Their Stories

25 years of leadership: a dramatic impact from the start

19 October 2017

Profile of Mike Beckingham, founding ARLF Executive Director

Written by Marg Carroll – Course 4 graduate, National Library of Australia oral historian, writer/photographer, farmer

Twenty five years on – what a milestone for ARLF!

How can such a leadership foundation endure in a competitive environment? One answer lies in its history and the people with vision who set it up.

Back in 1992 Mike Beckingham sat at his desk in charge of strategic planning for the Australian Army and spotted an advertisement for ARLF Executive Director. ‘That’s me!’ he thought. As rural Australia then was in the grip of recession and drought, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) directors believed there was a need to focus on a new approach to leadershipTherefore RIRDC agreed to seed fund a national rural leadership development program.

Mike sketched out a detailed plan for the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP) and landed the job. As its founding ED his vision was crucial in shaping the foundation and program, along with the ‘team’ – program director John Quantrill and administrative assistant Liz Young.

He saw a need for ‘a rural Australia with leaders who could see the bigger picture and share a vision with leaders of other rural industries’. Instead of individual visions, they could work together on major issues. The program took participants out of their own areas and exposed them to a range of national and international issues they otherwise would never have encountered, gave them leadership skills and follow-up support through a graduates’ association. That model endures.

Mike grew up at Goondiwindi, a wild southwest Queensland town in the ’50s. He went to the Royal Military College Duntroon at 17 from which he graduated as a civil engineer. Over the next 26 years he rose through the ranks to become a Colonel and developed skills, networks and a passion for leadership that could do what’s right and focus on long-term outcomes.

 

What made ARLP different to other programs in Australia and around the world was the Kimberley experience, Mike thinks.

‘The impact on participants was amazing. You only had to watch it unfold each year to see the dramatic impact.’

The plan was for participants to go there before they developed relationships with other course members, to an area where they’d not been before – out of their comfort zone.

‘They had to travel long distances to get there, so they were already tired and pissed off,’ says Mike, ‘placed in situations where the stuff of everyday life quickly dropped away, separated from normal communications and the ability to influence their daily work. So they learnt fast the only way through was to work collaboratively with other participants. Very challenging. This can transform people and the organisations they’re in, whole sectors in fact.’

Course 1 began in April 1993, six months after Mike was appointed. In that time he and others had to build trust in the Foundation, promote the program, call for applications and get corporates on board to raise the money to run the Foundation and the Program. To him crucial elements lay in the calibre of early participants and a board of really good directors – ‘top Australians like chairmen John Allwright and David Asimus who let us get on with it. Often directions had to change in the moment, so the ARLF stayed relevant and independent.’

Mike targeted top leaders in government, industry and corporations, convincing them to support and donate scholarships to ARLF. He spoke at forums and, sometimes with a board director knocked on doors, persuading and promoting the program.

For potential participants, the ARLF needed to deliver what it said it would because they already led busy lives and wore numerous hats.

‘The cohort of early participants devoted their time, energy and expertise to set the tone, or the funds wouldn’t still be coming in now.

Sometimes we thought, ‘Can we keep going next week?’  Until we had a critical mass of graduates in key positions who could influence support, it relied a helluva lot on our ability to convince people at Secretarial and Ministerial levels of Govt, and CEOs of business and rural industry bodies that ARLP could turn out graduates who would make a real difference.

‘We raised the money for two overlapping courses each year with 30 on each course. We met those challenges – a bit like a country Show where things pop up and you shoot them down!’

During those early years Mike’s wife Liz fell ill with cancer and passed away in 1997. At the same time his daughter Lisa also contracted cancer. It all took its toll.

After nine years, Mike decided it was time to let go.

‘I wanted a more spiritual journey, more to do with the heart not the head.’

He moved to Byron Bay on the NSW north coast and considered studying naturopathy, or working for Community Aid Abroad. Then Bunuba man and course 5 graduate, Joe Ross from Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley told him, ‘We have a Fourth World country up here, come and give us a hand.’

After eight ARLP sessions in the Kimberley Mike was strongly attracted to the region. ‘It gets in your blood. Something about it invades your whole being.’

At the time around Fitzroy Crossing there were major issues with suicide and self-harming. Both Joe and Mike thought a youth development strategy for the Fitzroy Valley was needed.

‘We spent time listening to what local people felt was necessary for young people to build hope, skills and a future.’

As they developed a complex youth strategy, ‘the drug and alcohol issue raised its head big-time, so I worked with Joe on the first community meeting to develop a Drug and Alcohol Strategy.’ Mike worked with community groups, engaged people and listened, bringing his expertise in planning, writing and producing strategies.

‘It gave me a greater understanding of issues and what was important to those people.’

He has since facilitated Indigenous community and corporate leadership programs across northern Australia and in PNG.

In 2005 Mike met Stroma Lawson, who he later married and together their passion is exploring for ancient Aboriginal art sites in the north Kimberley, some pre-dating the Ice Age.

‘The Kimberley is an ancient land, so much history, so remote. I reflect on myself and my place on the planet when I’m there. The mystery of it is so special – why did they do that? There’s no answer – it’s a mystery! When we leave it’s difficult to reintegrate back into everyday life.’

He is still the clean-shaven, fit and organized man many of us knew, but much more relaxed allowing his humour and wisdom to escape. At Byron Bay he can be found most mornings surfing the waves on his stand-up paddle-board.

Mike Beckingham says we’re facing challenges now that can’t be addressed in the old ways where we focused on our own organisation, or community, or even our own country.

‘Leadership has to have that ability to look out – like the native Americans who considered the effect of decisions 7 generations down the track. To me it’s critical to the future of our planet that leaders have the ability to put their organisations in the context of that bigger picture – their leadership will be measured by what they leave for future generations.’