Sally talks Self-Leadership with Victor Perton

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Victor Perton
Chief Optimism Officer, The Centre for Optimism

I ask people what makes them optimistic. I am the Chief Optimism Officer for The Centre for Optimism.

The purpose? To help everyone and anyone become more optimistic. To foster “realistic and infectiously optimistic leaders.”

My underpinning beliefs are “The leader looks like the person in your mirror” & “All good leadership is optimistic.”

I am the author of “Optimism: The How and Why” and “The Case for Optimism: The Optimist’s Voices”. I am the Founder and Editor of “The Australian Leadership Project”.

I am an author, speaker, compère, moderator, barrister and researcher. I moderate roundtables and retreats, deliver keynote speeches, conference panels and one-to-one coaching. For the right causes, I undertake CEO & board searches with optimistic leadership as the sought-after quality.

For the last two years, I have delivered keynote speeches and run many workshops on how to become more optimistic, optimistic leadership, strategy and innovation. I have given workshops in prison, schools, universities, boards, corporates, NGOs, conferences and retreats from Madrid to India to Phoenix, from Australia to New Zealand and the USA face-to-face and via video and social media.

My LinkedIn peers rate me highly for leadership & strategy, international relations, public policy, corporate governance and public relations. My professional qualifications & experience include law, economics, education, technology, innovation & environment.

My life experience includes stints as Commissioner to the Americas, 18 years a parliamentarian, practice as a barrister, mediator, arbitrator, businessman and board service. I was a Senior Engagement Adviser to the Australian G20 presidency focused on the G20 Finance Ministers & Central Bank Governors Meetings & the Brisbane G20 Leaders Summit described by the Prime Minister as “the most important gathering Australia has ever hosted.”


Connect / Follow Victor on LinkedIn.


#selfleadership #optimism #confidence #influence #courage #leadership #australia

The leader looks like the person in your mirror.

Self-leadership is about reflection and understanding the power you wield over yourself and other people.

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Interview Transcript

– Hello, it’s Sally Foley-Lewis here with another episode in the Spark Self-Leadership Series. And I’m absolutely tickled orange to be hanging out with Victor Perton, who is the Chief Optimism Officer. I love that job title, Chief Optimism Officer for the Centre of Optimism. So welcome, Victor.

– Oh look, thank you, Sally. And I think we’ve had a lot of people ask us, “what are the job specs for recruiting a chief optimism officer?” And we’ve had people declare themselves chief optimism officers. And today, I had a lovely man send me what he’d done today. Now, LinkedIn allows you to put pronouns after your name, and the pronoun he put after his name was “optimist.” So I imitated him in doing that.

– Ah, brilliant. I love that, I love that. Love that. Tell us, just before I grill you on self-leadership, what’s the Centre for Optimism?

– Look, it grew out of it an earlier project. So I went to the United States just at the beginning of the GFC, and as Trade Commissioner and Foreign Direct Investment Commissioner across North and South America. And what was wonderful was, of course, people still eat, and they still drink, and they still love Australian food and Australian booze. And everywhere I went, there was this incredible, positive stereotype of Australians. So the Chairman of Caterpillar, for instance, said to me, “you Aussies remind me of the Americans of 100 years ago. Nothing is impossible.” The truckee on Route 66, hearing my accent, “I love that fosters of yours. so my work was made easy through that positive stereotype of Australians. And then after that, I became senior advisor to the Australian G 20 presidency. And at that super elite level of presidents, prime ministers, central bank governors, finance ministers, it was exactly the same. There’s complete trust in us in Aussies. And then in 2015, I came back to Melbourne and I was astonished by the negativity. It was like the only people in the world who didn’t get the quality of Australian leadership were Australians themselves. So Robin complained about the complaints as I set up the Australian leadership project and we interviewed over two years, 2,500 people, and the qualities of Australian leadership, and these won’t surprise you cause you’re an expert in the field. But what distinguishes an Australian leader from a global leader is a egalitarianism. We’re off the Richter scale for the requirement you’d treat the cleaner with the same respect you trade the chairman that our prime minister sits in the front of the car and at the back of the car. And then self-effacing humour, you know that smiling, the laughter. We told jokes against ourselves whilst taking our work seriously. And then the third one is no bullshit plain speaking. Now, those are the three qualities of Australian leadership, I mean, you’ve spent time today with dozens of people, we could walk out your door and ask people at random about their qualities and still get 50/50. And so at the end of the two years, I was still bewildered. Why are these Aussies so negative about their own leadership? And my Eureka moment came at the global integrity summit in 2017. Where after three days of misery on prisoners of conscience and press freedom and unrelenting negativity, I was on the final panel with the topic, the case for optimism. Well subsequently Helen Clark, who was then the head of the UMD pay, the former New Zealand prime minister said, turn that into a book and I will endorse that Vic. So we did that. And that started off a whole range of public speaking engagements from Madrid, Phoenix, New Zealand, and then it 2019 Victorian government minister asked me to do something. And without taking the story to lungs, we’ve only got limited time. Basically our exchange was, he said, what could the government pick the Putin himself can’t globally? And I thought, well, you’re right. And that night, the centre for optimism was born very quickly. Our global board came together, people enthusiastic business base. And we now have, even though we opened one month before COVID and our shop of optimism was the shortest lived shop of optimism because we waved into the longest lockdown in human history. But we now have 5,000 members and subscribers in 63 countries. Now I will admit there’s only one in Bulgaria and there’s only three in the Congo, but at least we have three in the Congo helping to lead with optimism.

