Guests sitting at tables at an AIM WA Inspirational Leader Series breakfast event

7 inspirational WA leaders tell their stories

Shared wisdom to help you on your own leadership journey

Written by Andrea Walters FAIM
8 minute read
Guests sitting at tables at an AIM WA Inspirational Leader Series breakfast event

Guests at an AIM WA Inspirational Leader Series breakfast event

The Inspirational Leader Series breakfast events are held several times a year at AIM WA and provide the opportunity to hear the personal leadership stories of prominent Western Australian leaders.

At these events, we’re privileged to get a rare glimpse into the person behind the title. We hear about how their upbringing has shaped them and who has influenced them most in their lives. We also learn how their successes - and their mistakes - have made them the leader they are today.

It’s what makes this event series so special and unique.

We’ve revisited seven of these speakers’ stories and identified five common themes around inspiring leadership that apply across all industries.

Each leader’s journey is paved with valuable lessons. You can read their individual leadership stories on Workplace Conversations under the Inspirational Leaders tag.

Let their shared wisdom inspire you on your own leadership journey.

1. People-centred leadership

For Department of Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Darren Klemm AFSM, the organisation may fight fires and deal with natural disasters, but essentially, they provide a service to the community making them first and foremost a people business.

"People should be at the forefront of every decision we make." – Commissioner Klemm

He highlights the significance of prioritising colleagues, the community and volunteers in everything they do and advises leaders to treat their staff with respect and listen to their opinions and ideas. For Commissioner Klemm, leaders encourage and celebrate diversity, seeing it as a strength when it comes to making decisions.

DFES Commissioner Darren Klemm AFSM

“Don’t pretend to have all the answers, you don’t.” - Commissioner Klemm

By prioritising people, leaders can create a supportive work environment that fosters growth and collaboration. Western Australia Department of Health Director General Dr David Russell-Weisz’s experience during the clinical commissioning of Fiona Stanley Hospital further highlights the importance of people-centric leadership.

He recognises that the hospital's success lies not only in its impressive infrastructure, but critically, in the dedicated work of its many staff.

“It’s all about the people and the work they do, and the services they deliver within the hospital.” – Dr Russell-Weisz

An inspiration to all Australians due to her leading work in education, human rights and health, senior Noongar Woman and former ECU Pro-Vice Chancellor, Equity and Indigenous Professor Colleen Hayward AM recalls that one of her biggest errors as a leader was focusing on the issues at hand and not on people.

“I thought nobody needed to start their day with a coffee and a chat. Thankfully a colleague guided me into a more personal, engaging style.” - Professor Hayward

Listening to your people and offering commitment to the community and service to others, whatever your industry, is at the heart of strong leadership.

2. Humility and teamwork

Dr. Russell-Weisz notes how leadership can present unplanned challenges and relays how he has been dealt some curveballs during his career.

Demonstrating humble pride in the incredible work of his many colleagues during Covid-19, Dr. Russell-Weisz recognised the extensive challenges they have faced together.

He believes that successful leadership involves recognising and leveraging the strengths of others to overcome challenges and also credits much of his leadership inspiration to his parents for their strength, influence and resilience.

By fostering a culture of teamwork and humility, leaders can maximise the potential of their organisations and leaders should not be afraid to stand back and review a situation objectively and acknowledge when things go wrong.

WA Department of Health Director General David Russell-Weisz

“As a leader we also need courage and resilience to admit our own mistakes.” - Dr Russell-Weisz

Commissioner Klemm’s emphasis on humility signifies the value of placing others ahead, particularly when providing opportunities for upcoming leaders. But, he believes in leading visibly when times are tough.

“My preference is to be behind the scenes in peacetime, and in war time, I’ll be at the front.” - Commissioner Klemm

His experiences playing football also helped him appreciate teamwork. Central to a successful team is trust and this is built by sharing both your strengths and your weaknesses.

Commissioner Klemm believes it’s a positive step to be aware of your weaknesses and to be open about them.

“It’s okay to not be good at something. That’s why you have good people around you.” – Commissioner Klemm

Trusting your team, preparation and considered decision-making, are fundamental to former Perth Airport CEO Kevin Brown FAIM. He strongly reinforces that leaders must empower their teams and listen to others – actively.

“Give your team the confidence to speak their minds, to offer their opinions and, most importantly, to challenge yours.” – Kevin Brown

Supporting others, seeking their views and leveraging the value of your team, alongside acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses, stand out as crucial aspects of effective leadership.

3. Seizing opportunities and treating people with respect

Hawaiian CEO and Director Russell Gibbs FAIM emphasises that leadership opportunities are not about luck or heritage, but about hard work and being open to possibilities. By working diligently, leaders can create their own luck. 

Hawaiian CEO and Director Russell Gibbs FAIM

"Opportunities are not necessarily signposted, but there are signs – you just have to keep your eyes open for them." – Russell Gibbs

Mr Gibbs also shares the importance of networking and respecting everyone. Building strong relationships and treating others with respect can lead to unexpected benefits and opportunities.

During his time as a commercial real estate employee Mr Gibbs learned that one of the reasons he wasn’t retrenched during a staffing cull was his courteous approach to people.

