The Challenge of Leadership


I have been having lots of conversations about leadership among family and friends lately. There’s been a lot of disappointment as well as a few reasons to celebrate. 

These blog essays have focused a lot on the impact of leaders and managers on Disability Inclusion. And a recent essay looked at Champions. 

It’s worthwhile looking at DEN leadership again, to see if my views have changed from 12 months ago – and earlier. 

A reflection on leadership

Management and leadership are not the same thing. Not all managers are leaders, and not all leaders are managers. That is a pity, but that’s what we must live with.

Each function has its own difficulties – both are hard and to be done well must be worked at. 

In saying both are hard, each has a set of capabilities that must be refined through learning, reflecting and mentorship. 

In any contemporary setting we shouldn’t expect anything less – and yet such an approach is so often lacking. 

A bit of history

I joined the DEN when it started in ADHC in July 2010. We elected as Chair Michael Evans, a regional Home Care manager from Albury.  Michael quickly became much beloved of the membership. 

After Michael we had a run of Chairs who were fairly junior – the last one was a grade 5/6. These Chairs lacked Michael’s skills and they were comparatively ineffectual. 

Michael didn’t have just status on his side. As a regional manager he had supervision responsibilities and participated in regional and statewide management meetings. He was also at ease in talking with executives. He had insight into how the department worked and was able to offer good advice to the members. 

When I became DEN Chair in November 2016, I lacked many of Michael’s qualities. I had some to lesser degrees. I had been a manager. I had some insight into how the department worked. I had enough comfort with working with senior staff to form good alliances. 

In late 2019, as I was thinking through who should follow me, I became convinced that DEN Chairs should have management experience and be at grade 9/10 at least. Status, management experience, and ability to confidently engage with seniors are not assurances of success. But they seemed to me to be the essential foundation. 

The disappointments of leaders and managers

Leaders and managers are humans doing difficult jobs to their best ability. Few are likely to win our enduring affection and respect. For the most part we should be grateful that they are not awful. That might seem like a harsh observation, but the reality is that the norm is tolerable and the exceptionally awful and the exceptionally good are rare. Avoiding the exceptionally awful is most important – where possible. 

My point is that very good to great leadership and management is less common than we’d like. It is therefore important to have minimal requirements that can, at the very worst, deliver tolerable results. 

The better the leader/manager the better the chances of getting good outcomes. 

Picking leaders

Most people will have experiences that convince them that recruitment of managers must be fundamentally flawed, given the number of barely tolerable to awful ones who are recruited. 

When it comes to electing leaders, politicians remind us that, once again, the system must be flawed. 

Of course, there’s always the matter of ambition. A lot of folks who aspire to leadership roles are not good leaders in any functional way. Not even the laying out of selection criteria will convince them they do not have the needed skills, experience, and maybe not the developed personal attributes. The outcomes of recruitment processes also demonstrate that selection panels don’t have that insight either. 

Elections exacerbate the problem because voters don’t necessarily have the skills to access candidates, even when voting in their own interests. 

When I came to the DEN chair role I didn’t get there because I was elected. I had been vice Chair and the incumbent Chair had resigned suddenly. I found myself in the job. I wasn’t even given a heads up by the Chair he was about to quit.

At the time the membership had dwindled, and members were frustrated and dispirited because little worthwhile had happened for 4 years. I had the challenge of rebuilding the membership numbers and the DEN’s standing in the department. 

was elected as Chair in early 2018. I had earned that. That was a rare instance of being able to demonstrate on the job that I could be worthy of being elected to the role.

The reality is that we collectively guess whether a person is up to the job. The good thing about elections is that after a time we can change our mind or affirm our choice. The unfortunate thing about recruitment is that we are often stuck with bad choices for a while.


Leading and managing are two hard jobs that can be performed alone or together – but we can’t assume they go together. 

People-leading skills are developed through experience and in the public sector that usually means having a supervisory role as a manager or team leader. 

The ability to have insight into how a department works is usually associated with exposure to decision-making processes and decision-makers and this generally comes with relative seniority. Having a sense of internal culture and politics also helps a great deal. Hence status and grade become important. 

This is not to say that there are people with great leadership potential at junior grades. But potential is not the same thing as established capability. 

A key role should not be a learn-on-the-job opportunity for a person with potential – unless there is great mentoring and coaching available. That rarely happens. Mostly such a role refines existing proven capacity. 

One of my absolute rules as DEN chair was a relentless commitment to professionalism. That meant putting in the hard yards of personal development, listening to sage advice from allies and champions and getting feedback from members. 

When I set up the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team in 2018, I had a bunch of people who kept me grounded, told me off, and provided a constant stream of insight and inspiration. 

Management is about keeping resources aligned to purpose using knowledge, insight, and influence. Leadership is about building relationships of trust and respect to bring people on a shared journey. A leader is often a way finder and a diplomat.

We always do the best we can, but we always must ask whether our best is sufficient at any time – and take action to address the situation when it is not. 

What I have read in the past year’s research, and what I have gleaned from conversations with friends and family affirms my belief that important management and leadership roles must be grounded in assured capabilities, proven personal attributes, experience and wisdom. So often these attributes are not clearly sought for or sufficiently assessed. This serves nobody.