– And you’re gonna start somewhere.

– Exactly.

– That’s brilliant Victor. I love it. Yeah. Thank you for sharing. And I think that gives that history gives us good insight into not just what it is, but why it is. And I think that’s really, that’s really important.

– Well, it’s the connectivity with what you do. you are there to help people in leadership and self leadership and even the practical stuff of delegation. So it was interesting, this confounding notion of the negativity and the lack of confidence of Australians in their own leadership, because our philosophy is that the leader looks like the person in your mirror. And usually when I start a presentation, I say to the people there, I want you all to promise to take red lipstick like you’re wearing and graffiti your mirror. The leader looks like the person in your mirror. And so this has been popping up all over corporate Australia around the world. Graffiti mirrors, reminding people of your message, Sally, that the leader looks like the person in your mirror in my mirror.

– Love it. I love it. Thank you. So then tell me from your perspective and from your experience and insight and the work you’ve done, what is self leadership to you?

– For me, it is a lot about reflection, understanding the power you wield over yourself and what you wield over other people. So I’ve created a pattern. There’s a time management process I have, which was given to me by a woman who was then in her nineties, the leader of the biggest women led religious movement in the world, daddy janky from the Brahma Kumaris. And she gave me three rules of time management. The first one being is that if you’re invited to do something, will it bring you great joy? Well, if you can do it, do it. The second one is, is the invitation something that will advance you and your organisation, then do it. The third one of course, is if something you must do, and that answers itself. But she said that everything else is a waste of time. Everything else should be a no. And then I saw my pattern in the morning is to review my diary. And as she advised again, as if God was looking over my shoulder is what you’re doing essential? Is what you’re doing advancing or is it a waste of time? So that helps me with my time management, those three lovely rules from a woman who until she was in her hundreds, we’re still running that organisation. And in her late nineties, still hopping on a plane and giving a 45 minute speech to people. The reign of the reflection on self leadership is again at the end of the day. And I love Seligman’s three blessings. So at the end of the day, as you’re heading to bed, or if you’ve got a family, you might do it over the dinner table. What are the three best things in the day? And the trick with that, that thing is if you write it down rather than the centre of the news in the morning, or watch the news, the first thing you do, whether you’re sitting on the toilet or having a coffee or a tea is reread the three blessings from yesterday and often people will flip back and that helps to lift you. So for me, self-leadership is very much about reflection. My friend, John Hagle wrote a brilliant book called the power of Paul, which was my number one book of the last decade. And he talks about the passion of the Explorer. So every day I’m reading new stuff, I use clipping services, social media to learn something new, and then to share that. And then my fundamental piece of work, Sally is to ask what makes you optimistic? I mean, asking that question of other people, it becomes very clear to you in your learning from those people. You learn more about yourself. So I’m gonna be cheeky and throw out a question to you, Sally, what makes you optimistic?

– What makes me optimistic is when I see well, many things, but the first thing that came into my mind was that when I know I’ve been of service, when I know that the people that I work with, the people that I’m maybe presenting from stage, when I see their eyes light up, that there’s that almost nanosecond moment when they got it and it doesn’t matter whether it was exactly what I said or it was the interpretation of what I said or wherever they went for them. That moment I see it in the eye. It’s like, that’s what brings me joy. That’s what lights me up. That’s what tells me and brings me optimism, but tells me I’ve been of service. So yeah.

