Staying the course with a light hand

In an edited extract from the book, The Change Makers, former head of ASIO Duncan Lewis defines what good leadership can look like in 2019.

When the American Civil War general Robert E Lee was on his deathbed, he offered that the worst mistake he ever made was to take a military education.

I hold the opposite view: the very best thing I ever did was to take a military education, because it took me out of a quiet life in a rural Western Australian town and into a whole new world.

It gave me a formal education through a university degree, but also an education in a human sense by exposing me to a diverse group at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and an international education, because defence is an international business at heart.

I was in the army and when I graduated at the age of twenty-one, I found myself in command of thirty or forty people, most of whom were older than me.

That is quite an experience, and it’s almost unique to the military.

I had some wonderful mentors, amazing people who taught me a great deal. And there were others who I resolved not to emulate.

As you go through a military career, you can be very young when you’re exposed to command at the unit level. I was thirty-seven when I took over as commanding officer of the SAS.

That’s very young to be running an organisation of 600 to 700 people, with a very large budget. The army gave me that opportunity.

The military has an unparalleled process for developing people professionally.

During the 33 years I was in uniform, I spent nine years being formally educated not just in Australia but as a younger officer at the British Army Staff College, Camberley, learning about unit command, and later at the US Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, learning about higher command.

Only the military can afford that.

It was great preparation to be a senior military commander, first on the border of East Timor and West Timor, then as commander of Special Operations Command, and ultimately — and perhaps most importantly — for transition into the civil world.

I’m often asked about the biggest difference I’ve noticed in that move from the military to the civilian world. The answer is: not much.

Human beings are human beings, whether they’re in uniform or not. The same things make people laugh, make them cry, make them happy, make them sad, make them work hard, make them idle.

I found the things I learned through a little over three decades in the military were very transferrable when I joined the public service.

In quite an early part of my leadership journey, I learnt that it is much easier to lead human beings than to drive them from behind.

I also learnt that leading an organisation is a bit like the way you would use a tiller on a boat. If you grab a tiller very tightly and push it to the right or pull it to the left, you will eventually drive the boat to where you want to go.

But as you look back at the boat’s wake, you find that it’s a zigzag pattern; it zigs and zags each time you correct the tiller. Strangely enough, if you hold the tiller loosely. like a small bird in your hand, and look to where you want to go and just sit there, you’ll go directly there with the boat, and when you look back the wake is dead straight.

The idea is to get your organisation to move forward as efficiently as you can.

One of the great spin-offs of that analogy is that inside your hand there are a whole bunch of subordinate leaders — all the people in your organisation who are supposed to be leading their part of the ship.

If you’ve got a vice-like grip, there’s nowhere for them to move, whereas with a lighter grip, they can move around inside the parameters you set.

The further up the structure I have gone, as national security adviser, or secretary of the Department of Defence, or ambassador, the head of ASIO, the more I’ve realised that I can’t do it all myself.

The span of control goes well beyond the capacity of one individual, so you become increasingly dependent on your deputies and their deputies.

Each of those people needs room to move, to exercise their leadership, otherwise they get stifled. They can’t just be let loose, of course, because then the boat will end up on the reef, but they do need room to move.

In order to deal successfully with a job that brings many pressures and responsibilities, I’ve come to rely on family and what I refer to as the journey travelled.

Family has always been my refuge — when things are good, of course, but also when times are tough.

When they’re tough, I need to go home and discuss things with my wife, Jenny. It’s a life-long partnership where there’s a trusting dialogue.

And then there’s the lived experience.

In some respects, there’s nothing new under the sun. A challenge might manifest in a new way, but you’re able in your life’s journey to have either experienced it first-hand, perhaps dressed in another, slightly different guise, or you’ve watched somebody dealing with it.

So it isn’t overwhelming.

If you’re going to do a job such as mine, you have to have interests that go beyond your work. That doesn’t mean you have to play golf or listen to music or something like that, just that you need to be a sufficiently interested, and hopefully interesting person, to be able to work outside your professional lane.

If the only thing I could ever talk about was intelligence, that would be pretty sad.

You’ve got to at least have the ability to be interested in other things, and particularly to be interested in other people. And as a senior leader, you need to be scanning outside your work lane anyway.

We do have a very complex sort of ecosystem within ASIO — we’re a multidiscipline organisation — and there can be an enormous tendency just to look inwards, but you have to always be looking outside.

You need to have leaders in the organisation who are watching what’s happening to the left and right and before and behind you, in order to position the organisation, sometimes subtly and, every now and again, dramatically reorient it.

That’s important.

In a military setting, you have some circumstances that occur from time to time that are absolutely life-threatening. You know that you’re making a decision that is going to send men and women into harm’s way, and that this might end very sadly.

Obviously, you do everything you can to minimise that; you work like a dervish to bring all the risk down to a controllable point. But at the end of the day, you can’t hold all the levers, particularly with combat operations.

I find that’s not terribly dissimilar, in a way, to what I do now. ASIO, quite properly, is very concerned about the way in which we engage with Australian citizens, because we have enormous powers of intrusion. With those powers must come very complicated levels of oversight, which we have.

Nevertheless, I am still making decisions on a daily basis as to whether Australian citizens are considered a risk to the security of the country.

They are very sober moments, when you’re contemplating whether an individual is in fact a threat to security or not. And you know that if you determine that they are a threat to security and they receive an adverse report, then you have had a profound and lifelong effect on that individual.

Australian leaders in both the public and private sectors today must face up to two enormous shifts of circumstance.

The first is about our nation’s position in the world. As we move from the end of the Cold War into a period of multipolarity, where there is great power competition and all sorts of discussions about possible trade wars and territorial dispute issues, it’s becoming an ever more complicated world.

The second change is to do with mankind itself: the profound transformation in the way human beings relate to one another due to developments with data and communications.

The internet and the developing Internet of Things have forever changed the relationships between human beings.

On this subject, I sometimes draw on my friend and colleague Jim Comey, the former chief of the FBI in the US, who speaks of what he calls the issue of ‘accelerated anxiety’ with which we all live.

His thesis is that, because of information flowing instantaneously from one side of the planet to the other, we become anxious on hearing or reading or seeing something, usually on our handheld devices, possibly many times a day, that has absolutely no direct impact on or consequence for us whatsoever.

Sad fellow that I am, and Jenny criticises me for this, I frequently leap out of bed in the morning and look at my device, and I see that there’s an earthquake in Turkey or somewhere, with widespread destruction and loss of life, and that causes me some anxiety.

And yet, in the strictest sense, the fact that there’s been an earthquake in Turkey is of no direct consequence to me.

As a species, we now know about what is happening to everyone else in the species almost instantaneously, and that causes us to be anxious when it rarely has an impact on us.

This is a great challenge for all leaders — how we manage data, how we manage relationships between human beings with this speed of communication.

In 2012, then US Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter meets with Duncan Lewis at the Pentagon. Picture: Glenn Fawcett/US DoD
Leaders across all sectors have an obligation to at least initiate consideration of this within their communities. I’m not saying you have to direct people.

I’m not saying, ‘You must think this’ or ‘You must think that’. However, I do believe that each leader should at least expose their workforce to the challenges that they see coming down the pike.