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Why Dr Brendan Nelson blog image

Dr Brendan Nelson: To lead, people have to know your story

A conversation with Dr Brendan Nelson, Director of the Australian War Memorial.

Why Dr Brendan Nelson blog image

“Leadership can’t be taught but it can be learned” – Dr Brendan Nelson

Director of the Australian War Memorial Dr Brendan Nelson is a thoughtful and philosophical leader, who’s held the position since 2012. His numerous leadership roles have included president of the Australian Medical Association, Leader of the Opposition, and Australian Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg, the European Union and NATO.

He spoke to us about authenticity in leadership, the dedication of his staff, squeezing every last drop out of life, and, in the GREAT EIGHT*, he shares a personal story of grief.  

As Australian Ambassador (2010-2012), you forged deep links with the communities of Flanders, where almost 14,000 Australians lost their lives during the First World War. Can you share a story from Flanders?

I found a little cemetery in Flanders called Toronto Avenue. You get out of your car and walk down a country lane, and there in a forest is a Commonwealth War Cemetery, only 78 graves, all Australian, and all killed over 3 days in 1917. 
I went to the Menin Gate many times, and the last night I was Ambassador, the chairman of the Last Post Association had counted up (the number of) visits I’d made, it was 74. “We noticed you were coming more often than anyone we’ve ever seen,” he said.  

Who do you see as the Australian War Memorial’s key stakeholders?  
Every single Australian. The servicemen and women, veterans and their families. Their spirit is here. In this place, everyone is equal here. The Year 5 student from Gympie laying their wreath is no less important than the Governor General, or the President of a country.

What do you see as your main role as Director of the AWM? And which of your myriad careers best prepared you for this role?

When I applied for the job, I was asked if I’d ever run a museum and I said, no, of course not.  I was asked 'Why would we want you to run the AWM?'  I said, 'Well, if you’re looking for an expert then I’m not the person for the job. I know a bit about experts from my time in the medical profession, and everything I’ve done since, and they see the world through a straw, and this job will be to apply intellectual rigour to the process of exercising judgement, the key task is not to just manage the institution, but to be a leader of and an ambassador for it.'

I often say to young people you don’t realise what you’re learning when you’re learning it. The most significant lessons in life come in random moments, and reflections on the things you have not done, and the things you have failed in.

I’ve certainly learned to surround myself with people who are over enthusiastic.  A year into my tenure I addressed the staff, I said 'every single person is important, every role is important, it doesn’t matter what you do. But if you haven’t walked through the galleries in the last six months, if you haven’t attended a Last Post ceremony, if you feel no connection to what the place is actually about, and remaining true to (founder and war correspondent) Charles Bean’s vision, then you have to ask yourself if you work in the right place.'

We have people here who don’t even know what they’re paid, and they’re paid less than others in the public sector, which is something that particularly annoys me. They're here because they believe in the place, and what it means to Australians.

After my Ambassador role, I had been approached about a lot of things, but I said to my wife 'I want to do something meaningful, I feel as if I’ve got more public service in me.' I learned early in my life that you’ve only got one life, and before you know it it’s gone. You wake up and you’re 50 and you think where’s it gone? So, you’ve got to squeeze every last drop out of it. A month later, the AWM job was advertised, and I filled out the job application. I say to young people if you look after the job you’ve got, the next one will look after itself.    


It strikes me that you are big on authenticity in leadership.

It’s essential. The power is in the story. Leadership can’t be taught, I know that sounds like an anathema to a whole industry dedicated to it, it can’t be taught but it can be learned (partly through) reflection upon, and the absorption of, the leadership that we see in others.  If you are professing to lead any group of people, people have to know your own story. You have to reveal yourself, and you reveal it in all kinds of ways. But, if you don’t believe in yourself, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it, no one else is ever going to.

What is your favourite relic or feature of the AWM?  

That’s hard. There are four that I think are the most significant.  