– That’s brilliant. We did a workshop on optimism at the human resources summit last week. And as was only a little workshop and yet one of the biggest human resources companies in the country said, their people’s favourite part of that entire summit was that little workshop on optimism. And you’re just grinning from ear to ear knowing you’d done something.

– Yeah. Precisely. I wanna get then your link from self-leadership to optimism. How does self leadership impact optimism or the other way around? What’s your take on that?

– Optimism is the underpinning of so much. So when I was doing the Australian leadership project, I’ve interviewed Dominic Barton, who was then the worldwide head of the Kinsey who spent a lot of time with leaders. And Dominic said to me, every great leader I’ve ever met is infectiously optimistic, but it’s not the big man or woman at the podium telling people why they should be optimistic. It’s the person who can unlock the optimism in the team from the youngest to the oldest, from the most experienced to the most inexperienced. And funny enough, Robert Iger the head of Disney who restored the fortunes of Disney, published his book on leadership and his autobiography last year. And he had 10 factors for contemporary 2020s leadership. Well, I wouldn’t be quoting. And if his first one wasn’t realistic and infectiously optimistic leadership. So optimism is at the core of 2020s leadership, and particularly coming through COVID where people are exploring hybrid. People are reluctant to come back to the office. it’s the optimistic leader who will win through, and we’ve done some really heavyweight research on strategy and optimism. Strategy professionals around the world. Believe that strategy processes should be optimistic because you want the organisation to be better at the end of the strategic period than at the beginning. And that has to be..

– I just wanna jump in on that pace there, sorry, Victor, because what you’re saying, or my take on what you’re saying is without optimism, then, how do you drive that strategy? And we all know the famous quote that culture eats strategy for breakfast. So, that’s kind of it’s a no brainer in a lot of ways that we should be looking for ways to inject more optimism authentically. I mean, you know here have your optimism is not ever gonna work, but that I’d totally see that link, absolutely, yeah.

– Well, if I can add to that then, because you’ll be interested in the stats. So of the 400 strategy professionals we interviewed now global 90% said that optimism it should be at the same trilogy of strategy. Only 60% of that 90% believed they had been in an optimistic strategy process, but had either been led by a chairman or CEO or a consultants who took them down a negative path. And then critically, only 20% of their companies measure optimism in stakeholders, in workers and the like. So, if you don’t measure it, you don’t know. And what was, I’ve recently been on a ten-year strategy process for a company. What was interesting was one of the big four was asked to do the scenarios. All the scenarios were negative and yet a particular company is athlete optimistic. So my contribution as a board member was to say, let’s reframe this, but young people are not more selfish. Climate change is an opportunity, for community leadership, it’s not necessarily, a disaster for a corporation working. So strategy and optimism is the key then innovation. So I don’t think there’s any person in Australia who’s been interviewed recently without being asked about innovation, but you can’t be innovative unless you’re an optimist. The science, and there’s some really good science out of Canada on this. the charts for the pessimists, it’s almost impossible to be an innovator because they’re weighed down by what went wrong, who went wrong? Did I go wrong? And they will blame themselves a lot. self-blame is a big part of being a pessimist, whereas the optimist, in Dyson’s the great example of this, 5,000 models is bagless vacuum cleaner before he was able to sell one. 15 years of trial and error until he reached instant success. So again, in talking about leadership and optimism and self-leadership, optimism is at the core of innovation. And then the last bit in the contemporary workplace is resilience. Resilience this, resilience cities, resilient corporations. Well, my favourite on that is Jane Burns, who ran the young and well, I see, I’ll see him as professor at Sydney university. And basically she says, look, you can talk about tenacity. You can talk about resilience, but when the chips are down, it’s the optimist to are gonna get you through. And a very interesting Japanese study recently showed that those before the nuclear disaster, 10 years ago, those who were optimistic pulled through and like nature would say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Those who were the pessimists are still, they’re on TV, on CNN saying that the government has done, hasn’t done enough to restore their lives. So thinking about optimism and leadership, it’s at the core of 2020 leadership. It’s the core of strategy, the core of innovation and the core of resilience.

– So I wanna make sure that we’re linking this really strongly into self-leadership. And I guess one of the things that’s in the back of my mind then is when you are down, when things haven’t gone to plan, or COVID is a classic example, but it doesn’t have to be COVID, but when something’s thrown on you and you feel dented how do you reignite your optimism? and I wanna ask about optimism and self-leadership and get your take on that. How do you bring it back up? Because in my head as much as I would love to be optimistic, 100% of the time, I’m also human and I’m not, I have bad days. I can have a glasses, almost empty moments. I don’t stay there, but I would love to know from your perspective, how do you reignited your optimism and how have you reignited yourself leadership?

