Victor Perton from the Australian Leadership Project caught up with Michelle to talk about Australian Leadership and her optimism.

Victor Perton: Michelle, what’s your favourite story of a boss or a leader you have had?

Michelle Gibbings: Early in my career and when I had only recently taken on a leadership role, my manager shared with me one of the most important qualities of being an effective leader. It was something that shifted my view of what it meant to be a leader and ultimately shaped my leadership style.

She said – “I get that the work you do is important, and you want to do it well. However, when you move to a new role the work will be forgotten. You won’t be remembered for the work. The only thing your team members will remember is how you treated them and how you made them feel”.

What she was saying is that the leader’s focus shouldn’t be the ‘task’ first; instead it should be about ‘people’ first. When you focus on how you work with people, how you treat them and most importantly develop them you are creating a positive legacy. As well, when you lead with that lens in place the work gets done and gets done well because the people in your team know they matter to you.

Victor Perton: Michelle, what are the unique qualities of Australian leadership?

Michelle Gibbings: Leadership and the type of leadership that needs to come to the fore is situational, and so there is a danger in defining ‘Australian leadership’ qualities through a narrow perspective.

Today, the richness of Australia’s cultural diversity creates an environment where it is really important for leaders to understand that each person is unique and brings their own expectations, needs and working styles to the working environment. It is the role of the leader to understand that and create an environment where that diversity is embraced and leveraged.

Doing that requires two core principles, a leader who is authentic and always strives to be fair.

Victor Perton: Michelle, what do Australians want of their leaders today?

Michelle Gibbings: They want leaders to lead by example. Too often we see a long list of values and character traits of leaders that are then not applied in practice. Being a good leader requires the person to know themselves, understand their trigger points and be willing to understand others. This means they recognise their own imperfections and are always ready to learn more and do more.

There’s no doubt that good leaders need to be strategic, visionary and able to solve complex problems, and yet it is often the little things that matter the most for employees. They want to feel they matter, to be acknowledged and to feel valued. For leaders, for example, it’s as simple as:

Be friendly and greet people when you come in to work in the morning. A simple ‘hello’ can go a long way and it only takes a few seconds.
Take an interest in the people you work with at a personal level. Find out what matters to them and ask them about their interests, family and other events that are important to them.
Pick up the phone and say ‘thank you’ and ‘well done’ to people in your team who are making a contribution. This little bit of effort will demonstrate to them that you have noticed what they do and that their efforts matter.

Victor Perton: Michelle, thinking about your life, who have been the leaders who have inspired and inspire you?

Michelle Gibbings: I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some amazing leaders. Elizabeth Proust and Christine Bartlett are two such leaders. They had different styles, but both of them took an interest in the people who worked with them and for them. They had clear and good intent and were able to make tough decisions when necessary. They are also both humble and always willing to make time for people around them. Most importantly, you knew they had your back and would provide support, advice and encouragement when it was needed.

Victor Perton: Michelle, what makes you optimistic? What’s the case for optimism?

Michelle Gibbings: Optimism is about how you look at life, and how you approach problems. Do you focus on the negatives, or when things go badly do you look for the learnings and seek to reframe the situation? Taking this approach doesn’t mean you ignore how you feel or that you don’t experience stress, sadness or hurt. It’s about how you respond to it.

I love the quote from the famous Roman Emperor and philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, who said: “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment”.

People who are resilient are able to do that. They can recognise what’s created the ‘bad day’, reframe what it means and so adapt to the changed circumstances.

Leaders need to be able to do this, and provide the best environment so that their team can do the same.

Some of the things I do to help maintain an optimistic, positive and healthy outlook include:

  • Being more mindful – take the time to stop, breath, reflect and then respond to the event which caused the stress, rather than react to it
  • Searching for options – when you are faced with an unwelcome situation work through the options and what decisions you can and can’t make. Feeling like you have a choice as to your response puts you in a more positive state
  • Accepting what you can’t change – we can’t control or influence everything, so be clear on what you can’t control and focus your energy on what you can control and influence
  • Helping others – helping others in need helps you realise the positive forces in your life and is a key part of leading a happy and healthy life
  • Finding purpose in life – people with purpose are happier and more resilient as they are clear about their goals and where they are heading in life