Lessons in leadership

If we could tie the theme of the 42nd annual Property Congress into a nice neat bow, it would come down to one word: leadership.

A record crowd left Hamilton Island last week with stacks of business cards and a big shot of inspiration from a collection of speakers that ranged from former prime ministers to our current Australian of the Year.

“Being a leader is a long list of moments,” said business leader, deputy chair of the ABC and author Dr Kristen Ferguson, starting the high-octane conference with a deep dive into the characteristics of ethical leaders.

The property industry is dependent on “bold courageous leadership” because “the work you do has tangible impacts for generations,” Ferguson argued.

Ferguson examined three case studies – Boeing’s engineering breakdowns that led to two fatal airline crashes, a poor strategy at Nokia that sent shareholder profits into freefall and serious employee misconduct at banking giant Wells Fargo– each a cautionary tale of failures of corporate leadership.

Ferguson urged the audience to recognise the role each of us make in the decision-making of our organisation, and the legacy of our own “personal leadership”.

“It doesn’t matter what your position title is, whether you are the CEO or a team leader. We all have an impact on culture, regardless of what it might say in our business card.

“We talk a lot about lack of trust in institutions, but every institution is made up of a collection of individuals.”

With 1.4 million people working across the property industry, each workday provides countless opportunities for acts of leadership. As the two-day conference unfolded, property luminaries and business trailblazers lined up to provide their insights on steering the industry through the seas of disruption.

For DOMA Group’s managing Jure Domazet, future prosperity would be built on the “very valuable asset” of trust. AMP Capital’s global head of real estate Carmel Hourigan argued that the only way to navigate disruption was through “contestable debate” – and “you can’t have contestable debate without diversity”.

Property legend Greg Paramor AO noted that yesterday’s leadership is now “just what you do”, and that leaders must continue to strive for better and bolder.

Is corporate social responsibility a prerequisite of leadership? Lynette Mayne, co-chair of the B Team Australasia, thinks so. “If you aspire to be a leader, then you have no choice” but to think about people and planet alongside profit, she said.

We heard feisty debate about the future of a big Australia, about “raising the YIMBY voice” to build better cities and the importance of leadership in the metropolitan century.

We heard about four emerging asset classes – hospitals, childcare, student accommodation and data centres – and the rewards awaiting leaders prepared to invest ahead of the curve.

David Speers’ one-on-one with Christopher Pyne unpacked politics, polls and the drivers behind the Coalition’s electoral victory in May. Pyne said the election sent a clear message to Australia’s political leaders. Negative gearing, in particular, was a factor in the election outcome, “because it showed that Labor couldn’t speak ‘aspirationally’ to middle Australia,” he said.

Julia Gillard and David SpeersFormer prime minister Julia Gillard, musing on what inspires women to become leaders, pointed to research which confirms “how much it matters to see someone do it”. Gillard, who now chairs the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership talked about the “stereotypes that are still clearly whispering in our heads” which prevent women from scaling the same career heights as their male counterparts.

AI expert Dr Ayesha Khanna unpacked just some of the smart solutions for human-centric cities. Readying ourselves for an AI-enabled future demanded greater accountability and transparency, because “with great power comes with great responsibility,” she said.

And then, as Congress drew to a close, we gained insights into the selfless leadership of Dr Richard Harris OAM, anaesthesia and aeromedical retrieval medicine expert and 2019 Australian of the Year.

He told of the heroic rescue of 12 boys and their devoted soccer coach, who spent 17 days in a flooded Thai cave before a team of middle-aged cave divers that were more “trainspotter” than “bronze skinned Baywatch hunk” found a way to free them.

Harris’ compelling and courageous account of a rescue against the odds left the audience in awe. He told the audience of the numerous ethical dilemmas he faced as the medic responsible for anaesthetising the boys, and of the nerves of steel required to “commit to a plan I felt had zero per cent chance of succeeding”, when the “alternatives were even worse”.

Harris talked about the strength of teamwork, and the magic that happens when “people come from very different backgrounds, but with a common goal in mind”. Adversity builds resilience, Harris said, echoing the thoughts of many property professionals grappling with today’s challenging market conditions.

Closing the conference, Property Council chief Ken Morrison argued that an exploration of leadership – personal, professional and political – was the perfect theme to celebrate the Property Council’s 50th year.

“We play a leading role in the economy, providing one in four jobs for Australians. We play a leading role in our cities, and we underpin the financial security of households right around the nation.”

Australia’s property leaders – and more than 800 gathered on Hamilton Island – have an enormous opportunity to shape our nation, Morrison concluded.