The following is an interview by Victor Perton of

Reproduced with permission

“I had the good fortune to converse on leadership and optimism with the optimistic Australian education leader Allan Shaw, Principal of The Knox School.  Like me, Allan is a great believer in the power of meditation and optimism.”

VP: Allan, what’s your favourite story of a leader or boss that you have had? 

Allan Shaw: I can think of several examples of people I regard as significant leaders who have influenced me through their leadership style. I’ll provide an example, which is indicative of the other two that are at the forefront of my mind. Leadership is about example and mentoring and guiding those around you.

I know of a woman who gradually became crippled with rheumatoid arthritis beginning at the age of 15. Her ‘disability’ was never considered by her as such, but rather as an aspect of her life that was a bit different. She underwent nearly 30 operations in her life, was almost a bionic woman in terms of replacement joints and suffered cruel pain and the side-effects of some ‘heavy’ drugs for decades. At no stage did she do anything other than live a normal life for a woman of her generation and never complained or felt sorry for herself. She had five children. She volunteered at their respective schools; she stood on sidelines of a weekend, attended P&F meetings, assisted in the local parish, contributed to fetes, and also ran a support and advisory group for other sufferers of RA, all as a volunteer. She never would have described herself as a leader. She just ‘did her bit’. She led by example, modelled great organisational skills and exhibited a deft, tolerant touch with people. She inspired all who knew her to try and emulate her and would never have seen herself as worthy of emulation.

VP: Allan, what are the unique qualities of Australian leadership? 

Allan Shaw:
 Australian leadership at its best is a leadership from within and among in style. Even if privileged with a designed leadership position, the best Australian leaders are amongst their ‘mob’, setting example and ‘walking the talk’. They certainly set clear and high expectations and strive to meet those expectations themselves and assist, coach and mentor others to do the same. They recognise their own human frailty and that of those around them. Success and joy, failure and forgiveness sit comfortably side by side with them. They understand the visceral nature of life and are genuine, practical and grounded in their work and relationships.

VP:  Allan, what do Australians want of their leaders today? 

Allan Shaw:  Australians like to see leadership from within and among. It has to be authentic and grounded in reality as well as inspiring; it celebrates success, but more importantly, it recognises human frailty and failure and forgives error at least the first time. Good Australian leadership is respected for little tolerance for non-contributors and a distinction between personal relationships and professional decision making.

VP: Allan, thinking about your life’s journey, who are the leaders who have inspired you? 

Allan Shaw:  My parents have been a significant influence on me all through my life, either reacting against them and their values especially in my youth or agreeing and supporting those same values and actions, more often as I have become older and hopefully, a little wiser. I have worked for and with a number of people who have had a significant influence on me. I enjoy and learn from watching and reflecting upon the decisions and actions of others around me, especially when they are close enough that I can understand the context in which they operate and make decisions. Some of my best lessons have come from young people, the ones for whom, as a school principal, I have a responsibility to care for and nourish. They teach me so much!

VP: Allan, what makes you optimistic? What’s your case for optimism? 

Allan Shaw:  The young people I live with day by day! Both of my own sons and the young people in the school at which I work and in those of my peers never cease to amaze me with their insight, energy and positive actions. How could you not be optimistic living and working in such an environment, full of young people of high capacity? The other aspect of my life that supports and nourishes my optimism is my twice daily practice of meditation. I have meditated twice a day for 20 minutes for thirty years now, and it has added enormously to my life and outlook in a positive manner.