Leadership lessons from the world of Australian politics

Leadership and strategy are inextricably linked.  One without the other is like fertiliser without water: wasted.  The reader could be forgiven for raising a quizzical eye at the suggestion there is anything to learn of leadership from recent years of Australian politics.  But applying the adage we learn more from failure than we do success, perhaps there’s something here for us all. 

Here is a summary of my five key lessons for business leaders from Australia’s recent political history.   

1.       ‘Vision’ matters.  Business leaders often have mixed views about ‘vision’.  I’m ambivalent because it’s a construct whose value has been weakened by so many dreadful visions.  And for me ‘mission, vision, values’ sounds like a three word slogan.  But you need something that connects with people, which ‘pulls’ them into the future.  Guy Kawasaki, former Chief Evangelist at Apple, and now serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist, loves the notion of a ‘mantra’.  Whatever your choice, ‘it’ creates a sense of possibilities, enthusiasm, and energy: it creates hope.  And leaders fundamentally trade in hope. Turnbull is beginning to sketch out future possibilities for the country: Abbott saw most things through the lens of problems to be solved. 

2.       You need a narrative … story telling is the means by which we connect the past, the present and the future.  It describes the challenges and opportunities, and connects the values and the ‘vision’. Through the narrative leaders can help create a sense of stability and continuity even in a world of change; they can help people create meaning, purpose and identity.   Political commentators often spoke about the failure of former PM Tony Abbott to provide an overarching ‘political narrative’.  This is why it matters.  Will new PM Malcolm Turnbull deliver a narrative?  Certainly he has begun to weave a narrative, but it remains work in progress. John Hagel, a thought leader from Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, has described the untapped potential of corporate narratives.   In the world of strategy the narrative is also a vehicle for connecting seemingly disparate initiatives (but it won’t help you if they really are disconnected initiatives)

3.       Authenticity and expressiveness matter … it seems trite to say it, but you will not succeed as a leader if you are not authentic.  This seems so self-evident it is surprising that there is now a vast body of research that confirms it.  Authentic leaders present personal points of view that reflect clarity about their values and convictions (think John Howard).  Chris Ulhmann has observed that Tony Abbott used to attempt to answer interviewers questions quite openly, but at the cost of an occasional ‘brain fart’.  Later, as Leader of the Opposition, he became incredibly disciplined but at a cost to his authenticity.  This was always going to be a problem as the leader of the country.  Relatedly, emotional expressiveness is connected to trustworthiness.  In the political and business context it can be hard for leaders to display this sort of expressivity, but it is a pathway to trust.  There is a reason former PM Bob Hawke enjoyed such a strong relationship with the Australian people. 

4.       Communication matters … being right is only half the challenge.  Amid the bevvy of new PM’s over recent years it is not unreasonable to ask why.  Poor communication is often cited.  The Public Relations Institute of Australia recently argued “whether one thinks the government’s policies were right or wrong – fair or unfair – there is agreement that Tony Abbott failed to communicate effectively”.  One analyst noted that as PM Abbott spoke 100 words per minute slower than during his time as Opposition Leader.  In his own defence Tony Abbott complained the change has been all about communication style as if this, somehow, made it unreasonable.  But as I’ve argued before, being right is never enough.  Whether you run a business or the country, effective communication should be an ‘entry level’ requirement. 

5.       Distributed leadership is essential … and yet with each Prime Minister since John Howard we have seen much more centralised decision-making.  This is a fundamentally flawed leadership strategy.  It fails to leverage the wisdom of the broader leadership group.  And instead of ‘engagement’ of the broader leadership group, we get disenfranchisement: they lack the context to understand the choices made and carry that message to their constituents.  Instead, what they get are ‘phrase cards’ such as we might give children in primary school to ‘sell’ the Government’s message (see ‘authenticity’ above).  Since his ascension to the role of PM Malcolm Turnbull has made much of his commitment to return to true Westminster cabinet processes: we were better served by this process.  Early reports from political analysts suggest we are already seeing Ministers given much more freedom. 

So what?  Well, how does you/your organisation stack up on these issues?  Rate yourself/your organisation on a scale of 1-9.

1.       Do you have clarity around a ‘vision’ for the business which creates a sense of possibilities, enthusiasm and energy? (not for you but for the people in the organisation)

2.       Do you tell a compelling story of the trajectory of the business in terms of past, present challenges and future opportunities?  Does it reflect the organisational values? 

3.       Are leaders in the organisation seen as ‘authentic and expressive’? 

4.       How strong are the communication skills across the broader leadership team? 

5.       Do you leverage the distributed leadership team?  Are they engaged in the strategic conversations and decision processes?

How did you go?  Perhaps this gives you a basis for an honest leadership conversation. 

But remember this.  All leaders are flawed.  Undoubtedly Malcolm Turnbull will reveal more flaws over time.  The real issue is not the existence of the flaws, but sufficient awareness of the flaws and a willingness to establish mechanisms to protect the organisation from their downsides.

Good luck.