Optimism central to a happier workforce

While optimism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when people think about water utilities, VicWater director Victor Perton provides a unique perspective that could drive change in managing workforces.

While optimism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when people think about water utilities, VicWater director Victor Perton provides a unique perspective that could drive change in managing workforces.

“Every great leader in the world is infectiously optimistic, but it’s not the guys standing at the podium giving the big speech. It’s the person who can unlock the optimism in the team.”

That’s the Chief Optimism Officer for The Centre for Optimism, Victor Perton. His purpose is to help everyone become more optimistic and foster realistic and infectiously positive leaders.

When someone speaks to Perton, they are filled with his incredible passion. It’s not to take anything away from other people and their passions. Perton is so ebullient, it seems almost impossible to challenge this joy.

His interest in the water industry

In the eyes of Perton, his interest in water arises from being human. When it gets to the water industry, his activist perspective started as a child.

“I lived on the banks of the Merri Creek, which in my day was heavily polluted,” he said. “It used to capture the effluent from factories in Coburg and the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Yet, as kids, we used to swim, wade, and fish in it. It was a very degraded environment. I was eight years old when I gave my first speech at the Moreland branch of the Rotary Club. It was about pollution and our need to be active in this space.”

Perton pins his interest in regenerative water during his time on Merri Creek’s banks. These days, Merri Creek is a beautiful natural environment with walking tracks and good-quality water flowing through it.

“Following my speeches at Rotary Clubs and Young Liberal Party branch meetings, I had many conversations with Morris Williams, then Member for Doncaster,” he said. “Often, our topic of conversation focused on the power and influence of the then Melbourne and Metropolitan Boards of Works (MMBW, now Melbourne Water), along with the power of its leader at the time, Alan Croxford.”

Croxford was known as The Baron of the Board, partly due to his expansion of responsibility and power for the MMBW. Two of his most significant achievements are the 1971–1974 Masterplan that set the future growth of Melbourne separated by green wedges, as well as the creation of the metropolitan park system. Croxford and Williams worked together to establish the many green parks around Melbourne, securing its future as the Garden State.

Politics and the water industry collide

During his time as the Shadow Minister for Conservation and Environment, Perton tended to spend much of his time on the battle around creating marine national parks. However, a significant amount of time and effort was put into water quality.

“Over the 25 years I spent in Parliament, I would pester the minister with questions on Notice and Freedom of Information Applications on water quality,” he said. “Whether it’s the Kananook Creek in Frankston or any other waterway in Victoria, I was asking questions and gathering information.”

These days, Perton considers his work in that field essential. He was involved in the Victorian Water Act 1989 and the 1995 legislation that brought about the 18 Victorian water corporations that exist today. There are also the efforts made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Victoria.

“These days, we might get alerts about the water quality in Port Phillip Bay, around the beaches. These alerts only pop up after heavy rain, and my Port Melbourne Beach has clear water with white sands close to Melbourne’s urban centre. It’s the work of Premiers like Henry Bolte and Rupert ‘Dick’ Hamer that laid the groundwork for the continuing work on environmental protection and water quality and efforts by governments of all persuasion and the community,” he said.

Perton noted that Australia’s water industry is regarded as the envy of the world. Despite the many ideas that came about from southern California, Perton has seen how southern California is now looking at Victoria to improve its own systems.

“As Commissioner to the Americas, I learned how globally forward-thinking the Victorian regulatory system and its water sector were, especially regarding water pricing and travelable water rights,” he said. “I recall accompanying a Victorian delegation visiting the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and its chair Tim Brick talking about 10 Victorian innovations he would bring to California. There was also the presentation by David Downie at the World Bank and World Bank officials’ approving questions and commentaries. We also need to remember the success of Rubicon entering the Australian market. Of course, it has all helped us truly understand the relationship between the irrigation systems of north-west Victorian and California.”

Leadership and optimism

As the founder of the Australian Leadership Project, Perton seeks to celebrate, understand, and improve Australian leadership. It came about because he was confounded by the negativity of language around leadership in Australia.

“I’d had several lucky years as the Commissioner to the Americas, and then working with the G20,” Perton said. “It was clear that the rest of the world thought we are pretty good. It wasn’t hard to meet with top business leaders and organisational heads. However, I found that on my return, there was an incredible volume of negativity and cynicism around leadership in Australia.”

