Australia’s dairy industry leaders have been exhorted to step outside their comfort zone and be courageous to help tackle the industry’s problems.

Global leadership expert and author Margie Warrell draws on her background growing up as one of seven children on a Gippsland dairy farm to explain how courage is at the core of transformational leadership.

Ms Warrell told the Gardiner Foundation’s Australian Dairy Leaders’ Luncheon in Melbourne in February that leadership was at the heart of all positive change in the world.

Anybody could effect positive change and be a leader, regardless of their position, formal authority, title or age.

“I think at the heart of your ability to lead the change and to adapt to the environment and to find the opportunity in what they call a very VUCA world – a world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – is going to require courage,” she said.

“Courage starts from the inside out.”

Ms Warrell said leadership was not about what people did but who they were as people.

“Your ability to connect with other people, to get them to think bigger, to make it safe for people to share ideas, to build trust, to really tap into the potential of others, to build the collaboration, to get the ingenuity, all of that really comes from how you show up and how you connect,” she said.

“And sometimes our fear of losing face, our fear of making a fool of ourselves, our fear of making a mistake, of not having what it takes gets in the way … of us connecting with other people in that way.”

Leadership happened on three levels.

The first was dealing with what was happening right now – and that needed to come from a position of listening.

“Good leaders … take time to try to understand what is going on for those around them, and that’s listening for both what’s being said and also what’s not being said,” Ms Warrell said.

The next level was the future.

People needed to lift their eyes beyond the immediate “default future”, one, two or five years from now, to the “invented future” or what might be possible in 10, 15, 20 or 25 years.

“The default future, that’s what’s probable, if you keep going on with the ways things were happening before,” she said

“But really to create the change and to be able to find the opportunities in the changes that are afoot comes from what’s the invented future we want to create.

“A leader who cannot inspire people with a vision that gets people on board towards something that they feel excited about is like a river without water – dry and depressing.”

Leaders also needed to embrace the discomfort of change.

“All of us have a set of mental maps about how to get from point A to point B,” Ms Warrell said.

“And it is based on assumptions and beliefs and past experiences and your own stories about what can and can’t be done and your own biases.

“We are wired to always look for evidence that supports our way of seeing things and likewise we are wired to defend our way of seeing things.”

People needed to get comfortable with challenging how they saw things and become willing to take risks, even if they did not think it was going to work.

“The more often we do things that are uncomfortable for us, the less uncomfortable they become,” she said.

By getting into the “courage zone”, where they were willing to try new things, people could find the opportunity and innovate in an environment where there was uncertainty.

People often discounted the cost of not taking action.

“We are wired as humans to focus more on what could go wrong than what could go right,” Ms Warrell said.

“Actually there is a far bigger cost of sticking with the status quo than most people like to admit or to acknowledge.”

Building trust was also critical to good leadership.

“Can people count on you to do the right thing and to trust you?” she asked.

“Do people know that you genuinely care about what they care about?

“That you’ve got their back?

“That you would do and say what is needed to be said, even if you knew other people would find it hard to hear.

“You know anywhere trust is missing … it exacts a steep hidden cost.”

Ms Warrell said it was vital for people to develop a wide repertoire of skills for dealing with situations and not fall back into approaching challenges the same way.

People needed to understand “the stories” they told themselves about problems.

“So take a step back and say what is another way I can look at this because the story you are telling yourself about the problem may actually be the biggest part of that problem,” she said.

“Because our stories create emotions – it may be that you are ambitious and you are excited and saying what can we create here.

“But maybe you are like there’s no way out here, it is just not possible, it is impossible to deal with these people, I don’t have what it takes, we are never going to get this happening.

“(If the story) is leaving you feeling resigned or resentful or hopeless, then that is getting in the way of taking other actions that could produce better outcomes.

“Take a step back and ask what’s another story I can tell here.”

Ms Warrell said this also meant not focusing on the doors that were closing or closed but finding the open doors.

It was also vital to create a culture where those who might not see themselves as leaders or changemakers were encouraged to step up and lead.

“If everyone you know thinks exactly the same way as you think, you are missing out on a lot of people thinking differently or sharing opinions,” she said.

“Make it safe for others to share and pushback and challenge – the best solutions don’t come from everyone thinking alike, they come from people having that sense of safety where they can speak up, they can challenge, and together you come up with better ideas.”

She encouraged those in the room to think about what they could do individually and collectively to create change.

That was going to require an element of discomfort, of laying pride on the line and trying things where this wasn’t a guarantee of success.

Gardiner Foundation chairman Bruce Kefford said the dairy industry always sought effective leadership, “probably more when things get tough”.

“We have an industry in need,” he said.

“This room has many of the leaders that the industry has to bring to bear, we have put in a pretty good effort but I think the effort we need now is greater and teamwork we need is greater and the conviction we need to follow that with is going to be greater too.”