Allan Hawke: the Queanbeyan boy who invested in his people

Allan Hawke stayed the Queanbeyan boy he was born, while also becoming one of the most respected, connected and insightful public servants of our time.

For a man of such achievement and prominence, it’s probably unusual to say that he was prevented from delivering on his real potential.

A partial list of the powerful roles he filled tells part of the story: secretary of three commonwealth departments, chief of staff to prime minister Paul Keating and high commissioner to New Zealand, complemented by his time as chairman of the Canberra Raiders rugby league club and the ‘go-to’ head for multiple radioactive issues that needed sane, insightful review.

Why, with such a record, could he not have achieved his full potential? Because the role he was purpose-built for and had begun was cut short when he was sacked as the secretary of the Department of Defence in September 2002, some three years into a role that could—and should—have lasted for a decade.

It’s an alternate history, however. The directions and changes Allan Hawke had begun but not completed as secretary hold up well in 2022, 20 years on, as the things that still need to be done in and to Defence. They are the issues that high-flown reforms have re-identified and sought to change with mixed results since then, as we saw with the 2012 Pathway to Change cultural reform program, the 2016 First Principles Review and the 2020 Defence Transformation Agenda.

Perhaps that’s because Allan was that unusual beast—an ‘outside insider’. He had spent enough time inside the Defence machine to know it deeply and well, but had gained a critical and different perspective from time spent in other places and types of organisation, some that looked back on and interacted with the cumbersome Defence machine.

He brought knowledge, enthusiasm and purpose to the role, instead of having to learn about the complexities and proclivities of the place as he began his time as its leader. I have heard another former secretary without such a deep prior knowledge of Defence describe it as like a foreign posting where the natives seem friendly but might be out to kill you. Allan knew the natives better than that.

Unusually for a secretary, he was interested in the planning and business process of the organisation as well as its strategy and achievements. He wasn’t primarily focused on managing the minister and advice to the minister, with a side interest in organisational leadership and management. These were complementary and reinforcing priorities, with his role as the leader of the civilian element of Defence and, with the chief of the defence force, of the whole defence organisation, being his core understanding of what he was there to do. He used the fashionable language of corporate planning but was really centred in clarity of purpose, understanding of, and improving performance and achievement of clear outcomes.

That doesn’t sound unusual, but two things made it so: Allan’s passionate commitment to the purpose of Defence—to defend Australia and its national interests—and his focus on investing in the people in Defence to make their performance matter and their sense of purpose a driver to do much more than ‘turn the handle’ in the various roles they had.

The ‘learned helplessness’ speech he gave on 17 February 2000, 100 days into his time as secretary, is widely quoted and still holds a light up to Defence. ‘Learned helplessness’ as the catchphrase for what he said is probably the most misleading thing about it. Yes, he did say, ‘There are certainly elements of what I would call a culture of learned helplessness among some defence senior managers—both military and civilian.’ And he did note that ‘not to put too fine a point on it, too many of our people lack confidence in many of Defence’s senior leaders. Justified or not, Defence’s leadership is seen as lacking coherence, as failing to accept responsibility and as reactive.’

His central message and purpose was much bigger than this criticism, though. He wanted to instil confidence and motivation in the people across the organisation—in senior and junior roles— about the work they did and he wanted to do that by giving them a much more personal stake in the organisation’s success. He called this getting ‘results through people’.

And, against the run of play, instead of large-scale, top-down or external reviews and change plans, he had an alternative path. ‘Macro change can be awfully seductive. In my opinion, enabling people through an organisation to improve the processes in which they are intimately involved is far more powerful.’

That meant delegation of authority to people across Defence, not over-centralisation in the secretary and CDF. As Allan put it, ‘If I have a dog, why would I bark myself?’ This clashed with then-ministerial expectations that the secretary would personally have the micro details of every issue.

Allan refused to lead or operate this way as it undercut his basic conception of leadership—using and empowering all the brain power and talent he had available to him. That’s something micromanagement can never do. His model was to understand the totality of the organisation and its operations, and to bring the detail experts he needed when engaging with ministers. That still seems healthy and right to me.

Allan was also a principled public servant, deeply committed to serving the ministers and government of the day. He showed that through frank and fearless advice combined with a deep respect for his own role.

As secretary, he knew he had a place to stand and he felt the responsibilities and obligations of that role, knowing them to include—but be more than—serving the minister of the day. He understood he was a steward of a key institution in our system of government and society, and that its health and future were in his care.

While many leaders in the government and corporate worlds say ‘people are our most important resource’, Allan did much more than talk to make this real. He invested in his people, and the biggest investment he made was by giving them his own time. That continued well beyond when direct working relationships had ended, with Allan checking in at key moments in many of our careers and lives, usually at just the right time and in just the right way. I received a text from Allan a few months ago at just such a moment and its wisdom made me travel back in time to when I had the pleasure of working directly for him in the office of the secretary in 2001.

Back to the proud Queanbeyan boy he stayed throughout his life. The football-loving, inquisitive family man who was the twinkling ball of energy and drive that everyone mourning his death knows well. Former ABC sports journalist Tim Gavel has captured much of this in his obituary of Allan. I am sure others will add their own memories and thoughts over the coming days and weeks.

I’ll end this short note with one symbolic thing from his first day as secretary of Defence. The day before his arrival, an alarming thing was discovered. Allan Hawke didn’t drive the standard white sedan that was the essential hallmark of a departmental secretary. He had a bright red Holden Special Vehicles V8 that was so low slung it’d have got hung up on the first of several speed bumps on its way to the secretary’s special spot deep in the Russell Defence complex.

The speed bumps were removed the evening before and the Summernats-style machine burbled into its spot for the secretary’s first day. Allan bounced out and got to work. The Queanbeyan boy had arrived and change was afoot.