The vexed issue called ‘leadership’

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.

Leadership is True North for our political compasses

What is this malaise that’s gripping Australian voters? According to the latest opinion poll we’re deeply unhappy with Julia Gillard (disapprove 50%, approve 37%) yet we still prefer her to Tony Abbott as Prime Minister (Gillard 42%, Abbott 33%). Even more confusingly, despite our concerns about Abbott, it seems we would elect a Coalition government tomorrow if given the chance.

What is it that makes us unable to embrace the combination of party and leader currently on offer? Perhaps it’s that we don’t carry the same tribal allegiance to political parties that our parents did. Today, many people have no such allegiance and therefore cast their vote on a case-by-case basis depending upon contemporary values and how they are to be realised through election commitments.

It’s for this reason that political leadership is often the vote clincher. An effective leader is the embodiment of the values that a voter holds most dear. Values such as honesty, integrity, compassion, altruism and the capacity to make hard decisions for the greater good – these are the values that modern Australians want to be exemplified by the people for whom they vote.

Is this a big ask? Yes indeed. And what are the implications when a politician does not meet the mark? Well, look no further than the mixed fortunes of Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and their respective parties for the answer.

Australian voters are all over the place when it comes to political support because they want leadership and simply can’t find it. Leadership is the True North that we all need for our political compasses.

In response to a recent poll, only 34% of voters agreed that federal Labor had a good team of leaders, while 40% made the same assessment of the Liberals. The Greens garnered even less support with only 29% considering them to have a good leadership team.

Perhaps even more damning was the percentage of voters who believed that a party would promise to do anything in order to win votes. An astonishing 72% believed this description applied to Labor, with 65% for the Liberals and 52% for the Greens.

Successful leaders embody the values that their supporters hold dear. To do that, they need to understand their followers. Considering that a majority of voters think the parties have poor leadership and would say anything to get a vote, it comes as no surprise that they’re also considered to be out of touch with ordinary people. Voters decry the three parties as similarly disconnected, with 61% saying that Labor is out of touch, 54% for the Liberals and 60% for the Greens.

These findings show that contemporary political leadership has been scrutinised by everyday Australians and has been found wanting.

In management theory there are many types of leadership. Some effective leaders work within their constituencies and empower others to be the source of motivation and direction. This type of leader seeks neither a profile nor recognition because that would detract from the group dynamic.

The more commonly known leadership type is that which inspires and achieves action by motivating constituents who admire and emulate the leader. This type of leader does not shy from stepping out in front, capturing the limelight and being placed on a pedestal.

If left unchecked, this follow-me leader will have to continually ramp up their followers’ expectations in order to maintain high levels of motivation. Leaders that encourage hero-worship like this inevitably create unrealistic expectations and are brought back to ground by their disillusioned fans.

Perhaps this is the problem right now in Australian politics. We’re not holding out for a hero (with apologies to Bonnie Tyler), we just want someone whose words and deeds are worth admiring and emulating. We don’t necessarily want a popular Prime Minister, just a strong leader who will do the right thing for the country and thereby for all of us.

For many years that politician was John Howard. While he was never a popular politician, Howard had the ability to secure the votes of people who didn’t like him or didn’t usually vote Liberal. These people didn’t necessarily agree with Howard but they responded to his leadership and trusted him to make the right decisions for the country. Admittedly Fraser also won elections while unpopular, but Howard did so after making some very unpopular decisions.

It’s a matter of record that Howard threw that trust away. He squandered the electoral asset that he’d carefully built over years in high office with acts of indulgence and hubris. People lost faith in Howard as they watched him put personal political philosophies ahead of the public interest. He stopped being the leader that people respected and so he lost their support.

Rudd relinquished his claim to strong leadership in a much shorter space of time, by failing to deliver on the expectations he created in the 2007 federal election. Rudd deftly positioned himself prior to that election as Howard-lite, framing himself as the “other” safe pair of hands, but with bonus features such as the ratification of Kyoto and the scrapping of WorkChoices. While Rudd did apologise to the Stolen Generation, he did not deliver on any other major promise. The Labor MPs and operatives who eventually deposed Rudd did so, among other reasons, because they knew voters had lost faith in him and were waiting to demonstrate this at the ballot box.

Gillard similarly built up and then shattered voters’ expectations. She became Prime Minister promising to resolve three issues: Australia’s response to climate change; the battle with the mining industry over the Resource Super Profit Tax; and a more humane approach to sea-borne asylum-seekers. Instead she announced a clumsy citizens’ assembly on climate change; capitulated on a promise not to introduce a carbon price; gave ground to the mining industry and replicated some of the most reviled elements of the Howard Government’s detention scheme.

It’s hard to think of an action the current PM has taken that any Australian would be inspired to emulate: her 50% disapproval rate is confirmation of that.

And finally, there is Tony Abbott. Despite Julia Gillard having shattered their high hopes, only 33% of voters prefer Abbott to her. Abbott is not a viable alternative to Gillard because, despite his machismo, he’s just not seen as a leader. Abbott displays none of the humanity and common decency that distinguished both Howard and Rudd during their time as Opposition Leader. He does not attempt to enable others as leaders, nor does he attempt to inspire: his demeanour is menacing and his rhetoric is consistently negative. No wonder his disapproval rating is 48%.

So here we are, disillusioned, disoriented and perhaps even disenfranchised by the lack of political leadership in Australia.

Ironically, politicians are disillusioned with voters too. Sadly, they seem unable to identify the cause of our malaise. It’s simple, we need a leader – someone with integrity and courage, with humanity and compassion, who knows us and will do the right things by the country.

Perhaps it’s too late for Gillard and Abbott, or perhaps they can look within and find the leader that they need to be and that we need them to be. Without such a leader we will all struggle on, as if without a compass, through the Australian political wilderness.

This piece originally appeared at The King’s Tribune