– Okay. I smile a lot. My nickname amongst the cleaners on the workers when I was in parliament was smiling. And one of my mates, cause in politics, they say have a dog if you want to frame, one of my friends though said, you you’d come into a room where there was affection, who didn’t like you and you would come in, you’d smile at them and ask the about the kids and the like. So, smiling is a big part of it. And then the second one is what Bill George, the head of the Harvard academic who wrote True North. And when I asked Bill George, what makes him optimistic? He said this, “being surrounded by positive people, what a blessing.” So the real trick around maintaining yourself in those down moments is to have people around you who are optimistic, who are positive. And that’s a real trick. Last year I did an event for the New Zealand tax department. And we created this group of ongoing optimists who are meeting up for coffee and my key wing mate hate me now because they much prefer a tax department. That’s a bit anxious and depressed and unproductive rather than a tax apartment that is optimistic and positive and going forward that we haven’t converted everyone, you know? And so all you can do is all you can do. So I think when you’re in those down moments, the important thing is to look in the mirror and smile at yourself. I recently did an event for a cyber security company. And as you know, they sell their goods by being pessimistic, you know. Use us or the north Koreans are gonna hijack computer systems. Anyway, their CEO was so taken by my message on smiling. He realised he hadn’t smiled at his kids for weeks cause it was in the middle of COVID lockdown and everyone was miserable. So he went home, he made sure he was smiling at the table, smiling and his teenagers. So after two days, the kid said, “dad will you stop that bloody Victor Perton smile.” So for us, the tricks are, and it will be really good. We’re doing lots of workshops on this, both live and on video. Number one is smile. And there’s a guy called George Hall. Who’s got the art gallery under the Coca-Cola sign in Sydney. And he told the story publicly with us, he had drug addiction, he could have died, recovered. And then walking through King’s cross, he noticed the people were smiling at him. And typical bloke he’s wondering is my fly undone and I got spaghetti on my shirt. No, he was smiling at other people and they were smiling back. So the important thing is to get out there in the sun or the rain and just engage people in that very small chatter. And the other one that I think is really good for your viewers and readers is the change of greeting. So in Australia, as in France and as an island, if you say to someone, how are you? The typical response is not bad or not too bad. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re an old Aussie or a ref or a migrant, you still get 60% of people saying this. And it’s a wasted question, wasted answer, because none of us ever say, oh my God, what’s wrong. So one of the things we’ve done in prison with actual coaches of coaches is to get people as an experiment. And I’d love you to try it for the rest of the week. So instead of saying good how are you? use the greeting that something like, can I, what’s the best thing happening in your day? Well, what’s been the best thing so far. Or if it’s Friday, you might say what’s been the best thing in your week. What if it comes natural to you?

– I do sometimes mix that up, the how are you? I find actually a bit boring.

– And so I actually was in a supermarket the other day I was wearing my, what makes you optimistic mask? And obviously the cash lady said, “what do you do?” And I told her what I do. And I said, yeah, you can try this experiment. Let’s try it, the next people in the queue. So the next people were a mother and a 12 year old girl. And we said, “look we just try and experiment. Can we ask you what’s been the best thing in your day?” And the 12 year old girl said, “I got 82% for my test.” And of course the whole line lit up, but the other, so we had 10 people cheered up. So what you will find, if you change the, get rid of how are you and change it to something like what’s the best thing in your day, everyone will have a story to tell.

– That’s awesome Victor, yeah. I love that. Thank you so much. Look, we’re running out of time and I’ve got one final question for you and I’m pretty sure I’m gonna get a very unique answer from you, but what’s the one thing you wish you knew about self-leadership when you first stepped into a leadership role.

