14. Leaders


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Given that modern politics, particularly when viewed through the media lens which is how most of us interact with it, is becoming increasingly “presidential”, the leader has become the figurehead of the government.  They have to be the embodiment of the values of “the party”, but unfortunately this can make things come unstuck.   Our last three parliaments have been characterised by the fact that the Prime Minister at the start of the term, has not been the Prime Minister at the end.  Whilst some suggest that the way the parties decide their leader is the problem, and that it is simply too easy to change them, I disagree. This revolving door simply reveals underlying problems with the system.  Making the revolving door harder to turn might give a semblance of stability, but does not resolve the issue that we are ending up with leaders who seem unable to maintain public support.  Whilst politicians regularly decry opinion polls, these tools are vitally important reflectors of the mood of the public.  I am personally delighted that politicians recognise this, and are prepared to do something about it, but it doesn’t provide the stability and long-term plan that we require as a country.

So why aren’t leaders able to maintain support from the public?  Well there are lots of reasons, but it is increasingly clear that the current political process seems incapable of producing ones that the public warm to.  You would like to think that those who rise to the top are those who are competent, persuasive and popular with the electorate, but it seems you are just as likely to get to that position if you are devious, you do what you are told, and you look after your backers.  And in return, you can largely expect undivided loyalty from your party.  The problem is that this is a sham that is far too easy to see through, and it becomes difficult to stay on message.  The voting public can quickly sniff out Prime Ministers who don’t really believe the message that they are selling, and they don’t like it.  Honesty and trust are difficult to show when the party system forces politicians to stand behind policies that they really don’t agree with, or that they know will be unpalatable with the public.

Recently a summit attended by those representing business, the community, and workers got together to agree actions that would help them achieve a shared vision.  This National Reform Summit recognised that in order to progress, the political system needed to become more bi-partisan in order to achieve an achievable, long-term plan to create and maintain a strong economy and fair society. Unfortunately the party system is entirely partisan.  Whilst there may be some subjects on which the parties choose to agree, for the most part they seem unable to act in any other way, due to the adversarial nature of party politics.

I’m going to return to the election process in a later chapter, but assuming we’ve rid ourselves of parties and their constraints, what type of qualities and skills would we be looking for in our Prime Ministers?

Well firstly, a good leader needs to have a vision.  A concept of the future in which our country is heading.   Are we going to be a nation who excels at digging stuff out the ground?  Or world leaders in renewable energy? Or perhaps a happy, friendly country that will encourage wealthy people to want to come and live and invest here.  Or maybe shut the doors, and let nobody else in to try and achieve a more stable size of population.  A national approach to the rest of the world is not unique. When the Americas were being colonised, the Spanish, Dutch, French and British took very different approaches.  The Spanish relied heavily on religion and war to subjugate the colonies, the Dutch conversely were traders.  The French were adept at co-operating with the natives, whilst the British relied more on emigration to get their toe-hold on the new world, particularly where religious groups wished to escape the persecution that was rife in England at the time.  These “strategies” had different impacts, and played out in different ways in the long-term.  Similarly Australia needs to consider its place in the world.  If we do want to have a greater influence in Asia, for example, do we have, or are we building, the skills necessary for that to be achieved.  If being self-sufficient is more our goal, then are we ensuring that we have strategic long term plans for water, energy and food?

In an increasingly competitive global economy, we need to be very clear about where we want our nation to be placed, understanding what our strengths are, but also our weaknesses.  We are unfortunately, at the far end of the world, with only New Zealand being further away from the main English speaking markets.  But we are the major English speaking country very close to the rapidly developing economies of south east Asia.  So Australia has strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats.  But I digress.  It will be the job of our future leaders to determine these visions of how Australia will look, and how it might be competitive in the future.  They need to work out their “strategy for the nation”.

And once they’ve determined it, they need to be able to communicate this vision so that people understand it.  They need to be able to tell us the benefits we will receive, but also what it will cost (both financially, as well as potentially in other ways).  Visions don’t necessarily have to be complex, indeed the simpler the better, because through the delivery of the vision usually comes many side benefits.  We need to know what these visions are, so that we, the electorate, can decide which one(s) we support, and which we don’t.

