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Learning from Leadership Victoria, the Kansas Leadership Center’s Australian peer

By: Roy Wenzl

When a CEO developing an Australian peer of the Kansas Leadership Center visited last fall, he offered insights on the shared challenges facing those Down Under and in the Sunflower State.

Bronwyn King is a busy mother and a doctor, and yet in her spare time since 2010 has helped redirect $6 billion in private investments away from tobacco companies.

Garang Dut, only in his 30s, is a surgeon who currently studies public policy at Harvard and plans, with all due humility, to reinvent the health care system in war-torn South Sudan.

Saara Sabbagh lives as a Muslim in Australia, where Muslims are few – and not always welcome. And yet Benevolence Australia, an organization she founded, has invigorated Australian Muslims and sponsored community events to bridge divides with non-Muslims.

These three have spent most of their lives 16 time zones from Kansas, in Melbourne. Under most circumstances, that distance might make their stories seem irrelevant to Kansans preoccupied with making sense of their own communities’ challenges. But they hail from oneof the few places in the world where, like in Kansas,thousands of people are learning nontraditional leadership ideas on a large geographical scale: that leadership is an activity and “anyone can lead at any time.”

The three have a passionate fan in fellow Australian Richard Dent, who last year traveled the 9,095 miles to Wichita to share their leadership stories, and his own, with Kansas Leadership Center alumni, many of whom Dent now counts as mentors, collaborators and friends.

He came in part also to warn KLC alumni of coming storms that Kansans and Australians will have to weather together.

Six years ago, Dent took over Leadership Victoria, a staid leadership mentoring organization in Melbourne, and transformed it to teach leadership for a globalized era. If that sounds familiar, it’s because he refocused his group by borrowing heavily (“stealing,” he jokes) from the teachings and principles of the Kansas Leadership Center.

The KLC was several years into teaching a leadership curriculum to thousands of Kansans, on a scale seldom seen in the leadership development world. Dent’s aspirations were similar. (The KLC’s five guiding principles and four leadership competencies are posted where Leadership Victorians can see them, he says.)

Dent came to Kansas to tell of three Australians living out these ideas and solving formidable problems.

Despite their similarities, it’s a stretch to call KLC and Leadership Victoria twins. The Australians have plenty of their own ideas and traditions (such as the charming gesture of making socks the “thank you” gift of choice for speakers and presenters). But if Kansans have taught Australians something about teaching and learning leadership on a large scale, then Australians may have something to teach Kansans about setting higher aspirations for the adaptive challenges they are willing to tackle.

Yet Dent underscores the common ground linking hemispheres: All of us are facing similar adaptive challenges.

We’re about to see increasing concentration of wealth on the planet that will leave many more people marginalized, he says.

As this story unfolds, minorities, immigrants and middle- and lower-class breadwinners will increasingly find themselves living on the margins. Resentments about race, immigration, climate change and other stresses will become more heated, at a time when social media has given everyone a bigger megaphone.

It’s not just that Kansans and Victorians – as well as countries near and far flung – can learn from each other. It’s that we may soon need each other more than ever.

So the experiences he related about his three friends are not just stories, but more like parables, from which Dent learned lessons he wants to pass along. Asserting real leadership from the grassroots can be intimidating, he says – but it can work.

Dut, Sabbagh and King, all alumni of Leadership Victoria, have little official authority, but they assert themselves. They play a long game. They see the best in people – even in opponents.

“I believe in the power of sincere intention and working from a place of concern for humanity,” Sabbagh says. “And (then) leaving the outcome in the hands of the Divine.”

The stakes of good leadership have never been higher around the world, Dent says. Policymakersand sociologists are sounding alarms about comingcomplexities and challenges. Leadership is no longer about trying to make local communities a little stronger here and there.

“We stand on the cusp of one of the great disjunctures in history,” Dent says. As wealth continues to concentrate into the hands of fewer people, there will be anger and disruption and change, he says.

Her motivation was death

Shaking up financial realms was the last thing Bronwyn King intended.

By 2010, King had spent nine years as an oncology doctor. Hundreds of her patients had died, many from smoking. The deaths haunted her.

“And then in 2010, I was buying a house with my husband,” she says. “We met the accountant at the hospital cafeteria and went over paperwork. He asked: ‘How much of your pension fund might you want to use for this?’”

Until that time, King had paid no attention to her pension. “Pensions are mandatory in Australia,” she says. “It all happens automatically.“

As she was leaving, the accountant asked whether she’d like to give him general direction in how he invested her pension money.

“‘No,’ I said, ‘But are you saying I have options?’ And he rolled his eyes and said, ‘Well, some people have problems when they see their money is invested in companies that sell alcohol and tobacco.’”

