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Alumni perspectives: Sebastian Salicru on being an adaptive leader

Alumni News

Following my graduation at Curtin in 1992, I have had the privilege of working all over the world with people at all organisational levels, and from many socio-economic and cultural backgrounds throughout my career as a business psychologist specialising in leadership and organisational development. The most valuable thing my 20 plus years’ experience has taught is that vision, clarity of goals, focus, perseverance, relationships, integrity, adaptation, and bold action have a unique power to achieve the extraordinary.

Sebastian Salicru
Sebastian Salicru

My first full-time job as a psychologist was with a large international management consulting firm. As soon as I accepted the job offer, I was sent on my first assignment overseas. It was seven-hour flight from Perth, where I lived at the time, to Auckland in New Zealand. Needless to say, it felt exciting and glamorous. But things changed dramatically after just nine months and disappointment set in. This wasn’t a function of having to travel week after week across time zones. It was the actual work.

I realised I was being asked to do the opposite of what I believed in. The promises to clients of increased productivity, cost savings, and enhanced profitability came mostly from slashing a significant percentage of their workforce, although it was debatable whether this was good for the company in the long run. The worst part of the job was that we said to the client before the project started that we didn’t know where the savings would come from, as this would be determined by our audits and calculations.

I wish I could say that once I realised the job wasn’t for me, I quit and moved on – perhaps the best decision with the benefit of hindsight, who knows. Instead, I decided to stay in the hope that things would change. But they didn’t, and eventually I was fired. It became obvious to my employer that I wasn’t ‘cut out’ for the job. For me this became a lesson about the importance of being true to yourself, and sometimes having to do things you don’t like but which need to be done. By this time, however, learning from failure, loss and disappointment was already well entrenched in me.

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I was shaken to the core when I was 13 years old. My father died. The first thing my mother said to me, rightly or wrongly, was, “You’re now the head of the family and you must take care of me and your two younger brothers.” It was the highest expectation I had ever had put on me. And I failed miserably.

What I didn’t know then was that I was not the first nor the only ‘leader’ to fail. It took me decades to understand, fully accept, reconcile and live with the idea that it was okay to fail. In fact, it wasn’t until I begin to study and research leadership seriously, and came across quote after quote from great leaders in history, that I realised that failure was not only inevitable, but also desirable and indispensable to our personal growth and development. Abraham Lincoln said, “My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.” This really made me think. Then, I read Winston Churchill, who said, “Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Even Bill Gates stated that “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” The list goes on!

I did not imagine at that time that I would become a practitioner of leadership development and an active member of its community. And, like many others, I did not foresee that we would be facing the greatest crisis of leadership the world has ever known, at a cost beyond estimation, causing incalculable human suffering and posing environmental, geopolitical and socio-economic threats to the future of the world.

Business today is VUCA (volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous). This new context requires adaptability to survive – let alone to succeed.  Adaptation is the capacity of individuals, organisations or systems to evolve by adjusting or altering themselves to respond effectively to new environment.  Adaptive leadership is the practice of enabling others to adapt and thrive by mobilising them to deal with complex challenges. It is independent from authority and it can be exercised by anyone within the organisation regardless of role or position. And it is most effective when dealing with problems without known solutions.

About the author

eadership Results book cover

Sebastian Salicru is a leadership development expert and author of Leadership Results: How to Create Adaptive Leaders and High-performing Organisations for an Uncertain World (Wiley, 2017). He is a business psychologist, Director of PTS Pty Ltd – a Sydney-based leadership consultancy, and Fellow of the Institute of Coaching (McLean/Harvard Medical School).

He received a Bachelor of Applied Science (Psychology) from Curtin in 1990 and a Postgraduate Diploma in Psychology from Curtin in 1991.

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