Peter Klinken

Accidental leadership

Seizing the opportunity and succeeding

5 minute read
Peter Klinken

Professor Peter Klinken AC

Being a leader has never been Western Australia Chief Scientist Peter Klinken’s goal, but it was leadership that found him in his life and career.

The biochemist never sought to become a leader throughout his career but, being a front runner in science and medical institutes locally, nationally and internationally, he became one by chance.

Speaking at AIM WA’s Inspirational Leaders Series breakfast, Professor Klinken AC said he had become an accidental leader, whose goal was only to contribute to the community.

Family influences

From his youth, Professor Klinken’s parents – who were both affected by world conflict – shaped his life and his character, developing traits from both of them.

Born in Singapore and moving to Perth when he was 12 years old, Professor Klinken spoke of the impression on him as a child.

“I had lovely parents who were coming out of World War II and they had a massive impact on me,” he said.

“For me, my parents gave me their values – they are good solid caring parents and really good citizens.

“Throughout my schooling, that’s exactly what I was – a good, solid citizen and caring, but I never aspired to any leadership roles.”

However, glimpses of his leadership abilities began to appear while pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree – majoring in Biochemistry – at The University of Western Australia (UWA), along with a Diploma of Education and, later, a PhD in Biochemistry.

“For me, it was when I went to University and played football, volleyball and other sports,” Professor Klinken said.

“I started to take more of a leadership role within those sporting clubs and began organising functions within the Department of Biochemistry.

“So, I took on those sorts of informal roles and, eventually, I ended up becoming the president of the Postgraduate Students’ Association at UWA and that was my first formal leadership role.”

Growing leadership

Professor Klinken’s education remained his main priority, but his young leadership experience began to thrive beneath his goals.

A financial miscalculation while completing his PhD led him to High School teaching, which added to his experience.

“One thing, you have to do to deliver a PhD is write a thesis, and I ran out of money – I had no scholarship money left,” he said.

Teaching at Scotch College between 1981 and 1983 became a valuable teaching experience as a student leader.

“Teaching taught me more than I taught the kids,” Professor Klinken said.

“I learnt how to pitch a message in that particular climate – an audience from Year 8 geology to Year 12 chemistry – instantaneously.”

It continued when he joined the medical field. Professor Klinken was an international Fellow at the US National Institute of Health in Washington DC between 1984 and 1986, before working at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne as a National Health and Medical Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow between 1987 and 1988.

“I guess people had been turning to me in those laboratories for informal leadership,” he said.

He then returned to UWA as a Lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry in 1989.

“I became an academic, set up my own laboratory and led a small research team formally."

The accidental leader

Professor Klinken’s biggest opportunities were ones he stumbled into.

In 1994 he was made Professor to Clinical Biochemistry at Royal Perth Hospital and found that his leadership skills were then really tested.

“I was put in charge of the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at Royal Perth Hospital,” Professor Klinken said.

“The Head of the Department – a clinical Department – decided to take an early retirement, but there was no one to run the place, so they asked if I would do it and I said ‘sure’.

“That was a challenging time for me because I was thrown into Hospital politics and it was something I hadn’t been exposed to before.

“They were going through a restructure and looking to amalgamate that Department with other Departments.

“I was completely outmanoeuvred and I had no idea what was going on.”

This situation threatened Professor Klinken’s physical and mental health, pushing him to visit a psychiatrist who was also a close friend.

“We had three sessions, and they transformed my life,” he said.

“He described my personality to me in very simple terms, and I had that conversation sitting down with him in tears.

“A light bulb just went on – the clarity was breathtaking.

“Going back into the Hospital, I could find ways within my own skillset to deal with those changes.”

That skill set led him to new leadership opportunities that were unknown to him.

“I was asked to set up a medical research institute, which has become known as the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research,” he said.

“I had never done that before in my life.”

It was challenging but rewarding.

“I wanted to set something up that was for the good of the State,” Professor Klinken said, adding that this led to the most unexpected opportunity from the State Government in 2014.

“I got an email on a Friday afternoon from the Office of Science at the Department of Premier and Cabinet, asking me to come in for a catch-up.

“I went on a Tuesday and was told that then Premier Colin Barnett wanted me to be Chief Scientist.

“I met with Mr Barnett on Thursday and on Friday we shook hands and I’m the new Chief Scientist.

“Talk about an accidental leader, right?”

Professor Klinken said it was a chance to lead from the field of science, with the unique opportunity to provide advice all the way up to the highest levels in government.

“It’s a rare privilege to be so close to be able to say ‘have you thought of this’ or ‘have you considered this’ and to be able to provide advice that, hopefully, is worthwhile for our greater community.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think of becoming Chief Scientist.”

Simply making a difference

Professor Klinken believed his opportunities enabled him to encourage change for the better.

“All I wanted to do in life was to do my best and to hopefully make a difference,” he said.

“We don’t have enough people stepping up to create the vision where people go ‘we hear you, we’re going to follow you’.”

Supporting ‘flearning’ – learning from failure to encourage people to be innovative – Professor Klinken said for the future of our kids and grandkids, and their kids, we must be the generation making the right decisions for a prosperous future.

Right place at the right time

Professor Klinken said it was only now that he felt comfortable with being called a leader.

“When asked to talk about leadership, particularly over the last eight years, I’ve felt imposter syndrome,” he said.

“I never aspired to be a leader.

“I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”