LEADERSHIP, particularly within the highest offices of public life in Australia, has consumed media headlines recently.
“Time is up”, “leadership terminal”, “out of touch” they scream to the barely veiled delight of some and anguish of others. What has occurred in our society that we now witness the rise and fall of leaders, particularly those in political life, about as often as we wash the car? Are we not producing them? Is the cream being prevented from rising to the top or are would-be leaders simply staying away from high profile positions in droves?
“None of this experience gives you the perfect formula, or a silver bullet for leadership”
As the chief executive of an organisation whose sole focus for over 22 years has been the development of leaders in rural, regional and remote Australia, I cannot help but reflect on this phenomena and proffer what I hope to be a constructive contribution.
My organisation has a long history in helping Australians from all corners of our country, in all walks of life – farmers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait islanders, health professionals, educators and myriad others – to develop their leadership capacity. In doing so we now have a network of almost 900 alumni working individually and collectively to help realise greater possibilities for this country.
As I’m sure all leadership organisations would attest, none of this experience gives you the perfect formula, or a silver bullet for leadership. What it does enable us to do is more easily identify where a person is in their leadership process and expose them to experiences that trigger greater self-awareness, personal development and a stronger sense of contribution to their community, organisation and ultimately their nation.
“Achieving deeper self-awareness goes beyond simple strengths and weaknesses to understand the ethics and values driving you”
Thus, a core foundation of leadership is self-awareness and understanding. If a leader in any field does not open their eyes to this then they cannot hope to develop as a leader and are likely not to adapt their style or approach. Nothing new I hear you say? I’m fully aware of my strengths and weaknesses, say others? Achieving deeper self-awareness goes beyond simple strengths and weaknesses to understand the ethics and values driving you and to learn techniques that allow you to adapt over time.
With greater self-awareness comes a better understanding of others. Development here forms the foundation for another crucial facet of leadership – acting beyond self-interest towards the collective good and a stronger sense of social responsibility.
At the end of the day all leaders must make decisions. However acting decisively shouldn’t be mistaken as a stronger leadership approach than consulting widely before a decision is made. The last thing a leader needs is to forge a new path only to find no-one standing with them.
“Leadership cannot be developed in a two-day course”
There are many other lessons about leadership in our experience – from developing one’s ability to think critically in facing complexity to the ability to transform passion into vision and tell a compelling story. With all this in mind, let’s return to the question of leadership in Australia and what has gone wrong, or more to the point, what we should do about it.
One thing is clear: those who have made it to the top do not always appear to be well prepared to lead. I am not insinuating that they aren’t tough enough or intelligent enough but that many do not appear to have worked as hard on their preparation as a leader as they have in other endeavours.
What should we do about it? The answer is to restore balance.
Ensure that whatever the role, at least as much energy is expended on developing leadership capacity as on management, finance or administration.
Leadership cannot be developed in a two-day course.
“Seek talent, help nourish it and perhaps we will develop good future leaders”
Despite the fact that some people are naturally more persuasive or charismatic than others, I see very few ‘born’ leaders. All of us lead in some way and therefore it is incumbent on all of us to seek to further understand and develop our leadership. Leadership starts at home and is as important to local communities as it is to business and politics.
Equally we should seek to better understand others and support their leadership development – more time spent here than shaking our fist at those in high profile positions will surely be a more positive result for all. As political activist and lawyer Ralph Nader once said: “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers”. Seek talent, help nourish it and perhaps we will develop good future leaders.
It goes without saying that leaders who consult widely before acting often enjoy stronger support. Those who don’t understand that people and relationships hold the key to good leadership should resign themselves to a brief tenure or be satisfied in being exclusively master of one’s own domain.
Nonetheless, getting the balance right between heading in a difficult direction and ensuring you bring others with you has ever been a key challenge of leadership. It is said that what can separate a great leader from a good one is the ability to take people where they need to go rather than where they want to go.
This challenge is becoming all the more difficult in Australia as the mood swings towards a greater sense of entitlement. Part of the philosophical base for our Foundation is that leadership develops as we move from an individualistic approach to a far more altruistic one.
Perhaps by each of us looking at ourselves and asking what we contribute to our community beyond the front gate we can start focusing on the real game – building leadership capacity at all levels. We must invest more now to ensure better leadership in all parts of society.