Sebastian Due Madsen: For anyone who thinks they don’t have it in them to be a leader, it’s a skill that you can learn

Captain Sebastian Due Madsen joined the Royal Australian Navy in 2001 through the Australian Defence Force Academy. After completing a degree in Mechanical Engineering, Sebastian served in ships HMAS ANZAC and Toowoomba, carrying out operational service on Operations Catalyst and Manitou.

Sebastian’s career has seen him leading teams to deliver complex outcomes, specialising in maritime acquisition projects. He is currently the Project Director of a project that is upgrading the combat system of the Hobart Class Destroyer. 

Sebastian adopts and applies new tools and methodologies,  drawing on different aspects of his life to be an adaptive and responsive leader. Outside of his career in the Navy, Sebastian lives on a small property outside of Canberra with his wife, Rachael where he enjoys motorsports and caring for the couple’s animals and is active in his local community.

In this interview, Sebastian speaks about understanding your motivations, drawing on different leadership tools and being adaptive while building trust …

What difference has having a vision for who you are as a leader made to your life?

Sebastian: For me, it’s about understanding what motivates you as a person. Once you can understand why you get up in the morning and go to work and why you work late at night and sacrifice yourself for what you do, you can get after it. About 10 years ago, a well-respected peer asked me one day what motivates me. I didn’t know the answer at the time, and it took me a while to figure it out. The answer is that I go to work because I want to make a difference. As I’ve moved through my career, I’ve had to redefine that in many different ways. Making a difference might be achieving an outcome or a deliverable or finalising a piece of work, or making a difference might be observing a junior member of my team and watching them as they grow and learn. Throughout my career, I’ve consciously thought about what value I am adding to the organisation and how I can make a difference. Once you understand and know what motivates you, it can be a very powerful thing.

You have to know yourself, and you have to be honest with yourself as well. I’m not saying that what motivates everybody is to make a difference, but you need to find out, look inside yourself and figure out what motivates you. So when faced with a challenging situation, I try to keep an open mindset and remain focused on why I am here.

One benefit of having a clear idea of what matters to you is the link between that and the kind of leadership or leader you want to be. So tell us about that. 

Sebastian: One of the keys to leadership is having multiple leadership styles and skills in your tool bag. For any task, you need to use the right tool for the job. Sometimes there is a need for a more directive leadership style, but other times a more collaborative leadership style is appropriate and effective. One of the lessons I’ve learned from watching other people is that an inappropriate leadership style is ineffective regardless of whether the person was a great or poor leader. They just applied an inappropriate leadership style and didn’t understand the context and how to use the right tool in the right scenario. It can be disruptive to a team if that occurs, resulting in losing confidence in that leader. Trust is a difficult thing to build but can be eroded very quickly.

You’ve had some fabulous mentors in your career. What qualities of your mentors do you try to embody when you mentor people?

Sebastian: I’ve had a pretty unique exposure to leadership in Defence. In the early part of my career, my leaders were predominantly female officers. People have asked me what that was like. I say, what do you mean? It makes no difference, male or female, leaders are just people. Some are better than others, and some are just different. I can safely say that I have learned something from every leader I have worked with, good or bad. 

I have learned that it’s essential to trust your people to do the right thing and empower them to make decisions, with the caveat that when you do empower and trust people to get on with the job, you need to check on their welfare. Especially through difficult times because people can sacrifice themselves for the greater outcome.

What’s your perspective on difficult conversations?

Sebastian: Nobody likes having difficult conversations, but it’s part of being a leader and a manager of people. At the end of the day, I think if you’re going to have a difficult conversation, preparation is key. Being empathetic and understanding both parties’ points of view and bringing in good listening skills is also key.

I work in a multidisciplinary team with a mix of uniform personnel, Australian Public Servants and contractors. When I talk to my team I try to talk to them as people. It doesn’t matter what colour badge they have; they’re all part of my team. I know that I don’t have all the skills or knowledge to deliver a complex project on my own but by bringing the right people together with the right information, I know we’ll be able to achieve what we need to do as a team. Leading a multidisciplinary team requires a different set of leadership skills than leading in a predominantly uniform environment.

What do you do outside of Defence in terms of leadership roles?

Sebastian: My wife and I recently moved to a small country town on Canberra’s outskirts and decided that we plan to stay there in the medium-term. We wanted to make a conscious effort to become part of and contribute to the community. An opportunity arose for me to get involved with a local community association. After arriving and being quite efficient in my contributions, the group quickly latched on to the fact that I had some skills that could benefit the committee, and shortly after I became the Secretary. I enjoyed this role and feel that I have made a positive contribution; I have made a difference. At the end of last year, after performing the role of Secretary for two years, I was asked to be the President. 

I’m very humbled by this opportunity to represent my community. From a leadership perspective, this role has taught me a new set of leadership skills that expand my tool bag. In my uniform world, although I try not to, I can use my influence as a consequence of my rank. But in my community role, when I’m working with volunteers in a not-for-profit organisation, I’ve learned new ways of helping the organisation achieve what we are striving for. I have been able to cross-pollinate leadership skills between these two very unique and very different leadership environments.

In my eyes, leadership is a skill. It’s like playing cricket. You can read all the books about playing cricket, but once you get out in the middle, it’s an entirely different ballgame (pardon the pun). Leadership, like any skill, requires practice so I would encourage everybody to go out there and try. You’re not going to get it right from reciting textbooks about leadership, It’s an activity that you can learn by doing. Reading and learning and being interested in it helps enhance your abilities and gives you ideas you can try and implement in your life. I think leadership, management, coaching, and mentoring are complementary skills. There’s a bit of blurring between them, and a good leader has some experience or skills in all of them.

What else would you like to share?

Sebastian: Overall, I am a relatively introverted person, and I would not consider myself a natural-born leader. In high school, I was quiet, reserved and focused on my academic study. I wasn’t the captain of the football team or on the school committee or anything like that. I was very head down, bum up. I focussed on my studies to try and get me to the place where I am now, which is working as an engineer. So for anyone who thinks they don’t have it in them to be a leader, I say it’s a skill that, like anything else, you can learn.

Some of the most rewarding jobs I’ve done in Defence is being involved with capability development and acquisition. The thing I’ve enjoyed most is being part of work that brought together the Navy, Australian Public Service, and other industry partners, all working together to deliver an outcome. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world at the moment, and no single party can deliver the capability needed to support the defence of Australia on its own. The only way we can achieve that is through partnerships. The leadership skills I’ve learned in working with industry partners are ones I have added to my tool bag and have developed over time. The motivations, challenges, and fears that people in your working environment can be different to your own. But at the end of the day, we are all just people like you and me, and once you can break down barriers and talk together as individuals and you share your thoughts, fears, and aspirations, you can get on and deliver what is required.

So for me, it’s about working collaboratively with your team and sharing a unified understanding of your purpose and how you can work together with a clear understanding of the mission you’re trying to achieve.

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