Project Description

Leadership in an Age of Disruption and Uncertainty – with Major General Gus McLachlan AO (Ret’d)

Today on the HR Breakfast Club podcast, our guest host James Judge sits down with Gus McLachlan to talk about leadership in the digital age. Gus has recently transitioned from the role as Major General in the Australian Army after 38 years of service.

Gus has commanded at all levels including commanding the first brigade and has completed several overseas deployments to Afghanistan, East Timor, and the Solomon Islands. He’s also been seconded to the Pentagon and has filled the role of Chief of Staff to the then Chief of the Australian Defence Force, sir Angus Houston.

His last role was as head of Forces Command managing 35,000 women and men across a couple of functional areas including the individual training of skills as diverse as tank drivers to carpenters, helicopter pilots, and cyber defenders. 

With such a diverse scope of leadership responsibilities throughout his career, we are very pleased to be discussing the ways in which leadership has changed over the years. Gus was generous with his time and provided invaluable insight into how to create a positive, supportive work culture.

For more resources, see our HR Breakfast Club resources below. If you have a topic that you would like us to discuss, we would be happy to hear from you, please contact us!

Some topics we cover:

  • What does good leadership look like
  • The impacts of diversity in leadership on the workforce
  • What kind of leadership programs are the best performing
  • Social media is a necessary part of leadership, but use this as a professional tool
  • How to use social media to highlight the achievements of your workforce
  • What happens when leadership goes wrong

Resources We Mentioned:

“Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys” by Michael Collins

“Legacy” by James Kerr

“Turn the Ship Around! : A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules” by David Marquet

“Team of Teams : New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World” Gen Stanley Mc Chrystal (Ret)

“Team of Rivals” by Doris Goodwin

James: Hello, and welcome to Episode 11 of the HR Breakfast Club Podcast. I’m James Judge and today, I’m very pleased to be talking to Gus McLachlan about leadership. Gus has recently transitioned from the role as Major General in the Australian Army after 38 years of service.

Gus has commanded at all levels including commanding the first brigade and has completed several overseas deployments to Afghanistan, East Timor, and the Solomon Islands. He’s also been seconded to the Pentagon and has filled the role of Chief of Staff to the then Chief of the Australian Defense Force, sir Angus Houston.

His last role was as head of Forces Command managing 35,000 women and men across a couple of functional areas but one of his responsibilities was the individual training of skills as diverse as tank drivers to carpenters, helicopter pilots, and cyber defenders.

Gus has an Officer of the Order of Australia and was awarded the US Legion of Merit by the US Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis. He’s currently Adjunct Professor at the faculties of engineering business and economics at Monash University, is a Strategic Defense Advisor to the Queensland Government and sits on a number of company boards.

Gus, many thanks for taking the time to be with us here today.

Gus: My pleasure to join you.

James: Starting on a personal note throughout your career, perhaps, even before that, when you were growing up, did you have any particular leaders or role models that you looked up to?

Gus: Yes. It’s interesting in your early years you don’t consciously necessarily taking what’s around you. I was very fortunate. Firstly, I had some very strong female role models. I was raised by a single mother but she was an educator and reformer and insisted I get on a good education but also participated in team sports, debating, public speaking, those sorts of things. I didn’t probably understand at the time but I was building the skills that were going to be very useful to me later on.

My early military career is probably my most influential period. Most of my instructors were Vietnam Veterans, people like Gary Mchugh had come back after being wounded in Vietnam and Ian Hurn was a Deputy Commandant at the Recruit Training Battalion when I was young lieutenant he led the man in charge to recapture Afghan overran on the defensive position at a place called Firebase Coral-Balmoral.

Those people were just inspirational figures but importantly, for me, they were really quite accessible as well. Then I was lucky enough to graduate into the Army Corps where I think there was a style of leadership that suited me much more than perhaps in the bigger units.

My first Commanding Officer, Roger Power, is still a friend and mentor. The first RSM I had when I was a young lieutenant besides major figure. He used to mentor and guide us as young leaders, perhaps without us really even knowing what’s happening, so I was very lucky to be surrounded by good leadership and I guess, I hope, I soaked a quite a bit of that up.

James: I wanted to get your thoughts on what leadership actually is. There’s been so much written on the subject and not all of it seems to harmonize. I know that personally I read books or listen to TED talks on adaptive leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership, and how do you think leadership can best be defined and understood?

Gus: Look, I agree with you about the plethora of material out there. As I increasingly look at the private industry now since I’ve finished my military career, in some businesses leadership is simply the person who is best at selling something or who is the best performer in a particular discipline.

I think leadership is much more than that. I think, firstly, leadership is the ability to create a vision so the name speaks for itself. Leaders have to be at the front of creating vision, but that vision is created with a view of being motivating the release of effort by people, I call it the discretionary effort.

