Leadership WA caught up with 2011 Signature Leadership Program graduate and Leadership WA Alumnus, Professor Tarun Weeramanthri, currently the Assistant Director General, Public and Aboriginal Health, Department of Health, Western Australia. We posed a few questions to seek his insights on leadership and the challenges and opportunities he has discovered along the way. Tarun has worked in health for 30 years, focusing on public health research, policy and practice in the prevention of common chronic diseases and addressing Aboriginal health gaps. He is also experienced in disaster coordination and response in the Northern Territory and Western Australia and worked for the World Health Organisation in 2015 to coordinate foreign medical teams in Sierra Leone. He has been awarded the Sidney Sax Medal by the Public Health Association of Australia in 2014 and is a joint specialty chief editor of the new international journal, Frontiers in Public Health Policy.
Leadership WA: It must be an interesting challenge to keep up the passion and enthusiasm in an organisation when budgets can force hard choices to be made?
Tarun: In health we’re amazingly privileged to work with people who are using their intellectual and emotional efforts to change things, but you have to get inside people’s brains. You have to get the most out of people, and that’s by allowing them to come to work, be themselves, have meaningful conversations with others, including difficult conversations. Enthusiasm is generally not a problem with public servants; people, as you say, are passionate. What people can get frustrated by are the constraints in an organisation. I spent a long part of my career with no control of resources, trying to influence change by good argument. So you live and die on the quality of your advice, not on the resources you control, and that really sharpens you up. But, as I say, even the President of the United States doesn’t get everything he wants.
“You live and die on the quality of your advice, not on the resources you control.”
Leadership WA: How can we help people understand how committed many civil servants are?
Tarun: That’s a particular thing I’m very passionate about. I stand up and say: ‘I’m proud to be a public servant’. Sometimes I get a few askance looks, because it’s not something that’s said very often, but it’s my total experience. The other thing we try to do is contribute to public sector innovation. The relationships between government and society are changing and there is a desire for greater openness, transparency and accountability. And, we need to innovate constantly.
Leadership WA: You’re a published author, an editor of a major journal, you’ve got a pretty serious day job (with 200 people in your department), and you’re healthy; you obviously don’t take that for granted. How do you juggle the competing demands on time, energy and attention?
Tarun: It’s something you have to align all the time. Again, it’s conversational, and the most important conversations you have are with your partner and your family. We’re not individuals, we’re always people within families, communities and societies. But it has to be fun and, for me, blurring work and life works. So at home, you’re reading the paper, and there’s stuff you talk about with your kids around their growing up challenges – safe sexual relationships, peer pressure and bullying. These are all public health issues in one sense.
But, you know, that’s on the basis of having enormous opportunities in life. Growing up middle-class, well-educated at this point in history is pretty much the golden card of all golden cards in the history of human life on this planet. I never lose sight of that.
I got some of the best feedback on my personal style, which I’ll share with you: it was to be more playful, to see the humour in things and to see the humour in other people having different opinions to yourself. I still struggle with it and have to remind myself in a meeting: ‘Just have some fun with this.’ I love meetings partly because they’re little exercises in social observation.
“We’re not individuals, we’re always people within families, communities and societies.”
Leadership WA: That could be a headline: ‘I love meetings’
Tarun: Well, as people say: ‘There’s only one thing worse than being at a meeting, and that is not being there.’ So if you’re not there, you can’t influence the agenda or push things forward meaningfully. We’re a conversational culture – it’s a knowledge industry, how can you do that without talking to each other?
Leadership WA: Any last bit of leadership wisdom?
Tarun: For me it’s not about what you’re doing, it’s the capacity to reflect on what’s happening in front of you. So I say you can go to the best leadership course for the day, or sit in the park in Wellington Square. What I get out of that day will be completely dependent not on the content, but my capacity to reflect on the content. If I actively self-reflect, I can learn an enormous amount. ‘Learn’ is probably too rational a word; it’s just allowing yourself to reflect and take that reflection into your next action.