When an interview goes right


Late last year I wrote of a former colleague’s experience of a job interview that went terribly wrong. In the essay I reflected on just how inaccessible and non-inclusive the interview process can be for people who live with anxiety, or who may have a cognitive disability that means they process information at a slower rate than most. Under severe stress conditions their ability to process data can become radically impaired.

I noted that giving an applicant a scant 10 minutes to review questions that can be complex seemed to be an unnecessary thing at the best of times – and catastrophic for some. As my former colleague observed, no equivalent workplace scenario would ever arise – so what was being tested? Worse, questions may be poorly crafted, so that the information sought is neither clear nor straightforward. 

The way things are and why they are nuts

The usual NSW public sector job interview has around 5 questions intended to expose insight and understanding – capability rather than experience, though experience may be used to demonstrate capability. This is neither understood widely, nor adhered to in many cases because the interview panel members are not necessarily competent in using the Capability Index.

Each question is supposed to assess a specific capability. Sometimes one question is made to assess two capabilities, in which case the question can be complex. However, in any case, the questions can be convoluted, elaborate, vague, or merely hard to interpret. There is an art to crafting interview questions.

Let us be kind and suppose a question is clear and concerns only one capability. The standard practice is to allow an applicant around 10 minutes to review the questions – around 2 minutes per question. Is that a reasonable time to review a question concerning at least 6 behavioural indicators? That’s assuming that the candidate has remembered them. 

In most instances it doesn’t matter because the panel hasn’t bothered either. It has been told what the capabilities to be assessed are, but it hasn’t acquainted itself with capability framework. It has, as a result, no method to assess by behavioural indicators. It’s hardly worth noting the capabilities to be assessed if they are not to be applied down to the behavioural level.

At present it usually seems that neither candidate nor panel are using the capability framework in the manner intended. At best this creates inconsistency since either may apply the framework to a greater or lesser degree. A worst-case scenario might be the panel employing the capability framework as intended, but the candidate has no idea that level of rigor is being employed. However, this is unlikely to ever arise.

Even so, what benefit is derived from asking a candidate to engage in a time trial in preparation for an interview? Why not give them 24 hours, or longer? There appears to be an assumption that there is an opportunity to cheat. This is apparent in the requirement for a candidate to surrender their notes made while previewing the questions. Obviously, nobody has thought that through with any care. Most notes are particular to the individual and may also be illegible. 

One would think that at a job interview you’d want a candidate to be at their best, not coming into an interview after a frantic ten minutes of scrawling notes on a page or more. Two minutes per question is ridiculous.

There does appear to be an untested assumption that having 24 hours to review questions will give opportunity to cheat. I am not exactly clear on why this may be the case. It would be a rare instance of an individual seamlessly delivering smooth newly researched responses with only 24 hours’ notice. That’s a lot of work. And maybe a candidate capable of such a feat might be the best person for the job.

Between the CV, the psych assessment, the usual 2 questions and any other requirement for a role there’s plenty of opportunity to detect liars. In sum, I can see no sensible reason why having questions 24 hours or longer in advance of an interview should not be the standard practice in any agency.

This has been the way candidates have been treated for decades. It hasn’t been challenged until inclusion sensitivity has become a focus, and until an adverse experience has been reported.

My previous essay does seem to have been a trigger for some sensitive rethinking about how un-inclusive the usual interview process can be.

Why does this matter?

People with psychological and cognitive disabilities don’t do the 10- or 15-minutes interview question preview session well. In fact, a lot of people don’t, and most would not identify as having a disability. Many people who experience unwanted anxiety do not see what they experience is a disability. To them it’s just part of who they are.

So that means that people who acknowledge a psychological or cognitive disability can ask for a ‘reasonable adjustment’ to get the question 24 hours ahead of the interview. That’s fair and reasonable for them. In my view it’s not fair on others who have an impaired reaction to the speed test but don’t identify as having a disability and so don’t seek a ‘reasonable adjustment’.

A truly inclusive recruitment process would remove the need for a ‘reasonable adjustment’ by making interview questions available 24 hours in advance for everyone.  

Would this increase the risk of cheating? I can’t think of a compelling argument, and I can’t find one. I am open to evidence that such exists. In terms of risk assessment, at present there is no evidence I am aware of that suggests there is an increased risk. In short, I can see no downside to an action that will create a level playing field for candidates with and without declared disabilities

And then there’s the panel

One thing my earlier essay did not cover was the panel. The candidate’s experience might have helpfully included a reflection on encountering the panel. The candidate was not welcomed or helped to relax. Its bad enough that the interview triggered a strong anxiety reaction without the panel failing to attempt to establish rapport and thereby increasing ‘exclusion stress’. A panel’s failure to act inclusively in a warm or welcoming fashion is bad enough under normal circumstances, but it can ramp up anxiety to a catastrophic degree.

The problem here is multi-faceted. First, is the practice of the manager of the team with the vacancy convening the panel. This is problematic for several reasons, the chief one being a natural bias to select people like them (we all do this). The other members of the panel tend to be subservient to the convenor – even the independent. Being an ‘independent’ can simply mean you don’t work in the same team. Its not a role that is clear or delineated, and that can exacerbate pressures for candidates with disability.

