Professor Michael Nilsson, MD, PhD, is an internationally renowned rehab specialist and neuroscientist specialising in brain recovery after stroke. In 2012, he became Director of Hunter Medical Research Institute and the Burges Professor of Medical Science at the University of Newcastle.
He has initiated, planned and established pioneering translational research programs that combine scientific and clinical research in rehabilitation neuroscience focusing on brain plasticity and recovery. In addition to his research achievements Professor Nilsson has a proven track record in team and relationship building, entrepreneurship and managing innovation and change.
Michael thinks it’s vital for leaders to have the capacity for diplomacy, consensus and compromise – but they also need to be able to be decisive when required.
- What leadership style do you adopt?
I’ve served in executive leadership roles in health and academia for over 15 years, both in Sweden and Australia. Growing up in the Swedish system with a team-orientated culture, I have always applied an inclusive leadership style.
When managing people in high performing organisations with multiple stakeholders I think it’s very important to have the capacity for diplomacy, consensus and compromise. Having said that, there is always a point where you need to make a decision and I also don’t have a problem in saying yes or no.
- How do you encourage creative thinking within your organisation?
We can do that on multiple levels but really it’s about creating the right culture where you encourage people to explore and support new avenues, revenue opportunities and success.
Entrepreneurship hasn’t always been at the forefront in the university world, and medical research can sometimes be very traditional in that respect. In recent years, though, there has been a great push for innovative thinking outside of the square.
As a leader you can help to create arenas, meeting places and opportunities for the younger up-and-coming researchers to engage with experienced senior researchers and leaders from business and elsewhere from the community, thereby stimulating entrepreneurial interest and creative thinking.
We can drive behaviour to some extent through funding. By supplying research grants to the best and most innovative people within an organisation you can open other minds to opportunities too.
So it’s a combination of things ‚Äì you want to create that permissive, supportive, facilitating environment that underpins creativity and identify those people who are potential leaders in that space.
- What is one action or task you ensure you incorporate into your diary each week?
It’s checking in with different people in different roles and functions. I have a set of action points in and around my own orientation in the surrounding local, national and international landscape so I speak with the major collaborators, stakeholders and colleagues while also keeping an eye on relevant media etc.
- Throughout your career, what are some of the leadership traits that struck you as particularly effective or ineffective?
The effective ones are the inspiring leaders who have ‘been there done that’, as they say. They are experienced and have the capacity to encourage and motivate others.
These people are listeners as well as being leaders. I’m talking about true engagement, understanding other people’s strengths and opportunities, and offering support to those individuals who can grow an organisation.
Open and accessible two-way communication is very important to get people to buy into new ideas and methods so it’s the inclusive and inspiring leaders that are the role models for me.
From my own perspective, I feel that being an active researcher, clinician and entrepreneur make me a more effective leader of this institute.
To the contrary, dogmatic leaders who don’t listen tend to isolate themselves in organisations high up in the tower instead of trying to keep an ear to the ground. It pays to make an informed view of where you and the surrounding world is going.
- What local businessperson do you find inspiring?
I find so many of them inspiring because there is a real pioneering spirit in this region and a willingness to roll up the sleeves, regardless of the business size or type.
You just have to look back to 1998 when some key staff from HNE Health and the University of Newcastle hatched the HMRI concept almost from scratch. Their simple endeavour to improve community wellbeing has evolved into a major industry in its own right, with 1500 aligned researchers.
HMRI has increasingly become pro-business in its thinking, forging partnerships with companies locally, nationally, as well as abroad.
But if pressed to name one businessperson I would say Neil Slater from Scratchleys Restaurant because he epitomises all that’s good and generous and supportive about this region.
How’s this for a wonderful idea ‚Äì get together the best chefs in Newcastle then invite people to come along for the lunch of their lives. That was Neil’s brainchild 10 years ago when he conceived the Gastronomic Lunch, and this year the event passed the $1 million fundraising mark for HMRI.
Each year the funds have gone to support a vital children’s research project, whether that’s for myopia, asthma, brain cancer, diabetes or the Healthy Dads Healthy Kids physical activity project that resulted from seed funding at the 2008 Gastronomic Lunch.
Neil has been remarkably generous with his time and energy, drawing on his vast reserves of passion and persuasion to pull together the chefs, staff and suppliers every year.
He is also one of the visionaries behind the Anzac Walk project on The Hill and also the OzHarvest food vans. He does so much for the city and I’m pleased to say that the HMRI Board recently moved a formal vote of thanks to Neil for his exceptional contribution to HMRI.