Of all the qualities our political leaders strive to embody, the nebulous characteristic called “leadership” is ironically the hardest to achieve.

Both Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his opposition counterpart Bill Shorten have discovered there’s considerably more to the leadership task than striding forward shouting “follow me!”

Leadership requires striking what is usually a precarious balance between reflecting what voters want, and convincing them to accept what the nation needs. The consequences of getting the balance wrong usually amounts to electoral defeat.

Voters are hard taskmasters when it comes to leadership. The quality can inspire respect, sometimes admiration and even less frequently, awe.

But it is a title and a role that only we can bestow; we generally only see figureheads as leaders if, in our estimation, they reflect our own values, thoughts and motivations.

We want our leaders to be an extension of us; to lead, but in reality, to follow. We favour those who ascribe to the apocryphal motto attributed to both the fictional British PM Jim Hacker and the 19th century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin: “I am their leader. I must follow them.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that Abbott’s reflection of our shock, grief and grim determination following the attack on MH17 initially resulted in his leadership credentials being considered in a more positive light.

Abbott has since managed to dim that glow by overreaching on the tragedy. His attempt to appropriate the retrieval of the dead as another “national security” issue, by dubbing it Operation Bring Them Home and announcing the deployment of armed police and defence personnel to the site, quickly leached much of the goodwill that previously unsupportive voters may have had for the PM.

Such is the risk of straying from the song sheet that is the collective consciousness.

There are of course other inherent dangers for leaders who follow the pack. It’s one thing to channel the nation’s collective ebullience, as Bob Hawke did on the morning Australia II won the America’s Cup, or our deep regret, as Kevin Rudd did when he apologised on our behalf to the Stolen Generations.

It’s yet another to move like a weathervane as the winds of public opinion shift from one direction to another. Voters prefer their leaders to be reliable and dependable, and usually lose respect for those who prove to be otherwise.

The greatest risk, however, is in succumbing to voters’ baser instincts such as the xenophobia, if not outright racism, embodied in the current majority view that condones the harsh treatment of asylum seekers in the name of “national security”.

Likewise the voters’ hip-pocket rejection of climate action, which has shaped both the Coalition and Labor’s abandonment of the carbon “tax”.

In these cases, a different type of leadership has traditionally been used; one that involves stepping forward from the pack and setting an example to be followed.

There is a good reason this type of leadership is less favoured; our contemporary political history is littered with the remains of those who failed to lead Australians to accept unpopular political positions.

Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard’s inability to successfully prosecute the case for a carbon price is perhaps the most recently notable example. Treasurer Joe Hockey’s attempt to unite voters against “the age of entitlement” is another.

And Bill Shorten’s push to democratise the Labor Party, which is meeting considerable resistance from the union and factional influences within the party membership that he’s seeking to reduce, may yet prove to be another example.

A different approach to political leadership is needed if Australia is to tackle diabolical issues such as asylum seekers and climate change, as well as less pressing but nevertheless important matters like the federal budget.

It’s not enough for a leader merely to espouse what the Australian people want, or conversely to expect that voters will trust and follow them just because of the office they hold.

A necessary precursor must first be established – political leaders must earn the respect of the Australian electorate. Only those leaders who have secured that respect, and who can effectively make the case for change, will successfully bring the community along with them.

Without political leadership built on respect, we’ll continue to be distracted by populist politicians and resentful of those who try to force worthy but unpalatable solutions upon us. And the tough issues will either be buffeted by the winds of populism or simply consigned to the too hard basket.