The second part of the problem is a lack of expertise in recruitment. Anti-bias training does not work (there is abundant evidence this is the case), so any requirement to complete an online ‘course’ is likely to have zero benefit. And if the panel convenor lacks the interpersonal polish to put a candidate at ease and establish rapport with them, the experience for the candidate can be all downhill from the moment they sit down. So, if they come in stressed, it’s a case of going from bad to worse.

In short, while the focus here is on the interview question review, I must remind the reader that sorting this issue is no assurance that genuine inclusion and accessibility will be an imperative.

How do you seek an adjustment?

Most people dislike the interview process. Those with disabilities they may not want to ‘disclose’ will likely think that the near universal dislike of interviews invalidates their aversion as worthy of consideration.

For this reason, I have argued that interview questions should be provided to all candidates well in advance. This may, however, not solve the problem for people for whom an interview triggers deep anxiety, or for whom verbal communication in such an artificial setting is not a strong point. 

It is difficult to justify why a recruitment process should have pressure points that are artificially created, and which have no relationship to the role. As my former colleague observed, in what part of a role is a person expected to review 4-6 questions in 10 minutes and then deliver a detailed and thoughtful response to each?

In the ‘old days’ job applications got you the interview, and the interview got you the job. That was it. Now there are multiple measures – CV, cover letter, written task, referee reports, as well as the interview. However, the interview is still seen as the clincher – old, bad, habits die hard.

Unless you know you don’t do interviews well and you have the confidence to ask for an adjustment, most people are inclined to equate adjustments to sensory or physical needs. The issue of psychological or cognitive needs is delicate, and maybe worse for an outsider who has no established relationships or reputation – and no idea of the culture.

A structured approach that scores all elements of an application process by a sensible logic should be able to ensure that a poor interview performance is not a deal breaker. But this is rarely employed.

In short, a recruitment process that is inclusively designed should have no need of ‘adjustments’ concerning cognitive or behavioural needs. It will produce better results as well. This has been well argued in research on decision hygiene.

The good news

My former colleague recently applied for a role that would be an important promotion and a validation of their performance over the past 3 years on temporary assignment. They were successful.

The conversation with the panel convenor, their current line manager, was open and respectful around the reason an adjustment was sought for the interview. There was no sense of shame in asking.

The upshot was that an opportunity to review the questions without the artificial stress of a pointless time limit meant the triggering of anxiety didn’t happen to anywhere near the same extent. They confessed a self-generated anxiety triggered by past experiences. This made the initial review of the questions somewhat harrowing. But advantage of time gave them the opportunity to manage their response. By the time of the interview, they were relaxed and confident – something of a surprise to them.

Every candidate deserves the same opportunity to compose themselves.  

The candidate’s thoughts

In a professional setting the high anxiety I experience is actually an asset. It drives me to focus on details, on quality, looking at situations or tasks with a thorough 360-degree assessment. Anxiety pushes me to meet deadlines and heightens my perceptions toward others’ feelings and reactions. With this condition, however, there are a couple of trigger points where in the worst situations it results in overthinking, and loss of composure. 

One of those trigger points is the traditional interview process, where one is placed in an unfamiliar setting with an uncommon level of pressure. The interview process involves a communication process that is not usual in the workspace. And it is run by a senior one barely knows, if at all. The first stage of the interview involves receiving the interview questions which the interviewee must decipher and make notes on in ten minutes. And then, after often a curt introduction, the interviewee is required to give a professional response to each question. This is where I come undone. I overthink the questions, the answers, and my delivery, while attempting to establish rapport, trying to read the panel’s responses, and struggling to maintain the composure I otherwise naturally demonstrate in the workplace.  

At my last interview I requested, and was granted, a reasonable adjustment, a relatively simple one. I was given the questions a day before. The result was extraordinary. It alleviated the pressure on me. It gave me the opportunity to dissect and reflect on the different layers of the questions, and it  enabled me to formulate quality responses. I was then able to present myself at my best, the same natural manner I express on a daily basis. This adjustment was a recognition of me. It was an acknowledgement that as an employee, as a human being, I mattered.


Last Thursday I enjoyed a webinar by the Neuroleadership Foundation on cognitive capacity. As stress/threat levels rise, our ability to process information and formulate effective actions decreases. Under such conditions information complexity and time constraints decrease cognitive capacity. 

In this context an artificial time limit to review interview questions is a condition of high threat. How is that useful when the objective is to assess a candidate’s capabilities? Cognitive control decreases as threat increases.

By putting a candidate under pressure to review questions, which may also be complex or unclear, in a very short time the impact can be cognitive overload. In fact, a more experienced candidate may have an extra struggle to select which of many instances should be used to illustrate their response to an interview question.

It is true that a candidate may have to work with competing priorities and under time pressure in a role. However, the best candidate is going to be the one who demonstrates that they meet the capability requirements, not those who do well in time trials. Capability and knowledge are the foundation of demonstrating the ability to work under pressure with competing priorities.

Interviews are still used as the final filter of a recruitment process. This unfortunate misguided reliance on only one element of a recruitment process means that the element most vulnerable to disruption by disability is also the most vital. There is no time limit to prepare a CV or respond to the focus questions. There are, of course, necessary time constraints on the psychological assessment and the interview – both more than 10-15 minutes. But they are not designed to create a time stress in response.

