Wanted: messengers who can brave reality

Photo of Brendan Stewart

AWB Chairman and Queensland grower Brendan Stewart reflects on a changing grains industry and the role of leadership and communication. By Brad Collis

[Photo by Brad Collis: Brendan Stewart]

From his office atop the AWB building in Melbourne, Brendan Stewart has a prime view of two key elements influencing Australia"s grains industry - the weather, and the urban hubbub below.

As he watches a weather front roll in off Port Philip Bay, he can only hope the thunderous-looking clouds will continue beyond the dividing range and soak the parched hinterland.

"The vagaries of the weather is a reality that we farmers just have to deal with as best we can. In that area, nothing really has changed," he observes.

However, urban Australia ... the metropolitan hubbub, represents a new and difficult challenge. "Compared with 30 years ago, very few people living in big towns and cities have a link with agriculture," Mr Stewart says. "They no longer understand farming and, importantly, they are not aware of just how much agriculture, and the grains industry especially, is achieving for this country. Their perception is out of date and almost all that appears in the media is negative.

"People are not aware of the enormous advances that have been made in managing dryland salinity, in production efficiencies, in new products, biotechnology, wateruse efficiency, in no-till cropping that is enhancing ecosystems and the quality of water running into streams, and in environmental management generally.

"Instead we only make the front page when there is trouble, like the Cormo Express live-sheep episode, or drought."

For Mr Stewart, who is entering his fourth year as AWB chairman, this urban perception is not merely a matter of wanting the grains industry to be appreciated. The concern is that it can also reflect a policymaking environment that is open to poor decision-making because perceptions and stereotypes obstruct the facts.

Perhaps because he is a farmer - a grain, cattle and cotton producer from Chinchilla, Queensland - he finds the whole notion of stereotyping people and cultures an affront, which was why he also took on the chairmanship of the Council for Australian-Arab Relations.

"Stereotyping gets in the way of reality and can be very damaging. Barriers like these must be broken down, and that is done by developing long-term business relationships, and friendships."

It also requires leadership and communication - two of his themes of the moment. As an industry leader, Mr Stewart has steadily built up a significant record of achievement: almost six years on the AWB board, a former president of the Queensland Grain Growers Association, former president of the Grains Council of Australia and a vice-president of the National Farmers" Federation and chairman of its economic and trade committee.

Many years at the helm of peak bodies has sharpened his thinking on the subject of leadership and communication; areas of complex philosophy and practice on which he is not afraid to be forthright.

At a recent Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) dinner in Sydney he spoke bluntly about the damage caused by leaders who put popularity over responsibility. He urged people aspiring to be rural community leaders to become a conduit for knowledge and decisions based on hard facts, not just on their constituents" wish-lists.

"We have to decide whether we want leaders who listen only to be popular or who listen but are also prepared to return to their constituents and tell them the full story - even when it is not what they want to hear.

"Leadership has to be a two-way process, taking on board your constituents" views but mindful of the obligation to be strong enough to go back and explain why people"s wishes or views may not always reflect reality. It"s a leader"s job to help people to better assess a situation, look at alternatives and keep moving forwards."

More recently, in this interview for Ground Cover, he says that today, perhaps more than at any previous time in the grains industry"s history, its leaders need to be strategic and determined: strategic because of the way in which the global environment is rapidly changing, and determined because there can be a tendency for growers to react negatively before knowing all the facts.

"That"s why the role of a leader must be to deliver information both ways. Over time you would hope that this establishes a level of trust and reliability, and an environment in which decision-making processes can deliver far more valuable outcomes."

Mr Stewart is in a position that provides a broad and distant view of the industry as a whole, and he remains optimistic both as a farmer and as a global trader.

He points out that the grains industry in Australia has a history of innovation and positive response to change - the way, for example, that WA growers took almost no time to switch en masse to minimum tillage in the late 1970s, or how many growers today are responding to technologies such as satellite-driven precision agriculture.

"Of course, this can be easy as an individual because you are in control. In institutions it is more difficult because there are always a range of obligations. One of the most difficult things to achieve in an organisation is communication of a message.

"In AWB there is a constant battle between the different ideas on how best to communicate because everybody is different, and communication has to be able to accommodate these differences. Not everyone reads a paper, not everyone watches TV and not everyone will read a glossy brochure."

Nonetheless, farmers clearly have access to much more information than ever before, and the focus today is also much more on finance and a lot less on industry politics.

"Twenty might turn up to an agri-political meeting, but 400 will turn up to a field day where practical knowledge is being demonstrated. However, I think growers need to take more interest in policy because big decisions are being made about our future."

Mr Stewart believes there is a need for everyone in the industry to accept unambiguously that it is now a national industry, not a state industry, and that it needs the strength of a national approach to compete in international markets. "We now blend wheats from all parts of the country if it gives us a more competitive product. Quality is no longer just a local matter."

Inevitably, any discussion about the industry"s structure and direction will lead to the issue of the Single Desk. Mr Stewart places this in the same national context - what he sees as the need for a "team Australia" approach to global trading.

"Take Japan, where we have developed a whole new market by developing speciality wheat products for specific uses. No one else could have done what we have done because we were able to function as a national industry," he says.

Looking to the future, Mr Stewart believes the industry is approaching "crunch time": "The trading environment is changing rapidly. The former Soviet republics are positioning themselves extremely well.

"Our challenge is to understand what we will face in five, 10 and 15 years time and to plan for that now - not wait to be reactive."

He says this means Australia has to lead, not follow, and to think and act nationally: "We all have to rise to a new level in terms of our capacity to produce exactly what customers want, and crucially, we have to be able to do this better than any competitor."

For more information: www.rural-leaders.com.au/arlp.html

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