– Do you know that is nearly 40 years ago I was a teenager. I was involved in youth organisations and took on leadership roles quite early. So I don’t look back and say, oh God, what could I have done better? I’m a no regrets person. So I’m always moving forward. And, and so for me, it’s really my Eureka moment in 2017. And that question, what makes you optimistic? I even asked the guru of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, what makes him optimistic? So anyone who’s on Twitter, you can go to my Twitter and see an original interview with him just on spec. So as for me, what I know about self-leadership look, I really think I really shared it in the first question. It’s that, first thing in the morning, I’m just thinking of the name of the horror writer, very famous New York writer, lots of films, Stephen King. I was reading an item by him the other day. And every morning before he gets up and writes for four hours, he spends some time reflecting on what he’s grateful for his family, his friends, his kids. So I think a big part of it. I try and do that. I don’t do it every day, but I do try and meditate. I do try and reflect on gratitude before I start the day. And then at the end of the day, I like to be thankful. And then during the day I like to thank people and I think those are the keys to self-leadership. And I recently had a group of young men and women in their twenties, people on a leadership stream, in a company, and they came to me and they said, look, “we’re trying to change the attitude of our colleagues to the circular economy. What do you think we should do?” And I immediately thought of Gandhi misquoted expression, but that notion that Gandhi asset, which was, “the only person you can change is yourself.” And I think once you understand that about is the core of self leadership, that the only person who changed your children, Carmel Gibran talked about being the Archer and firing the arrow. And once they’re a way, they’re their own person. So I think come back to the fundamental, the only person you can change is yourself. And for me, and I said to these young people, so you can only do it by asking them questions that then lead themselves towards the circular economy, but they did leave me Sally because these spectacles come from a Sydney startup called Dresden and they are recycled circular economy frames with a whole new innovative model for the spectacle distribution. So yeah, perhaps that’s the core. If we come back to it, it’s that real core belief that the only person you can, change is yourself. But when you’d look in the mirror, remember that the leader is the person in your mirror. And remember to make yourself more optimistic by asking other people what makes them optimistic.

– I love that. Thank you. So, I’m gonna ask you a question a different way. And see where we go with it. If I was a brand new leader, what would you say to me about making sure my self-leadership was amplified in the way I carry myself in my leadership?

– I remember there was a friend of mine who was in a mining company and he told the story of his boss being asked to give a speech at the major Australian mining conference. And he was asked to give speech on leadership through walking around. It was very fashionable in those days. So this guy, the whole executive suite was getting the academic articles and briefing him on how to do this. And for the three months before he gave this speech, the company spirit lifted, he was going around and talking to people about their pets and their children and taking an interest. And the holy thoughts went up cause what happened after he gave the speech he stopped walking around. So I actually recommend the best thing is if you’re taking up leadership, it’s taking a real interest and curiosity in what makes your team optimistic.

– Well, I guess I’m curious if you have to be, and what I’m taking away from your story is that there’s a level of authenticity. Either you’ve gotta walk your talk. So I guess what the message I’m taking away from, from that is not just knowing what makes your team optimistic, but also starting from within what makes me optimistic. Is it really being curious about other people? If not, then what is it that would make me want to step into this even more, rather than fake it and not be authentic and genuine about it.

– Thank you. But I think I did an event recently for a company that’s struggling to get workers back in the office. It’s the CBD Melbourne office. And the briefing I got was they’ve got no motivation. They don’t wanna come back to the office. And what we did was we went right around the 25 people in this small division and asked them what makes them optimistic. And it got happier and happier until we got to the woman who said, well, I love being in my garden. And I love my pets. And I said, well, what are your pets? And she said, oh, a duck, a Canary and a rabbit. And I said,” what did your rabbit come inside that mine?” And she said, “he almost doesn’t watch television with you as well.” And of course my rabbit does, or my daughter’s rabbit as my son keeps reminding me. And so you have the leader of that division said to me, the next day, he said, I’m asking the wrong questions. These people are not necessarily motivated by work or the better policy document or how the firm is going, but their motivation they might be coming to work, to earn the money to do the stuff they really love. And so I actually think that notion of really understanding the people and Sean Callahan. I don’t know if Sean runs and the most compelling story he’s told me is about a pharmaceutical firm in which he was working. And they gathered the stories from the workers about the bosses. And the bosses then the 12 of them gathered around the table had to advocate for one of the stories. And one of the stories came from a woman who said, every time I go in to see whatever his name was, he steps away from his computer, sits down at the side table with me and pay absolute attention to me. Now, when Sean came back six months later, would you believe that there were three stories like that from the workers, but they were about three different managers.

– That’s right.

– And so I really liked that idea. So I mean, all of your viewers and your readers are welcome to come to the website, cause we’ve got lots of stuff on what makes you optimistic.

– I’ll definitely share that. Share the links on the page that’s here. So thank you so much, Victor. I mean, you’re such a wealth of optimism and intelligence and I just love listening to all your stories. So I really appreciate you and appreciate what you’ve shared with us today. So thank you. I’m Sally Foley-Lewis, and that’s been another episode of the Spark Self-leadership Series. We’ll see you again next time.