Gordon Cairns from profit to prophet

David Jones chairman Gordon Cairns


Gordon Cairns pays respect to a Buddhist nun at the Vajrayana Institute in Sydney. He tur
Gordon Cairns pays respect to Buddhist nun Thubten Chokyi at the Vajrayana Institute in Sydney. He turned to Buddhism and meditation to address personality issues. Picture: Ruth Ostrow

The AustralianAugust 28, 2015 4:17PM 


As a high profile businessman and former Lion Nathan chief executive, Gordon Cairns has been named the next chairman of supermarket operator Woolworths. Ruth Ostrow met up with him as part of her Total Success series about Australia’s most charismatic business leaders.

The scene is like something out of a movie set. A huge, gold Buddha is framed by azure walls. In front a man sits with his head down deep in meditation while only the sound of a prayer wheel turning breaks the silence. It could be a monk sitting there so still, so peacefully.

But he’s not a monk, rather one of the most powerful business leaders in the country, and toughest. A man who in the past has led Lion Nathan, Arnotts and PepsiCo with an iron fist. A former non-executive board member at Westpac and former chairman of David Jones, Gordon Cairns, 63, is former coalminer’s son. In early 2000 he was at the peak of his career as CEO of Lion Nathan. But after a rebellion from his children and his employees, he decided he needed to do something about personality flaws that were ruining his life.

“I got some clear feedback from people who worked for me that they wouldn’t tolerate my behaviour any more and the things that they disliked were that I was very competitive, autocratic, didn’t care about people very much, and I was a perfectionist.

“All of those things are driven by one fundamental fear – fear of failure. When you discover the root cause and how your behaviour impacts on others, you have an ‘ah-ha!’ or ‘oh shit’ moment. I was fortunate because I was given some feedback at an appropriate juncture and I was prepared to do something about it.

“The fundamental thing is change – and I was given lots of help to change.”

And so he took on a professor of psychology as a coach, and embraced Buddhism and meditation, a spiritual practice that has led him deep into a world not only of self-reflection but also of compassion for his staff.

But it didn’t contradict his business aspirations, he says. “What I found is that the principle and precepts that I was learning in my meditation classes were first of all common sense, and secondly very close to the values that we wanted to espouse at Lion Nathan.”

So how does that affect his performance as a business leader? “First benefit is you have to be in the moment; you have to be now. You can’t be in a meeting and people are talking to you and you are somewhere else.”

The second benefit is calmness. “When there is chaos going on around you, the ability to be calm and present.”

Gordon Cairns meditates at the Vajrayana Institute. Picture: Ruth Ostrow

Cairns was one of the major players in setting up a group in Australia called Practical Wisdom. It’s frequented by business royalty, including John Akehurst, former managing director of Woodside Petroleum and currently reappointed to the Reserve Bank board, and Michael Rennie, senior partner of McKinsey & Co. They study under the guidance of Buddhist master Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the internationally acclaimed The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. The group was formed to teach leaders to be great human beings.

Sogyal Rinpoche said at one of the meetings I attended: “The most important thing for a leader to do is conquer the mind. If you are more in touch with yourself, you can be more in touch with other people, and be a great leader.”

Cairns says this is the new frontier – business with a spiritual edge. “I don’t use the word spiritual. It is about transformation. To get the most out of your business and people, you have to work on yourself first. Buddhism has given me a profound sense of meaning and purpose.” Now he wants to pass it on.

“Rinpoche says: ‘You’re not just simply a boss. Because you are more in touch with yourself you can be more in touch with others’.” So is he still a bastard and a hard nut?

“You are asking me whether I am a bastard?” He laughs playfully, but thinks carefully before going on. “ I am a better human being and because I am a better human being I think I’m a better leader and the only way I can validate that is people want to work for me and to work with me. When I headed up Lion Nathan we were voted in the best 10 companies in Australia to work for three years in a row.”

He stresses that “your success is the people”. And with his eye firmly on the bottom line, he says: “The role of the leader and team is to get extraordinary performance from ordinary people.

“My change has made me a better leader.”

He is adamant happiness creates a better team. “People do not come to work just to make money – and in fact those who do come to work just to make money end up very unhappy.”

Some would accuse Cairns of going soft. “I don’t think anyone has ever described me as being soft,” he says with a grin. “I’m still one of the toughest business leaders around. People avoid sitting next to me at Westpac board meetings because I ask the toughest questions.

“But I say: ‘Always be tough on the issues, and compassionate on the people’. There is no contradiction. Leaders think the way to solve a problem is to be really brutal on the people. You know the old adage: ‘Whipping will continue until morale improves.’ It doesn’t work like that. All the psychology will tell you one compliment is worth 1000 criticisms.”

What seems ephemeral has been given a hard edge by research. A renowned neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Professor Richard Davidson, wired up the brains of meditating monks and proved for the first time that activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the seat of positive emotions) swamped negative emotions, anxiety, anger and stress. He ascertained the degree to which meditation can improve performance, sharpen focus and concentration, and stimulate happiness in the individual – and hence all of those people he or she leads.

Thinker, psychologist and author of the worldwide bestseller Positive Optimism, Martin Seligman has been coaching top corporations in better living in order to improve the bottom line. “I teach the new prosperity,” he told me. “Not how to get rich, but how to stay prosperous in all aspects of life: work, home and body. We need to look at a gross wellbeing indicator, not Gross Domestic Product, so we can get ahead without illness, depression, anxiety and fear stopping us in this new, positive paradigm.”

International Business Week once summed it up thus: “It may sound flaky but a growing number of leading companies are setting off on spiritual journeys in search of soul, as a way to foster creativity and motivate leaders.”

Contentment in the workplace has also been shown to save $250,000 in absenteeism and turnover, according to Australian research.

According to Cairns, words such as “empower” have replaced “command” and “control”, while “abundance and prosperity” has replaced “wealth”.

“What do you want written on your gravestone? And if it’s that you made a shit-load of money, that you have a huge house, very big fast car, that’s fine, but the people who I talk to who have all of those things don’t want it written on their grave,” he says.

At the end of the day, Cairns believes his philosophy is paying off.

“I’m a father, a husband, and very contented.”


Twitter: @OstrowRuth

 This story was originally published on March 12, 2014 under the headline Path from profit to prophet as part of RUTH OSTROW’S series TOTAL SUCCESS

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