The review of interview questions is uniquely constrained by a very short time for which no apparent rational explanation has been crafted – beyond “That’s how we have always done it.”

Advanced opportunity to review the questions disadvantages nobody and puts candidates with psychological and cognitive disabilities on the same level as other candidates.

Selection is supposed to be based on merit. Unless a cogent argument affirming that 10 minutes to review interview questions contributes to demonstration of merit can be effectively asserted the practice must cease. Evidence that it impedes demonstration of merit is plain by the fact an adjustment can be sought and can be granted.

There’s a lot wrong with current recruitment methods in terms of assuring inclusivity, in my view. Here’s one thing that is an easy fix, and which can make recruitment considerably more inclusive for people with declared disabilities, and those who do not identity as having a disability, but who still struggle at the interview stage. 

Adjustments are necessary only when a setting is not inclusive. Recruitment methods must aim to be inclusive and accommodate adjustment requests only when inclusivity is not possible.

On a wider scope there is a great need to review the inclusivity of recruitment practices. This includes moving away from unsupervised DIY recruitment by team or unit managers and ensuring that there are genuine and skilled independents. I am aware of the counter arguments – which are resource based. Inclusivity is a learned skill, and you can’t use a resource-based argument to side-step or off-load responsibility for actual inclusivity.

Even providing (well thought through and effective) training to DEN members as a pool of skilled independents for panels when candidates with disability are participating would be a good first, but small, step.

Research into decision making hygiene suggests that a standard scoring and assessment method should be employed by all panels. This would include ranking all candidates by each element of the selection process separately. Such an approach would ensure that the interview is not the deal maker/breaker. It would require all panels to be accountable for their assessments and scoring and ensure that there is an accountable and transparent record of decision making.

There’s a lot of work to do.

Truth telling, authenticity, and psychological safety


Over the past week I have had some fascinating and sometimes challenging conversations. They were not all about disability or inclusion. But they were all about personal authenticity, the presumption of knowledge and rectitude, and the creation of psychological safety.

Some conversations concerned the failure of ostensibly supported actions to manifest as outcome focused activity. Two things seemed to be happening. One is that people were saying things expected of them but acted as if they personally believed a contrary thing. The other is people in positions of power and influence were interpreting the lived experience of others in ways not shared by the experiencer.

These apparent contradictions have become baked into the way things are done. The personally held belief may be shared by colleagues, as is the reinterpretation of the lived experience. The result is that inauthentic words and actions are afforded a gloss of acceptability because there is an appearance of conformity with required sentiment.

In the politics of inclusion this situation is often experienced by those seeking inclusion. They hear the words, which sound good. They see initial actions, which appear to be heading in the right direction – and then nothing meaningful happens.

Not everybody really agrees

One of the things that has been intriguing me over the past year or so, as I immersed myself in the field of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI), is that it should be really apparent that beyond the pressure to be PC a lot of people really do not agree that DEI merits the level of commitment that its proponents demand. But they can’t say that openly. So, they act as if they do agree – and then undermine efforts at change.

This is okay. At least that’s honest. But why not say so up front? That would be suicidal for a person’s career. The demand for good DEI outcomes has created a kind of paradoxical tyranny which forces dissent underground. That’s a problem – because this dissent is so often expressed by people in power positions.

The reader might be puzzled by this assertion. But here’s the reality. There is a surface appearance of pro DEI sentiment – which may be thoroughly genuine in the majority. But if that’s the case, how do we account for the apparent ineptitude in turning that goodwill into powerful and positive outcomes?

I have argued that Inclusion is complex and difficult – but not so much that it takes year after year of things not happening despite efforts to bring about positive changes. I have argued that there are people in power positions who elect to exempt themselves from agreed standards of behaviour – bullying is the best/worst example.

The reality is that some folk, for whatever reasons, do not agree with the full spectrum of DEI goals. They will not say so openly, but their actions tell the real story.

How can you make a situation psychologically safe for a dissenter – and should you?

A few years ago, I was in a meeting on figuring out ways to increase the representation of people with disability in roles within the department. I suggested identified roles. The response was not enthusiastic. In fact, I detected a sense of alarm. I wanted to discuss, but nobody else did and the matter was closed out.

I understood the concerns and objections, and I wanted to explore them. It was an option we had to explore. What was interesting was that I could not get a conversation going, beyond a few vague expressions of doubt. 

What was the problem? It was saying no to identified positions looked like saying no to people with disability – and nobody wanted to be seen to be doing that. The answer was to make the problem go away by pretending it wasn’t there – and by promising to ‘look into’the matter and not getting around to it. This is a popular tactic. It works very well. Nobody has said “No.” But they have deftly ensured that “Yes.” won’t happen.

Here’s my position now, as a person with disability. If I want to claim the right to psychological safety to tell my story and bring my whole self to work, why would I want to create an environment in which another person cannot have the same right?

I have a personal commitment to DEI. But I have to acknowledge that I have self-righteously excluded people I disagree with. Diversity must include dissenters. Disagreeing is one thing. Refusing to have a conversation is another. Making conversations or meetings not psychologically safe for them to express their dissent is not inclusive. It is not equitable. It is not just.