The Australian Leadership Project interviewed about 2,500 people over two years, covering every aspect of the corporate ladder. It found that Australian leadership is actually pretty good. However, there was a separate aspect that Perton discovered as a result of this research.

“Part of showing that Australian leadership is pretty good is breaking through the cynicism. The problem is not a problem of leadership, but it is the fog of pessimism,” he said.

Perton refers to an article in the Jerusalem Post by Rabbi Moshe Taragin. The rabbi spoke about the age of pessimism. He is not alone in this thinking, as Perton believes that the Australian community is caught in a fog of pessimism. Similarly, economist Umair Haque called it a tsunami of pessimism sweeping the globe.

Singapore Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said, “We have entered an era without precedent, certainly not in living memory, and it has led to a loss of optimism almost across the world.”

The House of Commons leader, Penny Mordaunt, once wrote, “The faultline in politics at the moment is not between left and right but between optimists and pessimists. We need optimists for the next tough shift.”

In hearing all these comments, Perton believes that a leader needs to be an optimist. It led to the creation of the Centre for Optimism.

The Centre for Optimism

Perton and his colleagues established the Centre for Optimism in response to this rising tide of pessimism. It’s driven by a mission to nurture hope and positivity. The Centre draws from a lifetime of optimism, four years of intensive research into Australian leadership, and five years of research on optimism focused on the questions, “What makes you optimistic?” and “What makes you feel optimistic?” We aim to lift the pervasive ‘fog of pessimism.’

“Creating bases for optimism has to be our central task everywhere in the world and through global collaboration. We must create bases for optimism to see ourselves through this long storm and to emerge intact; emerge a better place, and it can be done,” said Shanmugaratnam.

Perton has a range of familial influences that led him to be the optimist that he is today. He has shared the same anxieties, grief and failures as everyone else. However, he believes that things will work out alright in the end.

“I was born in Australia. As such, I am fortunate that the traumas my ancestors and family suffered on the way to Australia strengthened them and their realistic optimism,” he said. “My ancestors embodied the belief that optimism is a state of mind, not dependent on the state of the world. They held firm to resilience, fuelled by their unwavering faith in the better aspects of humanity.”

Since stumbling across the fog of pessimism that exists across Australia, Perton makes a point of asking people, “What makes you optimistic?” Following the publication of his book “The Case for Optimism: The Optimists’ Voices,” Perton was struck by people’s desire to learn more about how to be optimistic and the yearning for stories of optimism and hope. For most people, they have never been asked about their optimism before.

“I presented the case for optimism in keynote speeches, workshops, roundtables, and retreats in corporate environments, universities, schools, community groups, and even in prison,” he said. “As Dominic Barton, the chairman of Rio Tinto and chancellor of the University of Waterloo, said to me, every great leader in the world is infectiously optimistic. Still, it’s not the guys standing at the podium giving the big speech. It’s the person who can unlock the optimism in the team.”

Why laughter is important as part of optimism

At the time of writing, Perton had just returned from a trip to Samoa. One of his findings was that Samoan culture is centred around smiles, humour, laughter, family and faith.

“Samoan culture makes me optimistic,” he said. “Their approach to humour is part of a small group of countries – Samoa, Australia, New Zealand, and maybe Ireland – all have self-effacing humour as part of their culture.”

Perton believes that this humour comes from egalitarianism – something that Australia prizes enormously. Perton is convinced that this is a vital component of Australia’s leadership. People all over the world have influenced him in this regard, including Ros Ben-Moshe. Ben-Moshe is a positivity resilience and laughter as therapy academic, researcher and author. Another major influence was Reader’s Digest and its section called “Laughter Truly is the Best Medicine.”

“Whether we’re talking about physical or mental health, it showed that we can have a laugh. Our whole culture is around laughter and telling jokes. Andrew Jeffers from Wannon Water believes in the idea of coming to work to have some fun. People should go to work with a smile on their face and share that smile with the people they work with,” said Perton.

Perton has already found a positive take on the development of artificial intelligence – it helps him write new jokes and limericks. He prepared one such limerick about the water industry.

There once was a water engineer

Who worked with recycling, no fear

Making the world more sustainable,

Turning effluent into something valuable,

Clean water for all, far and near!

For more information, visit https://www.centreforoptimism.com/

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