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National Young Leaders Day event, Brisbane, QLD

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I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Turrbal and Yuggera People, and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, emerging leaders and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders gathered here today.

Good morning, students! It’s great to see you all. Linda and I are delighted to be in Brisbane for this National Young Leaders Day event. I can feel the excitement. It promises to be a wonderful day – an inspiring day for you, I hope.

I joined the Army in 1972. I was 18 years of age. Many people ask me, ‘Why did you join the Army? Did you want to be a leader?’ No. I joined the Army because if I joined the Army I could get a tertiary education. I was very practical about it. But all those decisions come to a point. I'm also often asked, ‘How did you become the Governor-General of Australia?’ My answer in one sense is that I don't know. I was asked by the Prime Minister in a meeting one morning in December 2019. He came into my office when I was Governor of New South Wales and he said, ‘David, I would like you to be the next Governor-General of Australia.’

Now what would you do if you were asked to serve in that way? Who would say yes? All the yes's put your hand up. All the no's put your hand up. All those who would say ‘I'd better go and talk with my wife’ put your hand up. All those who would say ‘I'd better go and talk to my children’ put your hand up. Right. You'd be in the right group.

How did I get there? What did I learn about leadership while growing up? I was my school captain at primary school. I was my school captain at high school. But I was very raw as a leader. At high school, particularly in those days, you don't get a lot of rope to play with as a leader. You have to work in a defined space. Your authority is limited. Your resources are limited. You soon learn that people have their eye on you. You learn to work in an environment where people are watching you and start to have expectations of you. Expectations can drive all sorts of behaviours.

I grew up in Port Kembla, near Wollongong, in New South Wales. It’s a big steel city. The culture in those days was very diverse, people came from all over the world to work in the steel works. I left there at 18. I joined the Army. I went to Duntroon. When I was 21, in 1976, I went to what's called 1st Battalion, with 600-odd soldiers, in Townsville. I was put in charge of a group, called a platoon, of 30 soldiers. I was 21 and had been in college for four years. My platoon sergeant and three section commanders were all Vietnam veterans. I was to be their boss. How would you feel? A bit daunted? A bit worried? Are they going to take me seriously or are they going to ignore me? How do you create that bridge as a leader when you're in that situation?

And that is where you will end up soon. You will go out, those of you who go into tertiary education. But whatever your course might be, you'll find yourself in a leadership position where the people you lead know more than you do. That's a fascinating spot to be in. There is a very simple answer, I found, to getting around that.

What are these things? [Audience: 'Ears!'] What are they for? ['Listening!'] Who uses them? Not many people I can tell you! Ears are for listening. And if you want to know a simple secret about being a good leader, it is use those two ears. You've heard that old story, God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason. Is that right? Use them. I discovered that if I sat down with my people who were very experienced and told them what I thought I wanted to do, took their inputs in and then discussed it with them before making a decision, guess what? They were happy to follow because they participated in the decision. It's a very simple process. So your ears are incredibly important to you. Many years later, in my job now as Governor-General and with Linda as we travel around Australia – one of the things we do every day is listen, to all those stories coming back from Australian people.

Who's ever heard of the term, micro-manager? Micro-managers don't let you do anything unless they tell you to. I had a big sister like that! I could not do anything until she told me to do something. That's a micro-manager. They want to do everything. They will tell you to do something, but they will tell you how to do it and how to dot the i's and cross the t's and you have no freedom to do the job. Here’s a big warning for you: learn not to be a micro-manager.

I used to say to people I will give you enough rope, just don't tangle me up in it. I am going to give you enough rope as a leader to do the job. Go and do it for me. Do it the way you want to do it. I trust you to do it. And 'trust' is a very big word for leaders. ‘Here's the job, go and do it the way you want to do it, and I trust you to do it. You might not do it the way I would do it, but you will do it successfully.’ So, don't be a micro-manager, give people enough rope.

But, to me, the most important thing about being a good leader – and I am a Christian and have a Christian faith – is what we call, in the Church, servant leadership. Others will have different terms. The most important thing about servant leadership is that you do not lead for yourself. You lead for the people you are leading. It's the biggest lesson I've learnt about leadership in life.

I have a saying that you might want to remember: ‘You need an ego to lead, but you can’t lead for your ego.’ So, what does that mean? Leadership is tough. Leadership is hard. If you go into business, you will be making decisions about how much money a person earns and when they have holidays.

In 1993, I took my battalions to Somalia. The atmosphere was extremely tense at times and we were so worried about what might happen to us. The pressure on you as a leader was physical. You can touch it. How do you survive in those sorts of situations? You have to build an inner core and develop a strength that will allow you to be successful, not only to survive but to be successful in very difficult circumstances. So, whatever that might be, work on it – that inner toughness.

But the reverse of that is don't ever find yourself leading because it makes you feel good. If you find yourself 'leading' because it is all about 'me', you are not doing it for the right reasons and will not be doing a good job. This is not about you. Ask yourself why you want to be a leader? Your focus should be on those that you lead and those that you serve. 

I have the great privilege of being Governor-General of Australia. You know what I see every day when I meet people? I see a people with a great heart, a good heart. People who are very resilient. We've had a lot thrown at us over the past five years - drought, floods, fires and a pandemic. But we are not on our knees. We are coming through the pandemic successfully. We are a country with a bright future – your future.

I read a lot in the papers about, particularly, 17 and 18-year-olds going to university and worrying about what's going to happen in the future. Let me tell you, you are a great generation. You're going to be the next great generation in Australia, and you have an enormous opportunity to change and direct this country. But we need strong leaders to do it. This is your time. You go back to the period after the Second World War – another great generation that shaped Australia as we know it today. Now, you might not like some of the decisions they made. You've got a chance to turn that around. But this is your chance. Don't wring your hands and worry about where we're going to go – drive it; change it. It's your future. You 18-year-olds will be making a future for the 12-year-olds, setting them up for the future.

The reason you are here today is, I think, not so much to learn the theory but to build that fire in your belly that says, ‘We're going to change the country. We're going to take it forward. We're going to shape it. And, we're going to be the leaders to do it.’

Best of luck today. Hit some good notes. But more than that, I hope you have some great discussions when you get back about how you shape and how you use your leadership skills as they develop to take the country forward from where it is today.

I want to thank Halogen for putting on this conference and for what they do for students around the country, for more than two decades now, in helping develop our future leaders.

You are our inspiration. When we get older we look at you. We see ourselves in you. Our best wishes go to you. The purpose of all that is to help you lead the country. That is why you want to lead – not for me, not for you but for us all.
Thank you.