Cultures, communities, and organisations have a duty to set the standards of conduct and values by which they function. We have done this by declaring the DEI principles are esteemed. But we may not declare that there is only one standard, a line drawn in the sand, by which all responses are assessed.

Getting to where we want to be

We are a diverse and uneven lot. Even if we are in favour of something our response will not be uniform. I was in favour of not smoking, but I couldn’t quit. There were times when even cutting down was hard.

In the spectrum of diversity there are many reasons why not everybody is equally supportive of every proposition. Should we not allow those who might favour a proposition to some extent express their reservations, doubts, fears? To insist that dissenters have no valid voice is to do exactly what we have objected to. We do not gain our voice by denying others theirs.

Too often in this age of social media dissenters are abused by self-righteous mobbers. It is an unforgiving spirit to demand respect for one’s own position by denying any dissent as morally and intellectually deficient.

This is a problem with moral causes. Those who assert they are on firm ground insist, wrongly, that being there is virtuous, rather than fortuitous. They also insist that those not standing with them are against them. Also, not true. I stood with anti-smokers in spirit, but I could not join them in the flesh.

We are all going in the same direction, at different rates, and some walking straight while others meander or grope their way in a shared direction. A few haven’t moved much at all. Perhaps they have a disability?

The errors of passionate advocacy

Undermining agreed actions is not a good thing. But if it’s a code for not feeling psychologically safe to dissent that makes the ‘good’ the oppressors. A self-perception that one is in the right can quickly turn an advocate into a psychological bully.

People who hold nuanced views on topics they largely agree with will be silent in face of strong moral heat from an advocate. When faced with the ‘all in or all out’ option a person holding a more subtle position may be forced to an ‘all in’ posture to signal broad support. But they will push for a more nuanced response out of sight. They can be accused of betraying ‘the cause’ when all they are doing is applying insight and maybe wisdom. True, some do betray the good intent they express. But they are few.

This creates a disastrous situation. The nuanced vision may be the best way of moving forward for a range of pragmatic reasons. But there’s no way of exploring it and refining it with the critical stakeholders. The opportunity for honest conversation is shut down because an advocate is perceived to be uncompromisingly unwilling to hear a nuanced point of view.

Of course, there are other interpretations. The nuanced position may in fact be a form of dissent that is not just. But that makes the need for honest conversation more compelling.

Passionate advocates may be justly aggrieved. But the heat of their personal feelings may also blind them to the complexities of their cause. Nuanced supporters maybe misguided in reservations because they are unaware of the realities of lived experience.

It can be that nobody in a stakeholder group (power holders, decision makers, service providers or service recipients) knows enough to understand motives, means, needs, or risks, to have an overview – a shared vision. Such a group will talk internally, but only openly with those who share their positions – not as a whole. 

The opportunity for open and honest conversation cannot be grasped until there is a capacity for psychologically safe engagement. This includes the right to express grief and pain and the right to disagree or dissent.

It is harder for the advocate/service recipient/person with lived experience to be successful if their case is expressed with moral heat. Resolution of disagreement or dissent can come only from ‘giving permission’ for disagreement or dissent to be expressed safely.


Good intent comes in degrees and is mostly unschooled. It must be nurtured. Advocates for the dispossessed and disempowered can see themselves as ‘social justice warriors’ or as gardeners. This was brought home to me recently as I was reading Paul Callaghan’s The Dreaming Path. Paul is a Worimi man with a diverse professional background who now runs Callaghan Cultural ConsultancyWorimi country extends from Foster/Tuncurry south to Port Stephens on the New South Wales coast.

In the Dreaming Path Paul alludes to an idea I have encountered in other Indigenous cultures – that Europeans are ‘little brothers’ relative to those whose ways have been established many millennia. Youth is a dangerous period. It is the most violent period. There is a lot of energetic pride and ignorance. The best of intents can be ineffectual or even harmful. Those we oppose may be innocently causing grief – a situation not remedied by passion or anger.

When I became DEN Chair in November 2016, I committed to an approach I described as being relentlessly positive and professional. Talking truth to power was only part of the equation. Listening to power talking truth back was also essential. Getting it to talk back honestly was difficult.

Power isn’t the enemy and seeking redress for past wrongs is not the cause. We are all on the same side (aside from a very few). We have, in a sense, a common enemy – silence. That exists when there is no psychologically safe relationship that can accommodate advocacy and disagreement – real truths, not the masks we think we must wear.

I have had time these days to catch up books in my must read one day pile. One such was Waldon by Henry David Thoreau. It is an extraordinarily beautiful book by a poet philosopher of incomparable spirit. In the book Thoreau described human progress not as a battleline of soldiers advancing but more like a community streaming to church on a Sunday morning. He noted elsewhere “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

In the context of DEI, we must allow that we are going in the same direction but not at the same pace and with the same intent or understanding. For advocates of DEI, regardless of their specific cause, the challenge is to nurture that progress for each person or group we want to influence. We can do that only by enabling and fostering truth telling through personal authenticity in an atmosphere of psychological safety.

This is not easy. It takes effort, courage, and (as I continue to discover) constant rethinking of what we imagine to be so.

Power damages our capacity for compassion and empathy


Long time readers will be aware that I had an abiding curiosity about why some organisational leaders do not appear to be as keen on Disability Inclusion as their staff with disability are. It is tempting to discover and cling to an explanation that these leaders lack the moral wherewithal to back their talk with inclusive and compassionate walk. 