Everybody will respond to a leader’s authority with a certain percentage of their capacity, probably, 60 or 70%. To unlock that last 30%, leaders need to inspire and if you can unlock that last 30%, I think that’s where creativity sits. I think that’s where personal resilience sits, I think that’s wherein the military sense, I think that’s where canning sits. For me, leadership is the ability to create a vision but then to motivate people to release their discretionary effort and organizations that can harness that just leap ahead compared to others.

James: How important do you think diversity is in an organization’s thinking or practice of building their leadership cohort? There’s a lot of studies that talk about the low percentages of women on boards.

Gus: I think it is a problem. One of my challenges as a leader in Forces Command, we had 35,000 people spread all over the country and they did well and truly got the message that diversity was the right thing to do. What I chose to do was to take that to the next level and say that not only is it the right thing to do, but actually good for an organization’s operational performance.

Militaries, just like modern organizations, operate in complex human conditions. When I was a young military leader, military operations were simpler. The good guys are on one side, the bad guys are on the other, and you broadly did what you could to overcome. The reality of modern military operations is they are fought amongst the human population.

If you got an incredibly complex set of circumstances that you face, well, the best way to deal with that is actually to have a diverse leadership group, a diverse team from whom you can get all sorts of ideas that empower the quality of your thinking.

My message as a leader is that it’s absolutely the right thing to do to give everybody the opportunity to contribute to the organization but importantly, it is also really good for the organization. It will improve decision making. I think performance of the companies in the global financial crisis in 2008, I think there’s a fair bit of evidence now to suggest that organizations that had diverse leadership teams at the board and in executive-level considerably outperform those who didn’t.

It is the right thing to do but it’s also good for us operationally to have a diverse set of eyes on the complex problems.

James: Many large organizations have some kind of leadership training program in a place. Given your depth of experience in both leading a lot of people and also having had direct responsibility for what must have been substantial training and development functions, what do you think works really well and maybe doesn’t work so well in the leadership development arena?

Gus: Yes, leadership changes, so again, it’s something that’s come to me out of the journey from the opportunity to look at really great leaders. I did immense privilege of being the Chief of Staff for Angus Houston when he was Chief of the Defense Force. Now, what I realized was the broad foundation of leadership, ethical behavior, inspirational accessible behavior, don’t change but in Angus’s case for over 100,000 people, the ability to directly inspire those people is not something you have the opportunity to do all the time but there were some consistent tools. One is consistently positive messaging virtually all the time and I call it my 955 Rule.

If you turn up in a remote part of your organization, they might see you once a year. If for that day you’re grumpy, you’re slightly off your game, you see a minor fault that could have been corrected by someone further down the hierarchy and you jump on people, that will be the memory of the organizational leadership climate that those people have of you for the next year.

Leadership does change, but at the ability to come into an organization and be positive, by all means, correct faults but do it in a less confronting way. I think communication is the other place. When I had the opportunity to move around Forces Command, I really have to get used to repeating and driving your message and that your behavior and your cultural expectations over and over again, because in a larger organization it takes a while to permeate.

I personally embrace social media and the use of modern tools like webinars, podcasts, and the use of Twitter, not necessarily as an external communication tool but as a way for the organization to hear more directly what I thought was important. I think those things combined, the modern tools with some more traditional behaviors, are how you drive that organizational culture change and inspiration for big organizations.

James: I’m glad you brought that up because I was going to ask you about Twitter, actually. We live in an age of increased connectedness, tweets can sometimes increase. We got the President of the United States seems to conduct foreign policy through that medium. Do you think social media is fundamentally disrupting the way leaders now need to think or operate?

Gus: I think the answer is yes. To ignore it is to effectively ignore the tide coming in. Whether it’s a force for good or ill is now bound to the history books. I think what we’ve got to do is understand it and use it as effective as we can.

Now I had a simple rule for profession- I still have a simple rule for professional use of social media and that is 100% positive. I don’t think it’s a place for leaders to get involved in a tit-for-tat debate-style content. I think it’s a way of reinforcing positive behaviors highlighting the work of outstanding subordinates of allowing them to understand that the other things that you think are important. In my case, I use it to reference articles that I think people should read or understand emerging technologies. I want them to understand I think is important and to again, celebrate the performance of outstanding individuals.

To give you a simple example, we were coming, finishing a very big exercise in Forces Command over in Salt Water Bay. Five units were returning all over the country and I saw on social media a unit that stopped – a Darwin-based unit – that stop in rural Western Queensland and ran a STEM seminar for local high school. Now, I would never have found out about that through traditional reporting mechanisms and very quickly was just able to jump on and reinforce the positive aspects of that behavior. All the other leaders in the organization then understand that the things that are empowered to go ahead and do without having to come back to the head office, obviously.

