Leading Purpose – Public Sector Commissioner David Mackie on the Couch

Renee Leon

Image from IPAA Queensland

On 5 October 2023, Queensland Public Sector Commissioner David Mackie shared his thoughts on leadership and purpose during IPAA Queensland’s ‘Stewards on the Couch’ series.

IPAA Queensland hosted Queensland Public Sector Commissioner David Mackie as part their signature Stewards on the Couch series supported by Luminary on 5 October 2023.  In conversation with Professor Deborah Blackman of UNSW Canberra, Commissioner Mackie spoke of how his 30-year career in public service has led him to leadership roles and his thoughts on leadership and purpose.

Below are some highlights from this conversation that will keep you informed, build connections, and challenge your thinking on all things public purpose work.


Deborah Blackman: Bearing in mind you have had that very long and varied career, what have you learned about leadership over that time that you’re bringing to this new role?


David Mackie: Leadership is a very big topic. We could go and Google leadership values or leadership principles right now and you’ll have 30, if not more. Empathy, courage, honesty, integrity, etc.

To have all them in spades is quite a remarkable thing. I think it’s really difficult to be in a leadership role because there is an expectation that you are bringing all of that with you. Leadership never ends in terms of learning about it, and I don’t think you ever finish it.

You’ll retire before you’ve perfected leadership because I don’t think anyone really does.

I don’t think all of those leadership values as pertaining just to leadership roles, they pertain to every public sector employee. But if I can, I guess the greatest thing I think I’ve learned in leadership, is knocking down obstacles.

As a leader, I think your main role is to support your people and not your people supporting you, and your job is to try to give them a clear playing field to go and do their job the best they possibly can.

You knock down the obstacles for them, you equip them with the tools that they need to actually deliver. But I think if I equate it to a captain of a ship, it’s one thing to be a leader in saying, “Well, I know I can recruit the crew, I can make sure there’s food and water on the ship that they can sustain them. I’ll have the best equipment they can row for and then I’m going to navigate and make sure we don’t hit the rocks or shark-infested waters and we’re going over there guys”.

I think the thing we often miss out is telling people why we’re going over there. We say where we’re going, we’ve got a vision, et cetera, but we don’t really explain why.

I think the greatest thing that you can have in leadership is to give meaning to people’s jobs. Why are they on that journey with you and what’s the value proposition for them?


Deborah Blackman: We talk a lot about leadership, but there’s a lot about stewardship as well. So I’m interested to know, we hear about public servants and public sector being stewards in delivering the public good. So what does that mean to you in this role too in terms of stewardship?


David Mackie: The one thing I’ve come to realise working in the public sector all these years is most people engage with government because they need help or they’re vulnerable or their life have got uncertainty, great uncertainty in it.

As public sector employees, we’ve got great powers to be able to change someone’s world, whether it be for a day or a week or a year or forever depending on what we do.

If you think about what we deliver, we look after sick people, we fix sick people, we educate children, we provide people with an opportunity environment to resolve disputes, whether they be civilly. We prosecute perpetrators, we support victims.

All of those things are incredibly significant in terms of people’s lives. So if you’ve come into the public sector feeling that your whole purpose here isn’t about delivering public good, you are going to struggle being in this environment for a long period of time.

I think that concept of stewardship, and it’s not just the Public Sector Commission’s responsibility, that it’s every public servants, is how do our people, how do our systems, how do our workplaces, how does it all focus in on making sure that we’re actually looking after and taking care of other citizens out there?

We live in this community as individuals, our families do, et cetera.

We have a really important responsibility in terms of making sure that we are looking after citizens.

That’s sometimes really difficult to have on the forefront of your mind in your job every day, but I think that’s something all of us have to really understand when we do our jobs, regardless of what job you do to have sustainable career in the public sector.


Deborah Blackman: It seems to me that what you’re saying is that for everybody to be able to do their job well, the leadership role is maybe about clarifying purpose.


David Mackie: Absolutely. And I think that doesn’t matter what job you do, whether it’s in corporate services or otherwise, you are part of a system that delivers outcomes into the community.

I think public sector, and it’s not just in Queensland, it’s at all levels and all jurisdictions, we have that very vertical focus about the role that we do in a department, but there is a bigger system where all those dots join up that actually delivers something that actually changes someone’s life outside of this room and outside of this building and all over Queensland.

If you want to be a professional public servant, it’s about having that in the forefront of your mind, regardless of what job you are doing and for people in leadership roles to give you that understanding of what the meaning is behind what you do. That’s really a thing I think not many of us, including myself sometimes, have done in their careers, give people meaning about what their job involves.