Leadership, Compassion, and Shaping Reform of the Mental Health Sector | Christine Morgan delivers the 2020 Williams Oration

Christine Morgan, CEO National Mental Health Commission

Christine Morgan, CEO of the National Mental Health Commission and National Suicide Prevention Adviser to the Prime Minister, delivered the 2020 Williams Oration.

The 2020 Williams Oration was recently delivered by Christine Morgan, Chief Executive Officer of the National Mental Health Commission and National Suicide Prevention Adviser to the Prime Minister.

The Williams Oration was established in 2018 by IPAA ACT to honour Helen Williams AC, the first female to be appointed Secretary of an Australian Government department.

Christine chose to speak on the ‘eternally fascinating subject of leadership’, referencing her own experiences and how they have shaped her understanding of leadership. She also spoke about leadership in the mental health sector, and shared her thoughts on the qualities of leadership needed to shape reform of the sector.

During the oration Christine drew on her varied leadership experiences, from a young lawyer in the corporate world at the big end of town in the 1980s, to working on strategy with Telstra in 2000, to her work for the Wesley Mission and her first role as a CEO with the Butterfly Foundation. Christine was appointed as CEO of the National Mental Health Commission in late 2018.

Effective Leadership

Christine draws inspiration from “those who have been committed to developing their talents, to supporting others to develop their ‘place in the sun’, and who have sought to make, what I call, a ‘legacy difference'”.

In her experience there was one attribute which distinguished true leaders from those who hold that title due to their position:

“The most important attribute is the ability to inspire, to make me want to put my professional or personal trust in them, and walk in the pathway they are forging.”

Christine said that there were three core components to the ability to inspire:

  1. Clarity of vision — a leader know what they want to achieve and why.
  2. Passion for ‘the cause’ — it needs to be more than a job, you need enthusiasm that is catching so others want to join in.
  3. Authenticity — when you work with someone who puts their own values into action every day and across every situation then you unlock in yourself a willingness to trust them.
Leadership in the mental health sector

Of all the values Christine holds dear, the one she believes to be truly foundational is compassion.

She cited a definition of compassion written by Hugh Mackay in his recently published book ‘The Inner Self’:

“Compassion is that remarkable human quality that motivates us to act respectfully and kindly, not selectively but as a general rule.

It explains our kindness towards people in need, whether we know them or not, whether we like them or not, whether we agree with them or not.”

Christine then described how staff of the National Mental Health Commission travelled to 26 different communities across Australia in 2019 to talk with people about what they think is needed to bring about improvements to our mental health and suicide prevention system.

‘It was shocking — in the truest sense of that word — to hear of the level of stigma people experienced around their mental health.

Personal stigma — a belief that somehow it’s weak to have mental health challenges.

Attitudinal stigma — how others treat us if we have a mental illness.

Structural stigma — embedded in the very system in which we live and work.”

Shaping reform in the mental health sector

Christine believes that reform of the mental health sector must be shaped to meet the real needs of people.

“There is no doubt reform is needed in Australia: how we treat mental health; how we invest in mental health and wellbeing.

There’s no doubt of the commitment to this reform across the sector, across all government —  it is real.”

She said that one of the most urgent goals of leadership in the sector is “to hear and understand the need of people, and then translate it into specific system changes and initiatives that will deliver tangible results”.

For her that starting point in terms of skills is listening:

“The power of words is critical in mental health.

For anyone to engage with the system they have to find the words to express their thoughts, their feelings, and their behaviours. They need to be able to do so in a safe way and in a safe place where they don’t feel judged. There is no other way. There is no quantitative test that is silent but will yet speak for us.

And that skill of listening must be exercised with compassion if we’re truly to hear and understand.”

The second skill is in developing relationships as there are many needs, opinions and options for reform:

“Relationships enable the exchange of robust, honest dialogue. They are the basis for building a consensus of what is required for effective change. Honesty, integrity and respect are the cornerstones for effective relationships.”

To get the mental health reform agenda right, Christine said “we need to seek to attain the highest levels of professionalism — from our health and allied health workers, from our researchers, from our policy experts, from our politicians, and from those with lived experience.”

She went on to list the qualities required:

“We need to be inquisitive, we need to instil in people a sense of trust that we know what we are talking about, and why what we are a recommending is what is needed.

And we need to inspire people, that real change is possible, and that it’s worth the effort.”

Christine summed up her thoughts on the core components of leadership as “staying true to your values, leading from behind to make everyone else shine, and really listening.”

Following the Williams Oration, a panel reflected on the importance of mental health within the public sector context.

The full oration by Christine Morgan and the panel discussion that followed can be viewed below.

2020 Williams Oration