The importance of the role of organisational leaders in sponsoring and fostering Disability Inclusion is beyond dispute, so getting the answer to the ‘why’ question is vitally important. And that is proving to be a complex process. There simply isn’t any one discrete reason. Yes, some leaders may not be sincerely behind Disability Inclusion. But the majority appear to be genuinely supportive.

The essays in this blog are chipping away at the mystery of the slowness of inclusion in general progressively. This is one more piece in the mosaic of understanding.

On Thursday June 2nd the Neuroleadership Institute had a webinar: Leading Effectively in a Hybrid World: Surveillance vs Outcomes. While discussing manager perspective on remote supervision there was an almost passing reference to power. My notes say “Power (even a little bit) changes brain/ behaviour – leads to objectification of people.” This merited a closer look.

Power is something we need to adapt to

There’s a fair bit of material on this theme on the internet and I was quickly able to download articles. There are two I will discuss here. Typically, the articles are short and hence focused on the more spectacular findings. These amount to asserting that power creates brain states similar to psychopathy and instances where brain damage leads to a lack of empathy. There was only brief reference to a need to ensure that managers are aware of the impact of power, and to adapt to it.

The very nature of positional or organisational power is to be less concerned with individuals and more concerned with organisational scale matters. And not all people in power positions will exhibit a lack of empathy and compassion. 

Whatever might be a power-induced disposition to be less compassionate can be overcome by a stronger natural disposition toward compassion and empathy. But here’s the rub. Suppose a senior leader retains their natural compassion and empathy (and I can think of quite a few from my own direct experience who do), how do they know that this applies down through their executives and managers? (I know instances where it does not).

Essentially, unless you are specifically aware of the risk of objectification that arises from attaining a position of power, you can’t create a culture that mitigates the risks. This is important for two reasons. 

First, people on the more toxic end of the psychopathy spectrum, and people who have unresolved emotional baggage, will find objectification and a lack of empathy a comfortable place to be. The reaction triggered by gaining power can be comforting and affirming.

Second, people in power positions who are apt to be abusive will still seem okay if the leadership group’s culture unconsciously accepts objectification and a lack of compassion as part of that leadership culture. Psychopaths frequently seek leadership/management roles – and now we can see that their lack of empathy may be less remarkable in a power position.

I have noted previously that managers and executives can form an ingroup relative to which subordinates are members of an outgroup – and vice versa. While organisational status plays a role, the brain science of power may be the defining insight that creates a hard boundary between two groups that are really playing on the same team.

To demonstrate just how reflexive and potent this potential for division can be, I was talking with a friend who had attended a leadership development program for Aboriginal people run by the NSW Public Service Commission. He described how the grade 9/10 and above participants were placed in a separate grouping from the Grade 7/8s. He perceived that the privileged group was given better quality facilities. There was, in effect, a division between those already seen to have power, and those who did not. That separation was assumed to be the right, and best, thing to do.

On the assumption that the brain science research on the impact of power is valid, we must have a shared discourse on the theme. It is not just power position holders who must be aware of how their brains are operating. The comparatively powerless must also understand that the unconscious behaviours of their managers and executives might be causing conduct that’s just not okay. It’s just not intentional. A shared understanding may be a first step in finding a solution to the problem.

Using power for good

This is something psychologically healthy people want to do. But they will be limited by the degree to which they are aware of how their brains respond to power. Ideally, they will have the capacity to make self-aware adjustments to their engagement with subordinate staff.

There is abundant research that shows that merely being aware of an issue can convince some that they have mastered it – when they have not. Anti-bias training has made participants more aware of bias, but not less biased. In fact, some end up more biased. There is a fundamental difference between intellectual awareness and self-awareness.

The majority of people who aspire to positions of power desire to do good. But that does not mean that aspiration will always manifest to the same measure of the intent. It does take a fair degree of self-awareness to ensure that aspiration and actuality coincide.

Selected quotes

Power Causes Brain Damage 

Jerry Useem

The Atlantic

“Historian Henry Adams was being metaphorical, not medical, when he described power as “a sort of tumour that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies.” But that’s not far from where Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, ended up after years of lab and field experiments. Subjects under the influence of power, he found in study spanning two decades, acted as if they had suffered a traumatic brain injury- becoming more impulsive, less risk averse, and, crucially, less adept at seeing things from other people‘s point of view.”

“Sukhvinder Obhi, a neuroscientist at McMaster University, in Ontario, recently described something similar. Unlike Keltner, who studies behaviours, Obhi studies brains. And when he put the heads of the powerful and not-so-powerful under a transcranial magnetic stimulation machine, he found that power, in fact, impairs a specific neural process, “mirroring”, that may be a cornerstone of empathy. Which gives a neurological basis to what Keltner has termed the “power paradox”: Once we have power, we lose some of the capacity as we needed to gain it in the first place.”

“But more importantly, Kelton says, is fact that the powerful stop mimicking others. Laughing when others laugh or tensing when others tense does more than ingratiate. It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they’re coming from. Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” Keltner says, which leads to what he calls an “empathy deficit.”