“I always said good morning to everyone and had extremely good manners.” - Russell Gibbs

Mr Gibbs encourages leaders to seize each opportunity as it arises and to be proactive in shaping their own  careers.

Independent Federal Member for Curtin Western Australia Kate Chaney MP had no ambition towards politics until she realised the true extent of the frustration of people around her regarding the short-term focus on politics above policy.

Independent Federal Member for Curtin Kate Chaney MP

“I decided I'd regret it if I didn’t campaign. I would regret not doing it more than I would regret doing it.” - Kate Chaney

The first female Independent Federal Member of Parliament in the House of Representatives, Ms Chaney demonstrates a strong commitment to her community and leads with integrity and respect for all views and perspectives.

She listens deeply to the communities she serves. Despite the personal challenges that such levels of responsibility and commitment bring, Ms Chaney urges us to get involved and play our part.

“…don't just wait for someone else to do it if you think that there's something that needs to change.” - Kate Chaney

The embodiment of a leader with community spirit and one who embraces challenge and looks for opportunities to make a difference, Professor Hayward champions leaders to step up and take responsibility. She firmly believes in bringing value to others.

“Grab an issue and lead.” - Professor Hayward

Leadership is about hard work and seizing the opportunity to make a difference. Proactively pursuing your career goals, respecting others and taking responsibility for critical issues are defining characteristics.

4. Personal growth, resilience and trusting your gut

Western Australian Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken AC highlights the influence of his parents, who were both affected by world conflict. They instilled in him values of resilience, compassion and continual growth.

WA Chief Scientist Professor Peter Klinken AC

"I had lovely parents who were coming out of World War II and they had a massive impact on me." - Professor Klinken

A self-professed “accidental leader”, Professor Klinken dealt with some difficult leadership periods as head of a clinical department, ones that challenged his physical and mental health. He sought help and developed a better self-understanding that he describes as transformational.

“A light bulb just went on – the clarity was breathtaking.” - Professor Klinken

As a leader, Professor Klinken encourages continuous learning and supports “flearning” or learning from failure to foster innovation. He believes his unexpected leadership roles have enabled him to encourage change for the better.

Like so many impressive leaders, Kate Chaney is no stranger to the internal struggle with imposter syndrome, particularly given the breadth of issues to focus on.

It's often resilience and grit that separates those who let the weight of responsibility and self-doubt take over, from those who manage to carry on and get the job done.

“…I will just keep saying that all I can do is my best and I think people generally understand that.” - Kate Chaney

Professor Hayward stresses the importance of taking time to think, reflect and strategise. She also advises leaders to trust their gut instincts and be unafraid of silence during conversations.

Professor Colleen Hayward AM

“Some of those ‘this doesn’t feel right’ examples led to some pretty radical changes.” - Professor Hayward

Relaying her experience of learning the value of personal connections and engaging in deeper conversations, Professor Hayward’s achievements have led to hugely important strides in supporting Aboriginal people.

True leadership endures through hardship and self-doubt and is demonstrated by a focus on self-insight and intuition, resilience and the determination to follow through.

5. Authenticity

Being authentic and true to oneself allows leaders to make decisions that align with their values. Despite the challenges and internal struggles that leaders may face, maintaining a sense of authenticity is vital.

Russell Gibbs said throughout his career he has done his best to remain true to himself. He recounts a time when he first started with Hawaiian and had been advised to take a harder approach in order to gain respect. It didn’t last long and he was soon queried for behaving differently by a junior staff member.

“Related to that is you can fool everyone else for a period of time – the person you can't fool is yourself.” – Russell Gibbs

Being authentic is central to Commissioner Klemm’s leadership. With a lot of time spent in the media eye, he has seen attempts to test this. He recognises that it’s genuine humility and being true to your word that fosters respect and allows it to flow naturally.

“If you're actually genuine and sincere in having mutual respect for people, then people I believe will see you as being authentic – it takes care of itself,” – Commissioner Klemm

Being open and transparent with his team throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and trusting them to be able to handle the situation was critical to Kevin Brown, who is proud of the honesty and authenticity with which the Perth Airport team handled communications.

Mr Brown advises leaders to make decisions guided by core values, even if they are not always popular. He stresses that while popular decisions may make you likeable in the short-term, that’s not the goal for leaders.

Former Perth Airport CEO Kevin Brown FAIM

“Being authentic and genuine will earn you respect and that remains rock solid, whatever crisis may emerge." – Kevin Brown

Among the many lessons from each of their individual stories, the leaders in this article share some common principles across five broad themes, that transcend industries.

These messages include prioritising people, respecting others and leveraging your team’s diversity to inspire greatness in your organisations. Embracing humility, acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses and building your resilience to overcome challenges. Seizing opportunities, following your instincts and focusing on personal growth are essential characteristics in successful leaders.

Finally, leaders are advised to stay true to themselves in order to leave a lasting, positive impact on the organisations and communities they serve.

You can read the personal leadership stories from each of our Inspirational Leader Series speakers by visiting the Inspirational Leaders tag on Workplace Conversations.

Don't miss our next speaker's personal leadership insights. Book seat or a table for upcoming Inspirational Leader Series breakfasts via our events page.