CSIRO’s Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall speaks to participants in the Graduate Program in Scientific Leadership about lessons in solving the greatest challenges.

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I would like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people as the Traditional Owners of the land that we are on today, and pay my respect to their Elders past and present.

Today is all about impactful leadership; how will you make a real difference as a leader?

The world as we know it is changing and leadership itself is being reinvented.

As we open to new ways of working, new technologies and seek a deeper sense of purpose in our work, the future will be defined by collaboration, innovation, and adaptability in how we lead. 

As leaders you have an incredible opportunity to change the world through the teams you lead - but you also have the ability to really mess it up.

You are writing the next generation of leadership stories. You are right on the front lines of this transformation.

Today I thought I'd first share some insights from my own leadership story, and then one of my favourite leadership stories from a couple of scientific luminaries. That's a pun, but you have to stay for the whole speech to get it.

At CSIRO, we have teams of scientists whose job it is to predict the future.

I’m glad that's not my job. My job isn't to predict the future – it's to ensure CSIRO is ready and on the front foot for whatever the future throws at us.

Today's leaders have to be comfortable venturing into the unknown.

Going into the unknown without prior experience can be a blessing. You have no baggage; no expectations, and you can remain present with what is right in front of you. This is an exciting way to lead.

When I became an entrepreneur setting up my first company back in the early 90s, it was completely new territory for me.

There weren't all the entrepreneurial books we have today or podcasts, no list of do's and don'ts, no coaching - and I didn't know any role models to follow - scientists who became entrepreneurs.

I was fortunate to be thinking about making the leap into business while I was at Stanford, and to know Jim Collins, who would go on to write essential business texts like 'Good to Great' and 'Built to Last'.

Bob Byer was my PhD examiner at Stanford, and he told me that it was actually OK to go learn something from the business school.

Jim Collins saw me one day, and said it's OK to sneak in to my class, but what are you looking for? I said "I want to learn how to start a company". He responded "you won't learn that here in a university, you'll learn it out there in Silicon Valley. But you should learn, otherwise why are you doing a PhD in Physics?"

We talked about my Australian university experience which prepared me for the career of a professor - which Jim thought was a bit of a waste (funny given he was a professor).

Jim taught me - Don't let someone with an MBA tell you, you're just a scientist - leadership doesn't come from the letters after your name.

When Jim went on to write his best sellers like Good to great – he espoused a model of leadership which I think is sadly lacking today.

Leaders don't make companies great, its Teams that make companies great.

Great leaders create, inspire, and empower great teams.

Leadership isn't about being the hero of your life story, frankly it's about owning the bad stuff, especially owning failure. The good stuff like success is owned by the team.

Collective leadership isn't about leadership, its about "followship". Teams will follow leaders anywhere, when those leaders truly own the bad. But in society we so often think of leaders out front, leading the charge – maybe even a man on a horse with a sword.

That type of leader has a trap – their people are afraid to tell them what they really need to know, like "you are wrong".

If a leader can't inspire a culture of trust and openness, then half of their decisions will be wrong. If they can't be inclusive, and welcome diverse perspectives, then possibly all of their decisions will be wrong.

Later on in my career, when times were tough at companies I ran in Silicon Valley, we would give the team more equity in the company and share the pain together, because we all believed in what we were doing. That sharing changed the mindset of everyone in the company and it wasn't a hierarchy anymore.

I think the version of equity that is similar in an organisation like CSIRO and DST is national benefit, that feeling that you're part of something that’s bigger than you, and making a positive difference for the nation.

That we're all in this together because we all want to make a contribution to the greater good. It certainly gets me out of bed in the morning.

In an era defined by innovation and dominated by ambiguity – diversity is the only compass we have.

Diversity means including your team, and your staff on the journey. Diversity means thinking, and doing things differently to any traditional leadership model you may have heard about. And Diversity means, that you can be a CEO even if you are just a scientist :)

That's why programs like this are so valuable, they introduce you to a diversity of other leaders at your level who will be part of your team as you manage and navigate your way through your own leadership story.

Bringing diverse views, experiences and diverse groups together is the way forward.

We can see how modern thinking about diversity in leadership has evolved through history if we look back to 1882.

The middle of the second industrial revolution. Thomas Edison was brightening people's lives with the invention of the lightbulb and running the Continental Edison Company.

Edison hired a promising young engineer called Nikola Tesla, and within months the two were at loggerheads over their vision for the way forward in electricity.

A couple of luminaries.

Edison supported DC electricity, or Direct Current, which delivered a lower voltage supply and was deemed to be safer.

But Tesla called him short-sighted, and said AC was the way of the future, because Alternating Current electricity could travel further and at higher voltages.

Their feud became known as the War of the Currents, and some 100 years later inspired the name of another electrically charged combination, the band ACDC.

Eventually Tesla quit and scraped together the finance to form the Tesla Electric Light Company, kicking off the AC revolution, the form of power now used around the world.

But here's the irony: they were both right.

Today, we use AC currents to transport power around our cities and into the country, but once it reaches our homes, our appliances convert the electricity into Edison's preferred DC current, because it's safer.

