sort
of miss the point when we get into organisations and nations. A good example of that, I like
to often use this guy. This is Charles Sturt who went wandering
into Australia because he had a vision. Too often people got a vision,
“Yeah yeah, follow me I got the vision” He had a vision that there was an inland
sea and he got his group together and convinced people of his vision, here
they are, they’re leaving Adelaide. He was there with his twelve companions,
most of them were drunk for the expedition, so that was helpful. Three hundred sheep, and of course, a whaleboat. What’s he got a whaleboat for? Well he’s gotta sail the inland see right?
Cause he’s got a vision. Off we march. So they’re marching into the desert,
anyone ever been to Adelaide and marched into the desert? How long would you carry a whaleboat for?
Not long at all. Yeah, yeah, like a week, month. Well, a year
later, they’re still carrying a whaleboat. They’ve travelled a thousand
kilometres inland to Australia. Sturt’s writing in his diary,
“You wait and see my vision is sound. This is the most important thing in our journey” His colleagues are writing in their diaries as
well “There’s no inland sea, we all know that” But they’re doing the good Australian thing and
sucking up to the boss, we’ve all heard about that. So they’re all saying to him “Yeah, I think I
hear water birds on the horizon” Sturt’s like “Aw really? Wow, you’re
my friend for today” “Aw great, I think I see water on the-aw great” So he’s so desperate to have his
vision proven right And unfortunately this is how our Minister’s
offices work, CEO offices work, right everyone’s there. It’s not that having a
vision is a problem, it’s that lack of confronting the reality of what’s happening. And people say, “Yeah, it’s a great idea” And they go in the corridor, in the carpark and go “Nah, it’s crazy, that’ll never work, we don’t
have the resources, what’s this guy thinking, What are we going to do?” Part of our leadership is how do we see more
broadly? How do we build on that? See for Sturt, even his idea of what he
was walking into, he saw desert. Desert is hot and dry. In that same region,
indigenous people have over two hundred words for ‘desert’. ‘Desert where you find water’
‘Desert where you find food’ They read that desert like we might read a book. But for Sturt, all he could see was desert. And so he wasn’t able to get that depth
of understanding and that’s what we’ve got to strive for. So I’m going to suggest to you that our
leadership is about increasing capacity. It’s not about solving problems but it’s
about how we solve the problems. Our previous speakers were so clear on that. It wasn’t they went in and fixed something,
they went in and engaged and started to say “Wow, how do we expand, how do we do this,
how do we look at it anew?” That’s critical. Because for some of the big
issues that we face worldwide, we just don’t touch on them. If you think about poverty. I hear, you know,
I work in a lot of this area around the world. People say “Aw, it’s too hard”
Now I don’t know about that. I mean, poverty is a choice we make. That’s been really clear, whether in
Australia or internationally. We know internationally, only 1% of the developed
world’s annual income is required to end poverty. One percent. We have a world economy that is
ninety trillion dollars. But often I hear “Oh, that would cost a billion
dollars, we could never do that” Founders said “Wow, we started off with
twenty seven thousand, look what we achieved. Imagine what we could do with a billion
dollars.” “Oh but you can’t get that.” It’s interesting, Geoffrey Sax was doing
some figures on that. What is a billion dollars these days?
Let’s have a look. Roughly fourteen hours of Pentagon spending. One day’s worth of oil exports from Saudi Arabia. 5% of the Christmas bonuses for Wall Street. Less than a dollar a year from those
in developed countries. And basically the yearly income taxes
avoided by big companies. We’ve got to get a reality into this but too often
our assumptions are weighing us down it’s like We can’t do anything” Remember your leadership is how do you
lead with a question? How do you say “Well heck, why aren’t
we doing that?” Ours is a moral crisis.
It’s not a financial crisis. It’s one where we make decisions priorities
that are going to be based on that. So I’m going to say to you that your leadership
in these instances is “How do I lead with a question?” “Why are we not doing it.
What could we do instead? What’s really going on here?
Why is that happening? And remember, the origins of the word ”question”
comes from “quest”, which means to go on a journey. We heard the previous speakers’ personal journeys
but they also related it to the broader journeys that they were on in their sectors. That’s so important, you are inviting
people to that journey. There’s a finer little story which I think
illustrates that so well. I was working with an indigenous community in
Northern Australia, and at one stage, at night we were sitting around with some of the
young youth leaders and they were saying “Look, this is so hard. We can’t do this.
We’re out there fighting bushfires on the social issues in our community. Addiction, domestic violence, all these things,
they’re so overwhelming, we’re just fighting bushfires all the time. We don’t have time to really reflect and
engage. It’s too hard” So we’re considering this as we’re
sitting around and there was an elder who was sitting there as well,
and he hadn’t said much. Then suddenly he piped up and he said “You know what? We haven’t been fighting bushfires
We’ve just been busy hiding the smoke. It’s about time we did something about the flames” I thought “Wow. What a fantastic definition
of leadership for all of us” A gift from the first people of this nation to
all of us, about what leadership really looks like. We can keep incredibly busy, having our visions, fighting the bushfires, thinking that we’re
making progress. But not actually attacking the flames,
just hiding the smoke. So with that as a thought for inspiration to move
forward, good luck with the rest of your sessions. Thank you.
[applause] Subtitles: Ole Zhang

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