Mirroring is a subtle kind of mimicry that goes on entirely within their heads, and without our awareness. When we watch someone perform an action, the part of the brain we would use to do that same thing lights up in sympathetic response. It might be best understood as vicarious experience. It’s what Obhi and his team were trying to activate when they had their subjects watch a video of someone’s hand squeezing a rubber ball.

For nonpowerful participants, mirroring works fine: The neural pathway they would use to squeeze the ball themselves fires strongly. But for the powerful groups? Less so. 

Was the mirroring response broken? More like anaesthetized. None of the participants possessed permanent power. They were college graduates who had been “primed” to feel potent by recounting an experience in which they had been in charge. The anesthetic would presumably wear off when the feeling did – their brains weren’t structurally damaged after an afternoon in the lab. But if the effect had been long-lasting say, by dint of having Wall Street analysts whispering their greatness quarter after quarter, board members offering them extra helpings of pay, and Forbes praising them for “doing well while doing good” they may have what in medicine is known as “functional” changes to the brain.”

“As Susan Fiske, a Princeton psychology professor, has persuasively argued, power lessens the need for a nuanced read of people, since it gives us command of resources we once had to cajole from others. But of course, in a modern organization, the maintenance of that command relies on some level of organizational support. And the sheer number of examples of executive hubris that bristle from the headline suggest many leaders cross the line into counter-productive folly.”

“Is there nothing to be done? No and yes. It’s difficult to stop power’s tendency to affect your brain. What’s easier – from time to time, at least – is to stop feeling powerful.”

“Insofar as it affects the way we think, power, Keltner reminded me, is not a post or a position but a mental state. Recount a time you did not feel powerful, his experiments suggest, and your brain can commune with reality.”

The Brain Under the Influence of Power

Marwa Azab

Psychology Today

“Ordinary people can get intoxicated by power or powerful roles. Just temporarily wearing a power-symbolizing uniform can re-code brain processes to create a new mindset.” 

(The infamous 1971 Stanford university experiment is perhaps the most compelling example of this)

“The brains of powerful individuals react differently to social cues in ways that resemble psychopaths or patients with frontal brain damage. Psychopaths and some patients with brain damage lack empathy and the ability to take others’ perspectives. Research has shown that power can deform the brain to act in the same ways. For example, people with high status have been shown to be less accurate in judging the emotions of people with low status.”

“Astonishingly, this “mirroring” vanishes in people under the influence of power. Just priming the participant with power (writing about an incident in which you had power) decreased the mirroring of others’ actions. This creates an asymmetry in relationships between the powerful and the powerless. In other words, the powerless are more attentive to the uniqueness of the powerful, and the powerful perceive the powerless in accordance the general stereotypes … Some researchers called this the default effect of power resulting in “reduced interpersonal sensitivity”… A myriad of research has shown that powerful people are more likely to rely on stereotypes.”

“The brain under the influence of power in individualistic societies seems to de-individuate the powerless and allow the powerful to practice full individuation. Successful leaders in such societies succeed not because they are powerful, but because they understand the importance of acknowledging the uniqueness of every person blind to their power status. Leaders should be trained on how to do disambiguate power from true leadership.”

The impact of lack of empathy

I recently watched a webinar from the Neuroleadership Institute on employee engagement. There was some data I found compelling:

  • Only 25% of employees felt empathy in their organization was okay.
  • 68% of CEOs feared they would lose respect if they showed empathy.
  • 70% of CEOs admitted it was hard from them to show empathy when at work.

There’s a clear message in this data. People in positions of power may feel obliged to appear to be unempathic, and even act in an unempathic manner, to have respect as a leader. Power and empathy are seen not to mix. But is that what staff think? Or is it what leaders imagine to be necessary?


As research into our brains and our psychology advances our understanding, we are constantly reminded that we are not as aware of how we behave as we like to think.

People in positions of power in organisations are a mixed lot. Some do power well, and others handle power awfully. A nuanced understanding of how power is used and abused – and that it can be misused unconsciously to catastrophic effect – is essential in a contemporary organisation.

Changes in organisational culture are dependent on empathic leadership for success.  They can be better supported if there is insight into the mechanisms inherent in individuals and organisations that impede the desired progress.

If attaining positions of power innately leads to a reduction in empathy, knowing that this is the reality can make a huge difference in how leaders intentionally shape organisational cultures.

This also helps those who are not in positions of formal organisational power to more accurately interpret the reasons why things are not happening as desired.

For staff with disability, understanding how and why people in power positions behave in response to expressed concerns about disability inclusion can help guide how best to engage with them.

The Power of champions


I had a chat with Brendan Roach, Director of Strategy & Networkology with PurpleSpace recently and he followed up with a couple of documents. One was the Purple Champion Leadership Model.

One of the things I love about PurpleSpace is the idea of Networkology – a disciplined, dare one say a ‘scientific’, approach to Disability Inclusion. Enthusiastic amateurs are always welcome, but at some stage it is necessary to transition to a clear strategic approach using the best tools available.

This document is brief, but it lays out key ideas on how to build a solid foundation in an organisation from which to grow efforts at Disability Inclusion successfully – engaging Champions.

I am not going to repeat the contents of the document. I will focus on the two key themes – leadership and essential competences. The document has “Nine steps to success” – 5 of which concern leadership and 4 are about “core competencies”.