That's what the brick on your laptop cord is doing, converting electricity from Tesla's AC to Edison’s DC.

Although, in another irony, Edison's claims that DC was safer would be challenged today when you would be electrocuted in a moment by the ultra-high voltage DC we use now to transport electricity over long distances – distances neither men probably predicted we’d ever transport electricity – and with higher charges than they may have expected.

But think back to the brick on your laptop cable, bringing the egos of Tesla and Edison together still today.

Ever noticed how hot that brick can get? That's because it takes a lot of energy to run that power conversion – a challenge that today's scientists are working on because the great minds of Tesla and Edison were trumped by their great egos.

Now I know what you're thinking – these scientists aren’t exactly models of leadership.

But together, they would have brought a potent combination.

Edison was adept at the politics, he engaged the public and made sure they cared about how their energy was delivered – a skill we might find useful today.

And Tesla was driven by his convictions, he suffered public criticism because he knew that his technology would stand the test of time. He was committed, resolute and driven.

Elon Musk honoured Tesla's entrepreneurial dedication by naming his electric car company in his honour – and depending on your reading of Elon's engagement with our own energy debate in Australia, you could argue he picked up a few of Edison's ideas about politics as well.

This story touches on a few points:

  • How can we bring together two different ideas from two very different people? Where can you do that in your area of work?
  • How can you get out of the way "personally" in order to solve our greatest challenges?

As I mentioned in my opening, leadership isn't about the individual or the legacy but rather what you can bring and deliver to the world.

Why do we need to collaborate?

Collaborations and partnerships, bringing together diverse ideas and expertise is the only way we can solve today's complex challenges.

Leaders need to be more innovative, faster and be more courageous as the issues become bigger and broader and interconnected.

In Australia, as we are a relatively small nation, we can't afford to not work together.

There are finite funds for research, and the global marketplace is crowded.

If we want our research dollar to go further, and our innovations to have the strongest possible chance in the world, we have to pool our resources and pull together in a Team Australia approach.

We created a program a couple of years ago to bring the Australian research sector together. The program is called ON.

It's what we call a science and technology accelerator, but it's unlike any accelerator you will find in the world.

ON recognizes that while the "right" way to innovate ie. Way entrepreneurs do it – is to identify the problem and then go create a solution to make money.

ON recognises that scientists do it backwards. We always lead with science and we never seem to make much money.

So how do you harness that passion and aim it squarely at solving Australia's greatest challenges – taking the best of the entrepreneurial practice to deliver a real solution and the best of science to save the world – where success isn't about winning or making a profit, but rather making a difference.

ON gives our scientists a crash course in the business side.

They take an idea they've been working on in the lab, we run them through an intensive few months of turning it into a product, finding customers, testing it in the market, and by the end of the program, they're ready to go out and find investors.

We've graduated hundreds of teams of scientists and is leading a cultural change among scientists at CSIRO and I can only assume in our universities.

Why? Because it is unifying our scientists to bring their discoveries and innovations into the world.  

The magic of the ON program is harnessing the deep technical expertise and driving passion to do good that lives in our scientists – and adding a touch of leadership and business savvy.

It takes the Edisons and Teslas of today and shows them how to work with others to turn their ideas and inventions into profound impact – without having to quit their jobs or start wars.

We must embrace a model of leadership that is driven by a commitment to doing good.

As STEM professionals and scientific leaders, we understand that science creates new value by seeing ahead of the incremental change, to solve a problem people thought was impossible.

Science makes the impossible, possible and through collaboration we can unlock this potential.

Collaboration doesn't mean that we always agree, but it means we put all the ideas on the table and work together to come up with the answers. 

It means regardless of how many bright sparks we have around that table, we don’t go the way of Tesla and Edison on a Highway to Hell with ACDC.

Science is the pursuit of truth, we perform our science to the highest standards and deliver the truth to the best of our ability regardless of who funds it. We speak up with one voice to be sure that truth is heard regardless of its popularity or controversy.

Like Edison – we must engage the public and make our science relevant.

Like Tesla – we must stand behind our convictions with courageous commitment.

And in a leadership model for tomorrow, we must learn from what science has taught us for centuries: a thriving ecosystem is a diverse one.

We must embrace a model of leadership that isn’t dictated by gender or experience or point of view, but driven by a commitment to doing good, finding solutions instead of blame, and when in doubt, always listening and learning until the solutions become clear.

That takes more than experiments and data – that takes leadership.

Right now, you are at the cusp of where the game is changing. Where our science is accelerating and expanding, where our world is more connected than ever before, where change is happening faster and faster.

With courses like this you are well equipped to tackle these challenges.

I encourage you to be courageous as you move forward. Believe in yourself and those around you. Be open and adaptable to new ideas, experiences and collaborations.

Write your own story as a leader, not someone else's.

Whether you're an AC fan or a DC fan, or you'd rather talk about nuclear or hydrogen or solar – the power that comes with leadership has to be channeled into every part of your team for you to work as a whole.

When you do, you will electrify those around you, you will catalyse the potential of your teams and you will charge forward with solutions to the greatest challenges for Australia and the world.

[ends]

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