King stared at him.

“‘Did you just say tobacco?’” she asked. “‘Are you telling me that I am investing my money in tobacco companies?’

“‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Everybody is.’”

King faced a choice. She was no financier, so she could have walked back to the oncology floor and let her accountant do with her money what all the other accountants were doing for all the other people with investments.

Or she could challenge the status quo, in a world where she had no experience.

Upset, she told the accountant to take her money out of tobacco investments. And then she took a plunge into the unknown.

“I didn’t intend then to take on the entire financial world,” King says. But she met with the head of her hospital’s pension fund and persuaded him to get the hospital’s employees out of tobacco investments. After that, she began to meet with many other pension fund CEOs.

King had never cared much about economics or business. But the deaths she’d seen galvanized her. And she acted.

She founded a nonprofit, Tobacco Free Portfolios, in 2012 – the same year she underwent training at Leadership Victoria. She’d accomplished much on her own, but the training, where she met leaders from other fields, brought new insights. “My key takeaway from that experience was that somebody has to change things – somebody has to have a go at it. Change doesn’t just happen. It happens because people mobilize and make change occur.”

Since 2012, King has sent many emails to company CEOs, lobbying, coaxing and learning. “I’ve spoken in the boardrooms of banks and investment companies all over the world.”

Thirty-nine companies that control half the pensionfunds in Australia have dumped tobacco investments because of her. She’s planning to talk with the rest of them.

Worldwide, $6 billion in investments have been diverted from tobacco companies. King wants to divert billions more.

She did her homework, understanding that initiating change meant starting where others were. “I realized that to get these people in the financial world to take me seriously, I needed to learn the language of the financial world. I learned that the job of these CEOs is to make money for their companies, and I needed to demonstrate that I took that concern seriously.

“We need to learn each other’s languages. In every sector of our world, we’re living in our own bubbles, including in the medical profession,” King says. “But the big issues cannot be fixed by one sector. Not the really big issues, anyway.”

They tried to kill him

The Sudanese soldiers shot at refugees – men,women, children – as they ran. Garang Dut walked out of Sudan to Ethiopia the first time in 1987-1988, when he was little, and then crossed back into Sudan on his way to Kenya in 1991, when he was older.

Soldiers attacked columns of families.

Two million people caught up in the Sudanese civil war died. Dut spent the first half of his 30 years as a refugee, running away, going hungry, crossing borders on foot, losing friends to gunfire and preventable diseases.

He walked first from South Sudan to Ethiopia, then to Kenya. Along the way, he says, “I studied in open ground, under trees, worked on my education without enough stationery and with a half or a quarter of a pencil if I could find one.”

He arrived in Australia at age 17, remembering friends gone too soon, while aspiring to become a doctor. After that, as Dent says, “the medical professionals in Australia quickly realized that Garang is a genius.”

But while Dut was busy earning his medical degree from the University of Melbourne in 2014 and accruing accolades, honors and scholarships, he began pulling together other refugees to improve their lives. Despite 18-hour workdays as a surgeon,Dut made time to form organizations of Sudanese refugees. He wanted them to be open to their new country, to advance their educations.

He met resistance. In his traditional culture, elders were leaders and younger people, if they were let in, were expected to conform. Transitioning, as he calls it, was difficult. “I knew with young people that all the problems of being a refugee would wear them down. I began to mentor young people.”

But Dut also knew that leadership could come from anywhere within a hierarchy. He mentored elders as well, persuading them to sometimes go against decades of cultural habits. He learned subtlety; he made it clear to elders that he respected them. “Leading from behind became part of what I aspired to do.

“And as I did those things, I began to look at my true north: What do I truly want to achieve?”

Dut decided he wanted to do more than save one life at a time in surgery. He surprised people who’d watched him become a surgeon: He began to study public policy.

On scholarship at Harvard, he’s studied subjects far removed from operating rooms: quantitative methods, economics, political science. One day, he says, when it’s safer, he’ll go back to South Sudan – and help design a health care system for the nation.

Standing up to power

Dent was hired as Leadership Victoria’s CEO six years ago, in part because he was a popular chief executive of a successful nonprofit. He considered himself, by his own self-mocking account, an exceptional leader. “I thought I was fantastic,” he joked to KLC staff, teachers, coaches and alumni last fall. “I thought I knew everything.”

Leadership Victoria was at that time a leadership group in Melbourne that Dent thought could improve. They were well-intentioned people, he says, but contented themselves with sponsoringone-night party dinner tours: “Put people on a bus,show them a community, have a bite and a chat.”

Six years later, Leadership Victoria has 40 leadership programs. The nonprofit has been in existence since 1990, but three-fourths of its 3,000 alumni have completed the program in the six years since Dent took over.

