Foundation Day Address – Jon Isaacs

Thank you very much for your warm welcome to my colleagues and me. Looking at you all, it’s a lovely feeling being back in this Great Hall.

Our cohort was the first group to have six years of high school. Previously it was five. So you have us to blame!
I have been very fortunate in my life to have observed up close, some great leaders. And some pretty ordinary ones! I want you all to think now about someone in your life whose leadership qualities have made a positive impact on you personally. It might be a family member, neighbour,
teacher, parent of a friend. Please take a moment now to picture that person and what they meant to you.
My mother had two brothers. At family gatherings, my dad, who loved an argument, always ended up in high octane dispute with the older of my mum’s brothers. Her younger brother, my Uncle Jack, had this brilliant knack of calmly steering them both away from their heated dispute and onto
common territory. He also had impeccable timing, knowing just when to redirect traffic. I first remember observing this happening when I was a teenager.
Jack was a very good listener. I’ve realised that listening to others is a key attribute of leaders. In the supposed good old days, you tended to be surrounded by people like yourself. Listening simply confirmed you were right! But the fact that we are now encouraged to enhance and respect diversity across gender, culture, sexual orientation, geography, socioeconomic background and operating styles, means that we benefit from a richness of views and I have no doubt make better decisions.
Jack’s style clearly made its mark on me.

It appealed to my own way of seeing things and gave me a model for my own authentic style. I know, now, I’m at my best when I’m able to behave as he did. I also recognise I am not at my best in different circumstances – where brainstorming, business as usual or attention to detail are required. But put me in a conflict, or disputed territory and I’m a good guy to have.
For those with a knowledge of classical musical, think of the piano solo in the middle movement of Beethoven’s fourth piano concerto.
So being a good leader can depend on your context. A decade ago, the then retail chain, Coles Myer, turned to a recently retired CEO with a great track record in logistics to run their retail business. It did not work out. The new owner of Coles, the Wesfarmers Group, installed an internationally
renowned retailer to revive the business. That worked!
The message from that is, I hope, that knowing yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, allows you to seek out and be available for roles in which you will flourish. It also allows you to observe others who thrive in circumstances where you struggle, and you can learn from and admire their
strengths. We each have different strengths and weaknesses. And good leaders buttress their deficiencies by having around them people with complementary strengths.
Owning up to weaknesses might pose a challenge for smart people like yourselves. In the early stages of your career, you will spend your time on becoming technically proficient, learning from the work of others. Very tangible, and reasonably precise. But leaders deal with the future, which is
unknown and imprecise. The less predictable and precise things are, the more opportunity there is to get something wrong. Admitting fault is not too common for you, probably because you do not often get things too wrong.

There are plenty of contemporary examples, especially in business, politics and in the community, where leaders bend the truth about themselves or their behaviour so as not to be found out. It rarely, if ever, works. What to do then when you’ve stuffed up? We get help here from the school
motto, which on reflection is a standout.

Sydney High’s motto, when my dad was here in the late 1920s roughly translated to ‘be ashamed to come in last’. My dad actually paraphrased it as ‘Last in, lousy’! Not so good! But ‘with truth and courage’ has plenty going for it: Being truthful means consistency. It also means being reliable
and dependable in relationships. It means you are not up yourself. And it means that colleagues will respect your intellect and deeds because you demonstrate high principle.
Leaders of today are smarter, younger and take on more responsibility than their predecessors. In my opinion, the ones who succeed apply the basics: know yourself, value and listen to diverse opinions and have the courage to tell the truth. It is often a matter of allowing yourself to be
vulnerable.
I hope that when you gather for your fiftieth reunion, you are able to reflect as happily on your schoolmates as I do. Some of my colleagues here today have been health care professionals and outstanding clinical specialists. They have been businessmen, lawyers, academics, architects,
marketers and public servants. They have served their country, contributed to world peace and founded wonderful businesses.
Others have died prematurely, or suffered in life or have suffered from mental health issues but mostly, we’ve led, relatively speaking, comfortable and rewarding lives in this great country with its community safety net and universal health care system.
You will find your year has a similar experience. Savour the relationships, no matter how infrequently you nurture them. They are priceless.
On behalf of the year of 1967, I wish you all well.
Mr Jon Isaacs