James: I thought it would also be interesting to get your take on what happens when leadership goes wrong. By that, I mean we have a particularly charismatic, but egotistical or wholly unethical leader, maybe even someone who’s a sociopath, perhaps you also have checks and balances within an organization or maybe timid followers. There have been some pretty high profile cases of misuses of power come to light, just lightly, but in terms of Australia, internationally a result of the Me Too movement. Any insights on this? How to avoid it, what to do when you find yourself in a situation like this?

Gus: Yes. My first adage I don’t want to sound simplistic, but the adage I had in my last organization was “Leadership matters.” The leadership climate in an organization can influence the performance of that organization. Profoundly obscene units turn around their performance in a matter of three or four weeks after a leadership change. The first thing is leadership does matter and leadership is not simply the loudest voice or the particular sales leader or aggressive generator of products, of sales. If you look at the banking, Royal commissioners exposed the fact that too many organizations made those sorts of things their leadership criteria.

Leadership is the ability to generate a vision. It’s a foundation of ethical behavior that people can look at their leaders and trust that that vision is appropriate and legal and that they are safe to provide their contribution in that leadership environment, whether it’s safe to speak up or whether it’s safe from harassment. The answer is people who think that they have to tolerate toxic leadership because somehow that organization is performing, really don’t understand that the potential of the organizations that they are talking about, should they have a positive and inspirational leader to take over from that more toxic- well, I was going to say toxic leader, but really, you can’t be a toxic leader, that toxic manager or that toxic supervisor because leadership implies that you not boasting. The simple adage, “Leadership matters,” and if you invest in it, build your people, and build the capacity, the organization will profoundly jump ahead in an exponential sense.

James: Given we spoke before about how much is being written or how much ink is being spilled on leadership, are there any particular books or resources for our listeners that you consider extremely helpful for people in leadership positions, or maybe those would like to exercise more leadership in their lives?

Gus: Yes. There must be thousands of thousands of books about leadership. My reading’s changed over the years. I tend to now read about innovation, and creativity, and opportunity in the recent anniversary of the Apollo 11 landings. It was a great trigger for me to go back and read about the immense creativity shown during that period. I read Collins’s book Carrying The Fire, an extraordinary period. In a recent landscape, the books that I’ve enjoyed Legacy, the story of the culture generated out of the All Blacks. I think that the simple adage of “Leave the jersey in a better place”. “Champions do extra”. They’re simple, but really quite profound. Even if you take a view and this is something I’m very proud of being an army leader, you take a view you’re a custodian of organization, not an owner and that if you leave it better than you found it, and you’ve grown the next generation of leaders, then you’ve been successful and certainly, that book talks about an incredible culture in perhaps the most successful sporting team in history.

There’s a fascinating book called Turn the Ship Around by a fella called Marquet. He took over a nuclear submarine in the US Navy, but ahead of crisis of leadership. It’s a relatively simple but fascinating read about the change from directive leadership simply telling people what to do, to providing them the opportunity to create and contribute. I heard a quote from this, as I suspect he might have borrowed it from somebody else, but he talked about his leadership transition when he was a junior leader, he taught people exactly how to do things. As he became in his eyes a more effective leader, he told them what to do and allowed them some space to understand to how. He knew he was a senior leader when he was picking the right people because he had grown them and created in them the understanding of the business in the organization. Turn the Ship Around is a great story of a leader who was willing to make that sort of transition.

There is The Crystals Time of Times. I also think it’s important people read alternative views. I’m on a bit of a believer in Team of Rivals as well, which is Kearns’s book about Lincoln’s cabinet. Not every team has to be a group of people who hug and sing Kumbaya. You can bring rivals together and attain light and some solid rules and foundations of behavior and expectations, and create some dynamism that can make an organization thrive as long as people are willing to work together. I read a lot, a while since I’ve stopped and read the traditional, how-to leadership books. It’s more a case of reading about successful leaders and just saying, “How I can pick the best aspects of other people’s performance.”

James: I know you’re on a tight time schedule. I want to finish on time. We had a bit of a delay starting this morning. Look, thanks so much for making yourself available today. It’s been a real pleasure getting your thoughts and learning from your experience of leadership.

Gus: Thanks, James. I love talking about leadership. It’s been at the foundation of my professional development in one of, I think, Australia’s greatest leadership development institution, which is our army and very proud of the efforts and culture of that team. I hope I can continue to share some of those experiences I’ve got with others in forms like this. Thanks for having me.


James: You’ve been listening to the HR Breakfast Club Podcast, where we focus on hot button issues that you may be facing in the workplace. Our website is where you’ll find all our contact details. Feel free to connect, suggest a topic or a question you would like us to examine. Maybe even join us as a guest. You can also leave a review on iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks again for listening in.

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