The vision is vital.  It is the central theme into which voters are buying, and which should help determine whether legislation be put forward and passed or not.  If the central theme of the current government was to “reduce the debt and deficit emergency” then voters are going to be a little cynical when a government announces plans to spend money on new football training facilities in the electorate which just so happens to be having a by-election. Having a vision that the electorate have endorsed simplifies the necessary ongoing communication by providing a context for decision making.  If proposed legislation appears to conflict with that central narrative, then it is much less likely to be approved, and rightly so.

It is also important that leaders have an environment in which they can lead.  The more constrained they are, the more difficult that leadership job becomes.  In business, when we think of successful leaders we might think of Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Bill Gates or even perhaps Rupert Murdoch.  The fact that they had significant “ownership” of their own businesses provides them with the liberty to state their vision without the “owner” checking over their shoulder. Bought in CEO’s usually have much less leeway to set the vision, unless the company owners recognise that there may be other objectives than simply maximise the profits. Much of Winston Churchill’s wartime success as a leader was because he presided over a parliament that had agreed to be non-partisan for the duration of the conflict, and he had a very clear vision that he was able to articulate to the population of what needed to take place.

This has often been the problem with Australian, indeed many, Prime Ministers.  In order to get into, and then maintain power, they rely on the support of the party.  In return it is not their vision that they project, but that of the Party (and indeed those who fund it – no money, no Party).  In doing so, they stop being true leaders and simply becomes salespeople.  Plus when they get into power, the purpose of the opposition is to oppose their vision, often regardless of whether it might be what the people want or not.  Without at least some clear air, demonstrating good leadership can be very challenging.  We will return to how we can achieve this in a later chapter.

So now we’ve got the vision, the next thing a leader needs is to be able to articulate a mechanism for how we get from where we are now, to where that vision is realised.  We need to know the plan.  This might be more investment in schools and universities, more investment in roads, more investment in airports.  The details aren’t required yet, but we at least need a high level roadmap that connects all the points together logically.  This is vitally important for investments whose implementation is going to take longer than one, and maybe multiple governments.

So strategic vision, communication and high level planning skills are pivotal.  What else?

Well, given the complexity of running a country, to do it well you are going to need a team to assist.  Just as a CEO will have their management team, a Prime Minister will still needs their cabinet.  So good team skills are going to be essential.  A good leader knows how to negotiate, how to make decisions, how to facilitate meetings.  A good leader recognises the need for diversity in their teams, and the benefit that provides in terms of producing better quality and more robust solutions.

Good leaders must have high emotional intelligence.  They must be passionate about their vision, but be aware of the feelings of those around them and respond appropriately.  They must, as MLK so right said, mould consensus, building different perspectives into a theme that brings the most benefit to most.  And you can only mould if you are aware of the feelings of those around you.  Good leaders use positive emotions – hope, camaraderie, gratitude, empowerment.  Hope builds confidence, and a confident electorate is a more productive one.  Weak leaders use fear.  Fear causes worry, and worried people are less productive.

If you take away the party shenanigans, good political leaders should have many of the same skills and aptitudes as good leaders from business, not-for-profit organisations, or indeed any other organisation. And why not.  The wealth of development available in leadership skills over the last fifty years has been remarkable.  Great leaders may be born, but they can be developed too, and political ones are no different.

The last trait that I think we’d like to have in our leaders is experience.  And by that I mean life experience AND parliamentary experience.  Understanding a cabinet portfolio is definitely easier if you have had some prior experience in that field before entering politics, whether that is health, defence, economics, education, small business or the law.  And Prime Ministerial candidates should have amassed an understanding of how the processes of government works, ideally have some cabinet experience under their belt, but will also have invested some networking time with other MPs and ministers.  It is much, much easier to pick a team if you know who is good at what!

So looking at what we’ve got so far, organisationally it’s not much different from what we have at present.  A Prime Minister and their appointed cabinet, but now a much larger number of effectively cross bench MPs.  Without parties to rely on for support, the executive team is going to have to work a little bit harder to get legislation created and approved. But working to achieve a broader support amongst MPs to get that approval, the likelihood is that policies will be generally more acceptable across political ideologies, and hence likely to stay legislated when governments change (if we hope to avoid the legislate/repeal cycle that we’ve witnessed from governments recently, and get a bit more stability and continuity back which businesses, other organisations, and indeed citizens really want to see).  To make that happen effectively is going to require some changes, both in the way that policy is currently developed and voted on, but also in the skills and attitudes required of our Federal Members, and it is them we will focus on next.


About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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