  1. The bullet-ridden Gallipoli landing boat.

  2. The uniform of Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel in the WW2 gallery with its single bullet hole.  She was the only one of 22 nurses to survive the massacre by the Japanese on Radji Beach in February 1942, and survived by feigning death in the blood stained water. Ten days later she was captured by the Japanese and kept the uniform hidden for three and a half years, and then testified in the War Crimes hearings after the war.

  3. The Long Tan cross from Vietnam, which was literally placed on the site where 18 young Australians gave their lives.

  4. The Lancaster Bomber. One in three young Australians, average age 21, was killed in those planes.


Tell us what led up to the decision that the AWM needed a major expansion?

In 2012, as Ambassador, I was in Afghanistan and an Australian soldier asked me 'Why can I go to the AWM and take my son there and show him what his great grandfather and grandfather did, but can’t show him what I’m doing?'  We now have 42 carved marble funeral shrouds in a corridor on the way to the shop – with the names of our 42 dead in Afghanistan. It’s dignified, but we need to do better. We have a very inadequate exhibition on East Timor, nothing on Solomon Islands, and our peacekeeping operations space is inadequate.

What is your vision for it?   

Within a short time of being here, I learned this place is not just a shrine, not just a museum, not just an archive. It’s a part of the therapeutic milieu of men and women who are serving, and who have served, to come to terms with not just what they’ve done, but the impact it’s had upon them. A lot of emotion is released here (so much so, I put all the staff through the counselling programme that Lifeline runs for emotional breakdown), yet not a single space is for quiet reflection. 

As an SAS veteran of the Vietnam War said, 'Thank you, these young men and women are going to get what we didn’t.'  

What challenges do you anticipate in overseeing such a major upgrade?

In this case, we have the support of both government and opposition. But it will be the usual stuff: there will be a small but vocal constituency who will argue money should not be spent in this way. However, not a cent is at the expense of veterans’ services. Then there will be resistance at the taking down of Anzac Hall, but we’ll build it deeper and wider at a cost of $14 million to expand to over 8000m squared. There will be an entire new floor covering peacekeeping and recent operations.

*Brendan's GREAT EIGHT – The Growth Faculty’s 8 getting to know you questions.

Recommended book:  Some will raise their eyebrows but Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong (about WW1).

If you could co-author a book with anybody who would it be, and what is the book title?  Hmm no, I have no ambition to co-author a book with anybody.  

Best advice to share: Be true to yourself.

Lowest moment and how did you recover? There’ve been a few. My brother’s death is my lowest moment, and some events that led up to it. My brother died of AIDS in 1995 and that was a bad time in our lives, my mother in particular. I was involved in a deep preselection contest in Bradfield in Sydney and some of the people who preferred I wouldn’t be successful thought to draw my brother into it.  How did I recover? I wouldn’t say recover. It becomes a part of you, these low moments in your life, your personal and your professional life.
The most fragile and powerful of all human emotions is hope. You’ve got to reach out, and not allow yourself to be captured by bitterness. Restraining yourself from not saying things you want to say at the time. You need to work hard. You need to ask yourself what’s the right thing to do. In hindsight, some of them will be wrong.

How do you relax? I play the guitar (my wife refuses to listen). I like fishing, motorbikes, I ride a pushbike, I’m not into lycra and all that stuff, I just wear footy shorts.  My idea of a perfect day or night is to be at home in my garage, music blaring. I make fishing tackle, I make models and stuff on my work bench, I fix things that are not working - that’s my idea of perfection.

What’s something about you that's not widely known? I’m a St Kilda supporter.

What’s the secret to success? Have an open mind, never allow your mind to be closed, nurture and protect the inner integrity of your intellect. Make sure you have time to reflect and read. Treat people with decency and respect, and understand that transcending everything in life (power, money, influence, and looks) is character.  

What’s a prediction for 2025? It’s a sad one. My prediction is that St Kilda will not win the flag.


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Christine Kininmonth is a journalist and former panellist on ABC TV’s The New Inventors.  An avid reader, Christine believes reading is essential to business success. She presents The Growth Faculty’s Business Book Club each week.  


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