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Halogen National Young Leaders Day, International Convention Centre, Sydney

[As delivered]

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present. We particularly need to be mindful of our responsibility to the younger generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders because they are really critical to the future of this country.

  • Mr Geoff Strong — Founding Chair, Halogen Australia
  • School principals, teachers and staff
  • And … Australia’s young leaders!

Right, how old do you think I am?

Put your hands up if you think I’m older than 50. Keep them up if you think I’m older than 60. Keep them up if you think I am older than 70. Okay, you people — we need to have a little talk later!

I am 69.

There is a big difference in age between you and me. So, in my mind, I am now searching back and thinking, 'What was it like for me when I was your age and at school — what was I doing, what was I thinking, what was I trying to learn?'

Anyone here from Wollongong? Anyone from Port Kembla? Anyone from Warrawong?

When I was your age, I was at Port Kembla Primary School just south of Wollongong; a big steel city with about 30,000 people working in the steel works in those days. It was a very multicultural society. I knew what spaghetti was before most Australians could actually spell it.

At my school, when I was your age, I was school captain. We didn’t have a big leadership team. We had school captains and vice-captains. Similarly, at high school I was school captain. My wife, Linda, was vice-captain at her school.

So, at an early age, we got introduced to being leaders. What did we do and what did it teach us? What’s your experience?

One of the things I found was that my classmates would often come up to me and ask me for answers to questions about what was happening in school. Sometimes I knew; sometimes I didn’t.

I found that people had very high expectations of the example that I would set around the school and outside the school because they knew I was school captain. I was also aware that when I went on activities in uniform I was there not just for me but that I was representing my whole school. Now, while I was conscious of that, what I didn’t have — and what I daresay you don’t have — is the ability to direct the school.

Does anyone here tell the teachers what needs to be taught each year? Does anyone go up to the Principal’s office and say I want you to re-do the budget because the priorities are wrong? You might have suggestions, but you do not have that leadership authority to do that at the moment.

During your leadership journey, you will learn particular parts of being a leader — some of the things that leaders do: represent people, be a voice for people, answer questions for people, represent your school.

But you don’t yet have all those leadership responsibilities that will come later on.

That is important to understand because one of the things about learning to be a leader is to learn how to be led — and looking up at other leaders and seeing how they lead you. Growing up, you will see that all the way through. You will be under many leaders.

The other thing that I think was important at that time was that, as I grew older, I understood I was going to get more responsibility. The question is: if you aspire to be a leader later in life, how do you go about growing skill sets. And what are the most important things you need to understand to be a leader.

I am going to leave you with two things.

First, though, let me give you a practical example. It was said in the introduction that when I left high school at 18 I joined the Army. I went straight from my school, Port Kembla High School, and joined the Army and went to Duntroon [Royal Military College], which is where they do Officer training.

Why did I go to Duntroon? Because I wanted to get a university degree; no other reason.

I got that degree and then later on I decided that this was not a bad life for me. But I got thrown into a very difficult situation very early in life.

At the age of 21, I graduated from Duntroon — I was a young man with four years of training — and went to Townsville in North Queensland and was put in charge of 33 men. Half of them were older than me and the senior leaders in that group — sergeants and corporals — had all been to Vietnam and fought in the Vietnam War.

So, imagine walking into a group of people who have far more experience than you and having to lead them and be the boss and tell them what you were going to do. That was an enormous challenge.

So, here are two things that I think helped me to get through that difficult period early in my career.

What are these [pointing to ears]? [Audience: “Ears!”]

What’s this [pointing to mouth]? [Audience: “Mouth!”]

How many ears do we have? [Audience: “Two!”]

How many mouths do we have? [Audience: “One!”]

Why do you think we have that? I think you know the answer!

We get two of these [ears] because they are twice as important, at least.

I found, for me, that one of the most important lessons to being a leader was learning how to listen to people — as a young Platoon Commander, listening to the experiences of the people I was leader of.

Today, as Governor-General, the most important skill I have is listening to Australians.

Mrs Hurley and I travel around the country, visiting Australians on good days and bad. We have recently been to Western Australia, after the floods; South Australia, after the floods. Three years ago and since, we have been visiting communities impacted by the 2019-20 bushfires — listening to people’s concerns and what direction, assistance and guidance they need from their leaders.

As a leader, you need to be able to have those conversations — to listen to people, get their thoughts, then think it through for yourself. That’s where your leadership comes from. Listening, bringing it into your mind, thinking through what needs to be done and then giving direction and guidance. That is really critical to being a leader.

The other thing you need is something we often call an ego.

Who knows what an ego is? [Student: “An ego is like your competitiveness, your ambition, your will to do something.”]

I like that last bit. It is that central part of your being that defines you and tells you who you are. It is that strength you have inside you when things get hard and you have to do difficult things. It really starts to sum up who you are.

One of the things about being a leader is that you cannot lead people for your ego. What does that mean?

The job of a leader is to serve the people you lead.

If you understand nothing else of what I say today the job of a leader is to serve the people you lead. You are not leaders because it makes you look good. If you’re out there and you think being a leader is good for your reputation and makes you look good and [feel] important, then you are leading for the wrong reason. We lead, all of us lead, for those we are leading.

So, two things: learn to listen and learn to understand why you are leading; not for you but for those you lead. They are absolutely critical to being a successful leader.

These are serious things to be talking about. As we get older, we ponder these things. We think about them and we work out how they fit into our lives.

You are here today because people see potential in you. People see in you the ability to be good, strong leaders in the future.

It’s a bit like what Nazeem [Mr Nazeem Hussain] said earlier about telling jokes. You know whether your joke is successful when you deliver it. Leadership, unfortunately, is practice on people. That’s why you need to be careful in understanding that you look after them, not they look after you.

I wish you a very successful day today.

Remember, ears: to listen; ego: to serve for others. They are the tools to make you successful as a leader. Try it out at school, try it out with each other, try it in your families. We all have leadership roles everywhere.

I have been leading, I dare say, from about Year 6. It’s difficult, it’s tiring, it’s hard work. But it is also enormously rewarding. So, please, continue to be good leaders at school, continue to be people who others will look to — for example, for guidance, for assistance. That is your job as a school leader and in whichever area of life you go into.

Lead for others.

Thank you very much.