Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Law firm CEO urges students to strive to become leaders


John Denton (Pictured)

Partner and CEO of law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Mr John W.H. Denton, urged Warrane residents to leverage the advantages they have received from life in College to become strong and effective leaders.

Speaking in the College’s main common room on Wednesday 10 September, 2014, Mr Denton, who has been named by The Australian newspaper as one of Australia’s most influential leaders, encouraged students to start their journey by reading Tolstoy:

“If you really want to know about how to live your life, read Tolstoy,” he said. “Tolstoy knew a lot about ambition, fear, stress, meaning and goodness.”

Among the resolutions Tolstoy made as a young man, he said, were to “stop caring about other people’s opinion” and “help those less fortunate.”

“One of the things I have learned in my lifetime is to avoid conventional wisdom and being placed in a box,” Mr Denton said . You should identify and stick to your principles as you discover yourself irrespective of what others tell you you are supposed to be.

“My own pathway has not always been deliberate and my choices certainly were not made by appealing to some preconceived notion of what is the right thing to do or who other people think that I should be.

“I actually think it is quite important to have confidence in yourself and to try to find your own passions and work to bring those things to life, partly through your involvement in the wider world, which is why I was so impressed to hear the way this College encourages community work.”

Mr Denton recommended that his listeners reflect on four key issues, the four Cs — Change, Connectedness, Community and Conviction,

Looking at Change, he pointed out that his “first career” as a diplomat saw him posted to Moscow in the then Soviet Union. He said he arrived just before Mikhail Gorbachev was appointed General Secretary — “one of the most extraordinary times in history”.

“Learn that you not only need to adapt to change, but also to master change and see it as something which is positive,” Mr Denton said.

Another learning experience for him was being posted in Australia’s embassy in Baghdad during the first Iraqi crisis when Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait.

One of his tasks was to work to obtain the release of the Australians held hostage.

“Some people adapt to change by accepting it,” he said. “But that’s not quite the same thing, I learnt, as mastering it — looking at change, embracing it and seeing it as powerful and liberating.

“Getting your mindset around that is quite important. For me mastering change meant growing from that change and also being able to bring about and inspire change in others.”

Mr Denton said it was Tolstoy who first said: “You must be the change that you want to see in the world”.

Looking at moments of great leadership in Australian history, Mr Denton said dramatic change had been a consequence of leaders who had been prepared to adapt to, master and live change.

An example was the leadership of Australians who identified the changes that were taking place in Japan after the Second World War and embraced the opportunities presented by a rapidly growing Japan.

On the second C, Connectedness, Mr Denton quoted former US Supreme Court Justice.Sandra  Day O’Connor, who said that we don’t accomplish anything in the world alone.

“Whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one’s life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that created something,” he said. “You can’t grow as an individual without connectedness, or having connections with others.”

Ways of learning to connect today included through Facebook, Skype, Reddit and Instagram.

“The challenge is to make effective use of all these proliferating platforms to actually strive for and harness deeper and more meaningful connections and relationships,” he said.

“Managing and mastering change requires bringing others along with you. I believe that connectedness is the real source of power in the 21st century.”

Mr Denton said he believed that stories of the decline of American power are grossly exaggerated because the United States is “the most connected economy and nation in the world”. It was connected through its openness to immigration, to capital, to new ideas, to technology and to “shaping the public debate through soft power”.

An openness to connectedness was the true source of power in the world, whether it was on the level of an individual pursuit of a career, or on the level of a firm or a nation.

On the third C, Conviction, Mr Denton said conviction went hand in hand with change and was something everyone should possess.

He said the importance of conviction could be seen in the ability of refugees to succeed, despite all the problems they encountered.

“You would be surprised by the number of refugees in Australia who occupy positions of great authority,” he said. “They came here having suffered enormous indignities…

“Conviction allows you to translate your passions into action, and gives you the resolve to carry out your visions based on your values and beliefs which, when I look at what this College offers, is surely something that must be so essential to your lives and the way that you think about the future.”

On the final C, Community, Mr Denton noted that one of the five aims of Warrane College is to “foster an awareness of one’s social responsibility and of the opportunities to contribute to the needs of the society in which we live”.

He said that getting into the community “helps you to grapple with important issues”.

“You are very fortunate to be part of a community here at Warrane that encourages your personal development,” he said. “You can actually grow your own communities which I think is a very important part of life’s journey.

“A very fulfilling life’s journey is to create multiple communities and participate in them. And you have to participate in them genuinely. You can’t kind of fake it.”

Mr Denton told his listeners that creating their own communities could be facilitated by the power of the digital age.

“There is a multiplicity of communities that you can participate in effectively without even leaving your seat,” he said. “It’s actually amazing what you can do and I see that as a liberating thing.

“You can actually build on the lessons you have learnt here and seek to participate in the larger community and to forge new connections.”

Mr Denton summed up by pointing out that the most powerful individuals are those who focus on the four Cs and emphasised that everything “hinges on the ability of leaders to adapt to change”.

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]