Dawie Olivier: Leadership lessons I learned from the Navy

Ryan Boyd
 Dawie Olivier: Leadership lessons I learned from the Navy

On the surface, being a Lieutenant in the South African Navy seems very far from leading Westpac’s technology teams. But as our CIO Dawie Olivier explains, there’s actually a lot in common with how he led teams in both industries.

And with a recent win for Best ICT Team Culture at CIO Awards, he appears to be on the right track.


Law school dropout to Naval Lieutenant

Dawie Olivier, Westpac CIO

Dawie Olivier, Westpac CIO

After leaving high school, Dawie’s career path didn’t quite get off to a flying start, with his defiant nature ill-suited to law school.

“I joined the South African Navy as a very rebellious young man having wasted a year of my dad’s sponsorship at uni where I was allegedly studying law. It came to a proper head between my dad and I, and I ran away and joined the Navy.

“Thank God someone there spotted something in me some kind of potential, and so instead of them taking me in as a seaman, they took me in as a merchantman, which is an officer in training.

“This laid the foundation essentially for the rest of my life.”

And over the next decade, Dawie travelled the world, got a degree in Maritime Studies, and went from being a Merchantman to the Operations Officer on the flagship in the South African Navy.

Until something, or rather someone, initiated a change in career path.

“I met the love of my life who disavowed me of a life at sea. Which is a good thing.”

SEE ALSO: The role of identity in leadership


Leadership is a contact sport

Barely out of his teens, Dawie suddenly found himself leading men in a high risk environment, but the navy ensured there was enough mentoring and support to do it well.

“When I was 20 years old I joined my first ship and was instantly made the gunnery officer, which is ironically the most junior role on a war ship. At 20 years old I had a division of 25 men and all the weaponry on the ship was my responsibility.

“But you learn quite quickly that the leadership position you get given by the virtue of your rank is actually quite irrelevant. Shouting commands at somebody will only get you so far, and the minute the pressure’s on those men will only follow you if they truly respect you and if they trust that you know what you’re doing.

“In the Navy, leadership is a contact sport, it’s not something you get to do from afar.”

Dawie Olivier in the South African Navy

Context is key

Dawie says that in virtually everything the Navy taught their teams, they were not only taught how to do it, but also taught why.

“That context is absolutely critical.

“That’s a takeaway for any leader in any business, because once people understand why the way we’re doing things is the best way to do it, then it’s much easier for them to do it that way, as opposed to being a cog in the big machine.”

Not only that, but also providing teams the opportunity to challenge things is key.

“And then as a leader it’s quite important to learn how to take those challenges in and process them, and then how to feed it back to the same team so you do get great outcomes.

“And then how to teach it to others.”


For the greater good of the team

Of course, a group of men and women confined to the same space for extended periods of time is sure to cause friction. But Dawie says a high performing team will resolve issues themselves.

“One of the hallmarks of great teams is tolerance. The ability to acknowledge that we all have edges on our personality, and then within reason to let people have those edges. But also everybody that has an edge learns how to dial it back a little bit, for the greater good of the team.

“That said it’s not like guys don’t get into fights. But in my experience what most often would happen is before it would come to my notice, it would have been sorted out by the non-commissioned officers or by themselves, because the sanctity of team itself becomes more important than the outcome of a particular fight.

“And that’s when you know that a team is working really well.”

Dawie says awareness of a larger purpose helps resolve conflict, and is a tactic that crosses over to the corporate world as well.

“The best tool for conflict resolution is making two people look each other in the eye and talk about it. It’s the same in the military as in the corporate world.

“Eventually you’ll get to a point where team members will call each other’s broken behaviours out.”

Dawie Olivier quote

An enabler, not a boss

In the end, Dawie doesn’t see himself as a big boss issuing commands for people to carry out. He says an effective leader’s job is to be an enabler, and to make it possible for the team to shine.

“That’s done by a couple of very key things. One is setting a great aspiration, and making sure everyone understands the greater outcome before you engage in whatever activity that you have, and understand exactly how they contribute to those things.

“The other one is ensuring that they have all the enablement, all the tools, al the training that they could possibly need to be as good as they can possibly be to meet that aspiration.

“Not to call the shots, but as to make it possible for them to win, that the leader’s true job.

“As much as you should charge into the bullets, you stand at the back when the credits come.”

SEE ALSO: The role of identity in leadership

Royal New Zealand Navy partnership

Over the month of June, Westpac has partnered with the Royal New Zealand Navy to present a number of events to recognise 30 Years of Women at Sea.

The events are an opportunity to acknowledge the commitment of the females who have served in the Navy previously, as well as highlighting the great work of the Navy’s current sailors.

Visit the Operation NEPTUNE 75th anniversary webpage and follow the Royal New Zealand Navy’s Facebook page for regular updates on how, when and where people can get involved. 

, , , ,