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Faculty of Business and Law - Honorary Doctorate speech

Sunday, 17 January 2010, 1.00pm

Dr Sam Walsh


“Leaders in Life”

Good afternoon Pro-Chancellor,
Vice Chancellor, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to have the opportunity to address you this afternoon.

For me the pleasure is two-fold
– the privilege of seeing our future leaders attain a significant goal in graduating from university; and the honour of being presented with an Honorary Doctorate.

I would like to thank Edith Cowan University for this valued opportunity.

Can I also acknowledge the Noongar people, on whose traditional lands we meet today.

Today I offer you my ‘take’ on Leaders in life, a topic as large and as challenging as Mt Everest and as difficult to grasp as a slippery salmon.

Leadership is an enigma: it can be hard to get right but easy to get wrong.

Why do I feel it is important to speak on this subject today?

Because as you leave this university and embark on the next stage of your lives, your success and fulfilment, professionally and personally, will be largely derived from the leadership position that you take and the difference that you make in people’s lives.

Leadership is a subject that has occupied the minds of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, the shelves of thousands of libraries and bookshops around the globe and of course many, many websites.

We can read up on the topic as much as we like, however to become a true leader, we have to look deeply within ourselves.

And that is the challenge that I would like to issue to all of you here today … to leave here with a commitment to discover what being a leader is for you.

I urge you to pare back the clichés and jargon about leadership, to look beyond the obvious leaders such as heads of countries businesses or religious leaders, and search for your own truth: what’s important to you; what will make you a future leader.

How do you go about this?

Well, here’s a simple way to start:

Think about the five attributes that you regard as being critical to effective leadership.

For example, perhaps an ability to make the world a better place,
To have strong values,
To be a visionary thinker,
To have constancy of purpose and to have empathy with others.

Now for each of your attributes, think of a person that you know or admire with whom this attribute is most strongly represented.

The person you select for each attribute might be a colleague, a relative, a friend or a community member.

Piecing this jigsaw together, you will have a model of a leader that best reflects your vision and your potential.

Remember, we are as much a composite of the people around us and our experiences as we are from our professional skills and knowledge.

It is important to recognise that when I am talking about leadership I am not simply talking about being a Chief Executive Officer, or the captain of a cricket team, or conductor of an orchestra, or a Vice Chancellor for that matter.

Leaders of that ilk might or might not feature on your “fabulous five”.

Not all CEOs are leaders, and not all leaders are CEOs; being in charge

does not automatically confer you with leadership status.

Being a true leader means being a leader in life.

Regardless of your chosen field, experience or position, and regardless of your age, gender or race, you have a choice to become a leader in life.

In my role, I am often asked about leadership and what it means to me, and it is a question to which I have given a great deal of thought.

Firstly, for me, leadership means acting with integrity; and consistently living according to your values and believing in what you do.

Following your moral compass, if you like.

Secondly, it means treating others with respect as well as commanding their respect.

Thirdly, it means communicating, acquiring and sharing knowledge, and demonstrating by example.

Your education does not finish today.

Fourthly, leaders have a vision and a plan to achieve it.

And lastly, True leaders involve themselves with issues that go way beyond

their own personal interests or those of their organisation.

It was General Norman Schwarzkopf who said, “Leadership is a combination of strategy and character.

If you must be without one,
be without the strategy.”

Well I would like you to have both.

For me, the importance of leadership was crystallised after my father died, leaving me as the “man of the house” at 16 years of age.

I felt a great responsibility and recognition that others were looking to me for strength and guidance.

In addition to family responsibilities, my teenage years and 20s were shaped by various community interactions, the level of which I have always sought to maintain regardless of the positions that I have held, the companies where I have worked and where I have lived.

It is my belief that being a leader means working with your heart, mind and soul to make the world a better place.

For this reason, there can be no better goal than to be a leader in life.

At Rio Tinto, we encourage all of our employees to show leadership, whether they are driving a truck, analysing spreadsheets or monitoring the environment.

We expect employees at every level to be leaders and this translates to thinking innovatively, acting collaboratively, adhering to our corporate values and, most importantly, committing to our Number One priority of safety.

Through programs such as our Employees in the Community initiative, we have encouraged a large number of our staff to get involved in worthwhile initiatives outside of the workplace.

As an organisation, Rio Tinto prides itself on its community involvement, and through our far-reaching community investment program we invest significant resources 

– human, monetary and practical support
– with many organisations that are seeking to make a difference to our communal wellbeing.

As only a small snapshot this, we are in partnership with the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the provision of the very first jet in the Australian fleet, a world firstthe “Rio Tinto Life Flight”;

With Kings Park we are sponsoring the establishment of a ground-breaking children’s environment and educational precinct, to be known as the “Rio Tinto Naturescape”;
and with the Black Swan State Theatre Company, we enable them to bring new local commissions to the stage, and to help make Perth and Western Australia a more vibrant place to live.

I believe that just as important as being a leader is seeking out others from whom you can learn and grow.

A mentor has been described as someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.

For this reason, mentors are particularly useful in the business world, where every day we deal in the future, with relentless forecasting, strategising and planning.

If I were to offer some practical advice to graduands today, it would be to continually scan your horizon for people who can help guide and advise you, whether it be professionally, practically or spiritually.

When you have identified these people, be a sponge
– take from them as much as they can give.

Be shameless in your pursuit of learning from others:
ask them about their experiences and how they became the that person they are now.

True leaders will be only too happy to share with you their philosophies and approach.

I know that throughout my career, not just at Rio Tinto but at General Motors Holden and Nissan Australia, I have been influenced by some truly inspiring people, both above and below me on the corporate ladder.

So in closing, I would like to thank Edith Cowan University for awarding me an Honorary Doctorate.

I am of course delighted, but also humbled by the recognition of my contributions.

Life in the corporate sector is not for the faint-hearted, particularly dealing with the difficult economic climate over the last eighteen months.

Within Rio Tinto, some would say that we’ve had more acts than a Shakespearean play, with barely a day passing without scrutiny of ownership structures, commodity pricing or happenings in China.

While all very interesting, it is with the help of my colleagues and mentors that I can continue to successfully meet my business’s challenges and opportunities.

Finally, could I once again offer my congratulations to today’s graduands.

May you lead with intelligence, compassion and integrity.

And may you all make a positive difference as you deal with life’s complexities and opportunities.

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