The qualities of a modern-day leader… and whether they really exist? Insights from Mike Kaiser as he sat on the couch…

On the 30th November 2022, IPAA Queensland in partnership with LuminaryTM was delighted to host our final Stewards on the Couch series for the year.

This event saw Mike Kaiser, Director-General for the Department of State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning take to the couch to have a conversation with Russell Fairbanks, Managing Director of LuminaryTM.

During this conversation, attendees heard more about Mike’s diverse career, his leadership journey, career challenges, and priorities for his portfolio.

An engaging and honest conversation about the highs and lows of Mike’s career and his approach, this is one of many articles sharing the insights and learnings received by the participants in the room.

Russell Fairbanks:

I’m going to move to those that influence you now.

Obviously, you’re a fan of Shackleton, but you often reference Churchill. Is Churchill somebody that you admire as a political figure or is it that some of the things that he has said and done over history you admire?

Mike Kaiser:

I suppose because I’ve worked with political leaders of assumed leadership roles myself, both in the past and now.

I’ve always had a real fascination with leadership and even you know, trying to do some formal study around it, which was pretty useless.

I’m interested in historical figures in leadership and one of the things I’ve often thought about is, what is that list of attributes or characteristics that every great leader has, and you know whether it’s Churchill or Kennedy or Martin Luther King or Margaret Thatcher, or any of them?

What’s that list of things that they all have in common? And what I’ve concluded is that there isn’t one.

It can’t be moral compass cause John F. Kennedy wouldn’t have been a great leader if moral compass was a requirement.

It can’t be empathy, which is what most people say you need to have to be a great leader, because if it was, then Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t have been a great leader.

It can’t be collaboration. Nelson Mandela wasn’t a particularly collaborative person with those whose views he opposed.

So when you think about it, it’s actually really challenging to get to a list of attributes that a great leader has.

There’s not a common list which incidentally, for all the HR professionals in the room I’m about to say something which you’re likely to find nuclear offensive.

Russell Fairbanks:

Go for it.

Mike Kaiser:

Move me on because he knows what I’m about to say.

Capability models. Apologies for the PSC as well.

I’m deeply skeptical of them because I think they’re built on the notion that you’ve got one for sale.

I’m sure I’m deeply skeptical of them because they’re because they’re built on the notion that a person has gaps and all you have to do is take a module and plug it in and then you’ll create a great leader and it’s ********, right?

I mean, the only thing great leaders have in common is an ability to attract followers and they all do that in their own unique, beautifully idiosyncratic way and so our leadership training, I think should be focused on helping people identify their strengths, getting them to double down on those, and to find ways to use them to attract followers, it’s not about pointing out what you’ve got missing in a list of leadership at leadership attributes.

It (the leadership skill) can’t be oratory for example. It can’t be brilliant oratory because you know George The Sixth was a stutterer and yet the people of England plumped him during World War Two.

So…what are your strengths?  What are your views on leadership capability?  Are there gaps that you would like to fill as you progress your public purpose work?  Or would you rather build on strengths so you can build your following?

No doubt this blog, and these questions will challenge your thinking as you travel your own career path.


We thank LuminaryTM for their support in making this event possible.


About IPAA Queensland:

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IPAA Queensland advances the professionalism, capability and integrity of public administration and public purpose work and promotes pride in service.

If you’re a public servant or engaged in public purpose work, we encourage you to get to know and connect with IPAA Queensland. Find out more about us by reading more on our site or through joining as a member here.


About IPAA Queensland’s Stewards On The Couch Series:

Stewards on the Couch is a regular and highly popular feature of IPAA’s annual event program, where one or more chief executives is joined by a respected journalist or facilitator ‘on the couch’ for an informal, conversation-style interview.

These events provide the IPAA community an opportunity to learn more about the influences, priorities, and core values of stewards leading public purpose work along with the key challenges and opportunities facing their organisation and/or sector.  Guests are invited to stay for networking and refreshments after the interview.


About Mike Kaiser:

Mike Kaiser is Director-General of the Department of State Development, Infrastructure, Local Government and Planning. He leads the department which oversees the Queensland Government’s agenda to drive economic growth and enhance the state’s lifestyle through good infrastructure and planning outcomes.

He brings more than 30 years’ experience to the role, having built a successful career in private and public sector leadership and consultancy.

Most recently, Mike was Director-General of the Department of Resources. Other public sector experiences include working as chief of staff to premiers in both Queensland and New South Wales.

In the private sector, Mike was a partner at KPMG and contributed to the Queensland COVID-19 Taskforce Economic Recovery Plan in that capacity.

Known as a strategic thinker and inclusive leader, Mike demonstrated strong customer focus throughout his time at NBN Co, where he led the business change and improvement function and introduced processes to measure and enhance customer satisfaction.

Mike completed his academic qualifications at the University of Queensland, earning bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and economics as well as a Graduate Certificate in Management.