Leading for impact - five lessons from our year in Oxford

7 minute read

This post was co-authored by Julia Baker and Milan Gandhi (pictured).

We are two Australian professionals who were lucky enough to study one-year postgraduate degrees at Oxford this year, the MBA (Julia) and the Master of Public Policy, or MPP (Milan). Julia has a background in healthcare, government and management consulting, and Milan has a background in law, security and digital transformation. As two people who are interested in public service and leading for impact, we have compared notes about our experiences at Saïd Business School and the Blavatnik School of Government respectively, and aim in this short piece to isolate five lessons from our time at Oxford that resonate across our two programmes. We no doubt have in common with many readers that we aspire to be a part of solutions to the world’s problems, rather than to exacerbate them. This is our attempt to reflect on what this might require in practice, using leadership and impact to frame our reflections. 


Authentic leadership has been the ‘gold standard’ for the better part of two decades. And yet still seems elusive. We have some ideas as to why.

Authenticity is much less static than it appears. Research abounds as to what makes an authentic leader, with key traits including self-awareness, commitment to betterment, unapologetic transparency and an ability to inspire others to follow. All of these traits are themselves dynamic as we shape our context and our context shapes us.

Authentic leadership is predicated on two fundamentals: (1) authentic followership; and (2) authentic individualism. ‘A leader with no followers is just a guy taking a walk’ to quote The West Wing. We propose that the benefits attributed to authentic leadership are not just about the leader, but also the leader/follower relationship. Only when both leaders and followers are active in their openness, autonomy and sense of ownership, will benefits be realised. This two-way approach makes it even more important that we foster self-awareness in all team-members, not simply leaders.

Careers are longer and more varied than they used to be. This relates not only to the time spent in a role, but also to the diversity of roles that are emerging. We’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve been asked if we feel our jobs are under threat by AI, automation or some next-gen tech that was not around when we were in high school, planning the rest of our lives at age 17. With all this uncertainty and fluctuation, we believe it is more important than ever to be authentic to who you are and want to be.

However, this requires knowing who you are and want to be. This in turn requires a break from the never-ending cycle of seeking external validation and (ironically) impact, and some time spent on personal reflection.

A side note for those aiming to follow in our footsteps by immersing themselves in an intense, fast-paced and highly social one-year master’s programme like the MBA or MPP: it will be a transformative year, but if you are taking full advantage of the opportunity, you won’t have the time to do the deep inner reflection required to answer these questions. Create the space (before or afterwards) to work out what authentic leadership means for you.


In the world of impact, additionality refers to the outcomes that would not have been achieved if not for the effort made or resources invested. For example, assessing the additionality of a solar farm, we would ask whether it produced renewable energy that would not have otherwise been generated, for example, by existing infrastructure.

However, this evaluation approach has relevance to all manner of projects and leadership contexts, including our own personal journeys and aspirations to create public impact.

Evaluating the additionality of any endeavour requires us to ask three questions:

  • What was achieved?
  • What was the counterfactual, ie what would have happened without our input?
  • Is the difference positive or negative?

These can be complicated and confronting questions to answer.

However, evaluating the allocative efficiency of our effort and resources enables us to determine where and how they should be spent to create the greatest benefit to society. Most commonly, it is difficult to muster a sober reflection of the counterfactual. In an ideal world, we might conduct a randomised control trial, building a counterfactual from scratch. However, in the real world this is rarely possible. Instead, we must rely on our intuition and experience.

Leaders who are conscious of their impact are focused on activities that move the needle. This mindset encourages leaders to act with intention, foster autonomy, and continually develop their skills.

Furthermore, evaluating - or at least thinking carefully about - additionality allows leaders to recognise and acknowledge the contributions of their team members. By understanding their own impact, leaders can better appreciate the diverse skills and perspectives that team members bring to the table. This recognition fosters a culture of appreciation, collaboration and mutual respect within the team, ultimately leading to higher engagement, motivation and performance.


Our worlds are feeling quite volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous at the moment. In this context it is more important than ever for teams to be in-sync intellectually, ritualistically and in respect of the ideology that underpins their problem-solving. For example, consider economic growth - almost nobody disagrees with the goal. But what about the distribution of that growth? And what about the trade-offs, whether environmental or social? Striking the balance between synchronicity and facilitating diverse viewpoints is key.

Synchronicity promotes a sense of interconnectedness and shared purpose among team members. When individuals experience this first hand, they develop a sense of unity and commonality. This recognition of interconnectedness encourages individuals to be more open-minded, receptive and respectful of diverse perspectives. In turn, this promotes a climate of psychological safety, where everyone feels free to contribute their unique insights and opinions without fear of being dismissed or criticised.

Furthermore, synchronicity can enhance creativity and problem-solving capabilities within high-performing teams. Teams with stable, unified purposes are more likely to think outside the box, make unconventional connections and explore new possibilities. This creative mindset is vital for high-performing teams as they tackle complex challenges and seek to achieve breakthrough results.


‘Jack of all trades… master of some…’ - Julia and Milan

The MPP and the MBA are programmes that cover a wide range of topics. The MPP, for example, is pitched at those who wish to gain confidence as generalists, commissioning expertise from wide-ranging disciplines and knowing enough about each to ask the right questions. This requires an ambidexterity to span policy, practice, private enterprise and social impact. No longer can we create integrated solutions speaking only one language, or with legitimacy in only one dimension of the problem.

After all, the challenges we and our leaders face - from climate change, to increasing tensions between growth and equity - rarely present within the neatly drawn boundaries of a single discipline. Climate change is not simply a scientific challenge, just as it is not simply a political one. And there are many other angles that are important, from economics to what negotiators at the UN climate talks ate for breakfast.

There’s a gulf between being able to speak the language of a particular discipline and claiming to be an expert in it. However, there is also value in breaking down knowledge silos and the right-brain/left-brain distinction to think broadly about interconnections between issue areas and knowledge domains. The MPP and the MBA are great places to start but by no means the end of the journey. Further, it is vitally important to build coalitions, including unlikely ones, as no single person has every answer. Part of leadership is knowing your limits and being humble enough to ask for help.


Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was bang on the money when he said, 'the pace of change has never been this fast, yet it will never be this slow again.' As the pace of change accelerates, our distinctively human curiosity will be our best asset.

Curiosity fuels learning and growth. As Daniel Kahneman wrote, slow thinking, though resource intensive, is when we step out of our comfort zones to learn new things. In a rapidly evolving world, where expertise can quickly become outdated, curiosity enables us to embrace change by continually acquiring new knowledge and skills.

Curiosity promotes resilience and adaptability. In a world where unexpected challenges and disruptions are the norm, those who possess a curious mindset are better equipped to navigate uncertainty. Curiosity encourages individuals to question assumptions, challenge the status quo and explore alternative solutions. It allows for a willingness to experiment, take risks and learn from failure. By embracing curiosity, individuals are more likely to adapt to changing circumstances and find creative solutions to complex problems.

Curiosity encourages empathy and understanding. In a highly interconnected world, characterised by diverse cultures, perspectives and experiences, curiosity enables individuals to engage with others in a meaningful way. Curiosity promotes active listening, open-mindedness and a genuine interest in understanding different viewpoints. By fostering empathy, curiosity helps bridge divides, foster collaboration and create a more inclusive society.

On his first day at Oxford, if Milan wasn’t curious about why his neighbour had an Aussie accent, he and Julia would never have realised that they travelled half-way around the world to live next to someone else from Brisbane.

Oxford MBA