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

NSW RSL president talks about the nature of leadership

Rod White giving his talk after formal dinner

When the NSW President of the RSL of Australia, Mr Rod White AM, spoke at Warrane he encouraged students who are residents of the College to be ready to take on a leadership role whenever necessary during their lives.

Speaking after formal dinner on Wednesday 9 March 2016, Mr White acknowledged that “everyone has their own pathway”, but said it was important to “take from those you meet, study with and work with” to prepare for leadership roles.

“You may not have the opportunity to lead many people,” he said. “It’s what you can leave behind to others, what you can share with others.

“Everyone, in some way or another in their careers needs to get on their feet, as I am doing now, and project yourself from the heart. That will help you in whatever kind of leadership roles you will employ in your career.”

Mr White served with the Royal Australian Infantry Corps from 1964 to 1993, including service in the Vietnam War with the 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment. He retired with the rank of Major, having been Second in Command of the Sydney University Regiment and the 2nd/17th Battalion RNSWR.

He was elected RSL State President (NSW Branch) in March 2015 and after leaving the armed forces, he had extensive business and leadership experience, particularly within the building and construction industry through listed companies and the not-for-profit sector.

During his talk he spoke about the post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by service men and women. Although it had been called different things over the years, he said, it was an important part of the aftermath of war.

“What we had after the Vietnam war was no different. People experience trauma and they react differently. It could be because of your makeup, your upbringing, your family, your workmates, your friends – whoever it might be. You can never predict what is going to happen.

“As so many Australians came back from Vietnam so many issues occurred and unfortunately too many Australian veterans took their own lives”

Mr White referred to the terrible impact of the defoliant chemicals used in Vietnam to kill off vegetation in order to create clear fire lines by air or by ground. He said when he returned to the country in the 1990s, more than two decades later, there were still areas where no vegetation would grow.

Those chemicals caused enormous health problems for veterans, as well as birth defects for their children and remain a major issue for them today.

Mr White explained how the RSL seeks to help veterans to cope with problems they have encountered trying to readjust to life after returning from war, including homelessness and health-related issues.

He said that Vietnam veterans, in particular, had a difficult battle adjusting when they returned, partly because of the poor reception they received from the community. Many, including himself, did not even feel comfortable listing their tour of duty in Vietnam on their resumes when seeking employment.

“In the late ’60s and through the ’70s if you declared you had served in Vietnam,” he said. “It was so unpopular, and unfortunately – and it is something I have never come to grips with – it was taken out on those who served.

“We haven’t seen that since. Nor did we see it before. For some reason, the veteran community was punished for having served in Vietnam. If you declared your service in Vietnam, there were so many experiences where that went against you for future employment.

“So I left it off my CV. It wasn’t until 1979-1980 that I put it in my CV because there was a settlement in the community about greater acceptance.

“And then, of course, during the 1980s there was a real turn-around. But it wasn’t until 1987 – that is 15 years after we left Vietnam – that there was a thing called a welcome-home parade.

“There was a welcome-home parade in Sydney for Vietnam veterans, but it was not until 1992 that we got our own Vietnam war memorial in Canberra. That’s how long it took for the community to accept our involvement in Vietnam.”

Asked during a Q&A session to comment further on his views about leadership, Mr White said: “I have seen men and women in the military exercise leadership, particularly in critical times and in spontaneous situations, where someone has to step forward, not having done a promotions course, not having been tutored in this or that, but on the spur of the moment someone had to step forward and perform an element of leadership.

“I am convinced that everyone has the capacity to lead. . . But I am afraid that some organisations today, don’t have the focus on training and development. It might be because today many see employment as short-term in particular phases of employment. But that is no excuse.

“We in the RSL employ a number of people and we have a significant element of volunteers, We have a major focus on training and development whether you are a volunteer or on the payroll.

“Personally, I did gain out of the military, and I think it gave me an edge. I settled into the corporate sector in the late ’70s and the ’80s  and through the ’90s there was some pretty aggressive  periods in our corporate culture during that time.

“There was enormous greed … There were significant takeovers and business entrepreneurs ripping the core out of listed companies and then closing them down. It was a pretty poor corporate culture.

“We seem to have got through that to some extent, by the late ’90s, early 2000s, but I am still worried about some of the issues we are hearing about in today’s corporations.”

Mr White said it was important for everyone, no matter who they were, to be prepared to take a role of leadership.

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