It asks much of those it trains, as Dut can attest. “I learned a lot,” he says, “from a diverse group of people there: people with legal backgrounds, working public prosecutions of children’s causes, a senior psychiatrist. I got to reflect back, which in life is usually difficult to find time to do.”

They learn to be nice. And they learn, when necessary, to stand up to power.

Why aren’t they speaking up?

Leadership Victoria took a group of its students to Australia’s Parliament in Canberra in August 2017. Dent will never forget what alum Saara Sabbagh did there.

Dent had arranged for Cory Bernardi, the leader of the newly formed Australian Conservative Party – and a man outspokenly critical of Islam – to speak to the group. And Dent watched, with surprise and pride, as Sabbagh, a Beirut-born refugee grandmother wearing a traditional Muslim scarf, stood up and challenged Bernardi.

“I initially thought I wouldn’t,” she says. But by then she’d seen the humanity in other politicians she’d met. “I recall looking at his (Bernardi’s) wedding band and thinking, ‘I’m sure he’s a loving husband and father.’ Humanizing the ‘other’ is very important if we are serious about creating a common ground and not focusing on our differences.”

“Are you aware of how your thoughts, words and proposed policies will affect my community?” she asked. Bernardi’s answer didn’t show any change of heart. But, she says, “I challenged him because I felt it was important for him to hear how his perspective – and therefore policies – are affecting Australian Muslim citizens.” In that moment, she forced Bernardi to at least consider another interpretation.

The nonprofit Sabbagh created 10 years ago, Benevolence Australia, predates her time with Leadership Victoria. It’s a woman-led community organization, designed to harness “the female energy that has been omitted from our world for so long.” In a country where Muslims are sometimes mistreated, she created an organization that teaches people to embrace Islam and provides “a safe space, free of judgment, discrimination and ethnic divide.”

Benevolence Australia runs community and education programs across the state of Victoria.“We often hear people say, ‘What are the moderate Muslims doing about terrorism? Why aren’t they speaking up?’ Truth is, we’ve lost our voice speaking up!

“Now it’s time to ask the question, ‘How is this us-and-them narrative working for government andlaw enforcement, now that we have created a world of fear and control? Who is this narrative benefiting, why has it been created and what is really at itscore?’ These are conversations that are too difficultto have – and yet must be had, if we are to truly understand what is taking place in the world today.”

Leadership lessons

What are the best lessons of leadership?

Dut, King and Sabbagh all made their way before they learned from Leadership Victoria, Dent says. “Leadership consciousness,” a discipline he strives to teach, employs many subtleties of thought. These three have it, he says. But all three say they also learned from Dent.

“We kept meeting all these great leaders when I was with Leadership Victoria,” King says. “These leaders had all taken it upon themselves to try to change things. I learned that someone has to act. I learned that it’s OK if you don’t have all the answers at first or if you don’t know exactly where you are going when you start.”

Leadership Victoria, Sabbagh says, “has given me the courage to address issues of concern beyond the needs of my own community, and to go beyond the stereotypes that have been placed upon me.”

In a world where people increasingly snap at one another in social media and where legislative bodies focus on acrimony, these leaders went after adaptive challenges aggressively – but based their strategies on respect and empathy with opponents.

“When I try to get people to change their minds, I always assume people are coming from a good place, even if their views are different from mine,” King says. “I try to keep my discussions very good-spirited. I’m very patient. I appreciate that it can take a long time for someone to move from one position to another.”

Watching cancer patients die taught her not only that life is short, King says, but that we should value people with different viewpoints and how they came to believe.

Cherishing others and cherishing what Dut had, even when he knew almost nothing but danger, was a lesson he learned on the run. In terrible circumstances in Sudan, he says, children still learned to play, no matter their deprivations. After losing friends to war and disease, he taught himself to cherish those still alive.

Sometimes bounty can hold people back, Dut says. Most surgeons, born in Melbourne and “well-resourced,” might never think of sewer pipes as a health care system. “It’s all buried underground,” he says. But Dut himself, having watched friends die from disease, says such pipes are a health system. He figured that out long before he studied public policy at Harvard.

Dent is proud to share the stories of Dut, King and Sabbagh and one about himself: how he came to be, how he changed.

Growing up in east Victoria, Dent says, meant, for example, that as a young man he shared some prejudices about Australians not of northern European descent. But then he acquired a university education, where he learned, as he puts it, “how good it is when people from differing backgrounds meet and rub their brains together.”

That’s a lesson Dent has shared not only at home but in Kansas, where he has friends who taught him much and for whom he has much to teach.

 

A version of this article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.

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