The 5 leadership elements are:

  • Champions / executive sponsors don’t just ‘like’ the role. They ‘love’ the role
  • Leadership strength is at the core
  • Trusted leadership
  • Courageous leadership: challenges, restless, vulnerable
  • Authentic leadership: whole self, listens, shares

The critical thing is that executive leaders who are Champions or sponsors must be committed to their roles as champions for staff with disability. But for this to happen the organisation’s executive leadership team must welcome and positively support being challenged to extend its thinking about, and response to Disability Inclusion challenges.

This is often a misunderstood element in an organisation’s expressed commitment to Disability Inclusion. Without the executive leadership team’s unequivocal backing of Champions as necessary change agents two things risk happening:

  • Champions are forced to choose between their career-related standing in the organisation and their commitment to Disability Inclusion.
  • Without the confidence of the executive leadership team the Champion will not be trusted, become less engaged and end up not being trusted by staff with disability as well. There is a fundamental difference between counselling a wiser approach by the ERG/DEN and hosing down efforts at driving change.

Organisational culture at leader/manager level is not necessarily in favour of change. Normal work demands are high, so changes outside those seen as critical and necessary may be resisted. Cultures are generally change resistant in any case. So, any Champion is going to have deal with that resistance. If they are performing their roles well as Champions, they will need their skills of persuasion and diplomacy to be finely honed.


This is where the 4 core competences come into play:

  • Attitudes – the Champion has a clear awareness of the attitudes and values they need to be effective Champions
  • Skills – they have the skills to do perform the role effectively
  • Knowledge – they understand the issues about Disability Inclusion and opportunities to drive essential change
  • They understand the power of networks – DENs or ERGs have great potential – if fostered well.

These competences are the essence of Networkology for me. Though they apply in this context to Champions they apply to key members in ERGs/DENs as well. But the key consideration here is that executives tend to have a more sophisticated understanding of the challenges of driving change. Hence these competencies are not merely ‘nice to have’, they are essential.

The opportunities for change

When I became DEN Chair in late 2016 the then Secretary (Michael Coutts-Trotter) said he expected that the DEN Chair would be a “pain in the arse” at times. He understood that changing attitudes and practices did not come easy. It was critical to have that spirit at the very top of the organisation.

Even great champions will struggle without that. I was lucky in that Anne Skewes was later nominated as Executive DEN Champion. Anne was a Deputy Secretary, so having her presence in the most senior leadership team added a lot to her role as Champion. Her commitment to the Disability Inclusion cause was such that she fitted all 5 of PurpleSpace’s leadership attributes perfectly.

When Kate Nash, PurpleSpace’s CEO and founder, spoke at the Australian Network on Disability’s (AND) 2018 Annual National Conference I was inspired. So, there was a methodology – a network methodology – Networkology.

At that time the key elements for success were being assembled. The department’s executive leadership team was open and responsive. The executive DEN champion was ideal for the role. The Diversity and Inclusion team was actively supportive. The only thing that was lacking was the energy staff with disability were able to devote.

The DEN had been working on an old model of quarterly meetings that lasted most of a day. I quickly saw that Disability Inclusion is not something you do only 4 days a year business. You don’t get change that way.

Having a responsive senior leadership team and a great Champion doesn’t mean much if you don’t take advantage of the opportunity. Something had to change. The first change came in the form of the DEN’s Guidance and Action Team (GAT) – 14 volunteers who generated an ongoing conversation – on a daily basis. The GAT met separately, eventually for a day 4 times a year – the day ahead of the regular DEN meeting – as a consultative body engaging with the department. This was encouraging because the GAT members came from regional centres as well, so the Department had to pay for travel and accommodation – which it did.

The second change came with the setting up of roundtables – where staff with disability spoke to leadership teams about the experience of work with a disability.

The third change was the increase in the number of Champions from just the one executive champion to over 60. This led to the 4th change – communication via newsletters and updates.

The sum total of these changes was a radical increase in the energy invested in the commitment to change. The DEN had to deliver results for the investment – that included travel and accommodation costs and a 2-day facilitated workshop for the GAT. Around 7 months after I stepped down from the DEN Chair role in March 2020 the Board offered the next Chair the opportunity to become a full time DEN Chair. That was a radical commitment to Disability Inclusion.

It is clear to me that benefitting from such a commitment requires 3 things to be in alignment:

  • The Champion meets the criteria set out in the PurpleSpace document
  • The senior executive leadership team of an organisation is fully and actively committed to Disability Inclusion across the organisation
  • The ERG/DEN is energised to take advantage of the support provided in a strategic and dynamic way.


Champions are vital for the success of driving Disability Inclusion, and the PurpleSpace guide is the neatest summation of the attributes a Champion needs. I had the privilege of working with two outstanding Champions. Paul O’Reilly was the other.

But without the senior leadership team’s openness to being challenged to do more, and without staff with disability taking active advantage the opportunities provided by effective Champions their potential can be squandered.

The discovery of Networkology was a critical development for me. There is a skill and a discipline, indeed an art, that can be applied to driving Disability Inclusion. Champions sit within that methodology. Having a great Champion doesn’t mean much if none of the other elements of a coherent method are in place.

You can get your copy of the Purple Champion Leadership Model.