How many times have we heard journalists accuse political leaders of ‘lacking leadership’ or ‘not showing leadership’? I wonder do they have a clear idea in their minds of what political ‘leadership’ is, and I wonder too whether they share the same ideas about leadership. I suspect that even for the more thoughtful, the term is often used as a fine-sounding catch cry, uninformed by careful consideration of the concept of leadership and its nuances, and in good old groupthink fashion mimicked by the less thoughtful. To many, leadership is an enigma.
Paul Kelly is fond of attributing ‘lack of leadership’ to our leaders, which he does with suitable gravitas. He condemned Kevin Rudd for lack of leadership when he deferred taking action on climate change until the Kyoto Agreement concludes at the end of 2012. In this instance, for Kelly leadership meant Rudd sticking to his principles on climate change and honouring his stated intention to do something about ‘the greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time’. That utterance seems to have evoked ‘righteous indignation’ in Kelly; by deferring action, Rudd had, in his eyes, failed the leadership test. Kelly asserts that Rudd should have persisted with his ETS agenda, if necessary taking it to the people at a double dissolution of parliament. To Kelly, that would have been a sign of leadership. He gave him no credit at all for making a pragmatic decision that he could do no more at present after the repeated rejection of the ETS legislation in the Senate, the disappointment of Copenhagen, and the withering of public support for action on an ETS. He insisted he should have used up some of his ‘political capital’ by taking the matter to the people, presumably even if that risked loss of Government. Labor strategists saw this option as sufficiently risky to advise deferral of action. So I suppose Kelly would have given Rudd a ‘leadership’ tick if he had gone to a DD, even if he lost power. This would have been paltry consolation for Rudd. Many people agree with Kelly and commentators pinpoint the beginning of Rudd’s steep decline to this decision.
Other journalists have expressed similar sentiments. To many, not sticking to a matter of principle is a sign of lack of leadership, and has evoked the question ‘what does he/she stand for’? For example, some have criticized Tony Abbott for abandoning, at least for the term of the next parliament, his IR principles and his support for the concepts of WorkChoices, which he previously endorsed so enthusiastically.
So let’s accept that most journalists would define leadership as sticking to one’s principles, the things one ‘stands for’. And we need to also accept that this definition does not allow for pragmatic political decisions to defer action on principles, or for a change of attitude. The leader has to go into the battle even if defeat threatens.
There are plenty of journalists still uttering ‘I don’t know what she stands for’ and occasionally ‘I don’t know what he stands for’, despite both leaders having announced polices day after day all through the campaign. Apparently these policy announcements don’t count. Is it because they seem disconnected, or too loosely connected to a set of underlying beliefs, attitudes and principles, to a vision of the future? Maybe the scheduling of their ‘launches’ late in the campaign has left people who think about these things without a unifying framework into which policy announcements can be fitted as they are made. By relying too much on berating the Government at the Coalition’s launch and indulging in a hubristic floor show, Tony Abbott failed to give us the vision of the Australia he has in mind, his aspirations for it and the future it should pursue. He failed to define the strongly held principles that would guide him and his party as he provides leadership to the nation.
We hope Julia Gillard will not make the same mistake at her launch and instead show us how all that she has announced fits into a comprehensive global framework of sacredly held Labor principles, personal intentions and far-seeing vision.
What else do journalists mean by ‘leadership’? We can only guess, because they never spell it out.Wikipedia
has an informative piece on Leadership
that makes interesting reading. It begins by giving a general definition that reads: “Leadership is stated as the ‘process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task’."
and "Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen."
These are distinctive from the concept of leadership mentioned above. Here the emphasis is on getting others to follow and contribute to a common aim. The article goes onto describe a variety of explanatory theories: trait theory, behavioural and style theories, situational and contingency theories, functional theory, transactional and transformative theories, and environmental leadership theory.
The individual traits considered indicative of leadership include intelligence, adjustment, extraversion, conscientiousness, openness to experience and general self-efficacy; while styles of leadership include autocratic, participative and laissez-faire, terms that are self-explanatory. It seems as if Kevin Rudd used an autocratic style, which eventually brought him undone.
Ordinary folks might include attributes such as the capacity for a long-term vision, the ability to project confidence and inspire others, openness and honesty, and the talent to affirm values, define philosophy and detail plans for the nation, simply and lucidly.
So how should our political journalists judge political leadership? Is it reasonable to focus on politicians sticking to principles and core values as the prime criterion, while ignoring the necessity for political pragmatism? Or should the main criterion be the capacity to enlist the support of others, to enable their contribution to the common aim, the common task? Or does leadership reside in the capacity to display a coherent framework that encapsulates a vision for the country and a plan for achieving that vision? Perhaps it is all of these.
Whatever it is, when writing about leadership, journalists should state what their leadership criteria are, and how our leaders are meeting, or not meeting those criteria, instead of accusing them of lack of leadership while being too lazy or too ill-informed to spell out what they believe leadership means.What do you think?
At the Labor launch tomorrow, I hope that we might hear from Julia Gillard a statement her vision, along with her plans for this country for the coming decades. If I had to pen such a statement of vision, it would read like this: I want this nation of Australia to be peaceful, secure from external and internal threats, prosperous and fair to all its citizens.
I want all Australians to be confident in their future.
I want an Australia that gives everyone a fair go and an equal opportunity to succeed, while supporting those who are less fortunate.
To ensure prosperity, Australia’s economy needs to be robust, sustainable, able to grow at a suitable rate, and flexible. It needs to be able to gainfully engage all those capable of work in meaningful and rewarding employment that provides a satisfying income and a secure retirement.
To maintain this nation’s economy there needs to be a balance between free enterprise and free markets on the one hand, and government support and regulation on the other. Government intervention in crises when the private sector is unable to sustain the economy and full employment must be the brief of national governments.
To maintain fiscal integrity, a national government must strive for surplus budgets and diminishing debt, yet be prepared to borrow in national emergencies to support business and minimize unemployment.
To advance the nation, reforms are needed in sectors where problems, underperformance or inequity exists. Reforms are needed to the tax, pension and superannuation system; to the regulation of business which requires rationalization; to the development of infrastructure that subserves commerce and industry, health and education, in which national governments must play a regulatory and at times a participative role; to the health system that needs reorganization, reorientation and integration; to the education system that needs enhancement with skilled teachers and educational infrastructure, and that is more transparent and accountable; and to the nation’s defence arrangements to maintain Australia’s security. Australia needs a reforming government.
To achieve a strong economy, Australia must provide first class education for all through well-equipped schools, universities and technical institutions staffed by highly motivated, well trained, supported and appropriately rewarded staff, equipped with facilities that make use of every modern technological advance.
To support all Australians there must be a first class health care system, accessible at every level of the community, affordable to all, properly staffed with sufficient numbers and variety of well-trained healthcare personnel. Emergency care for physical and mental illness must be quickly and conveniently available. Waiting time for elective treatment, especially surgery, must be short and not place any person in jeopardy. The health care system needs to be geared especially to the needs of the chronically ill, the disabled, the disadvantaged, the aged, the mentally ill, and those suffering from substance abuse.
To preserve for future generations a habitable and productive land, action on global warming is urgent and indispensable. Mitigating carbon pollution and restoring water flows in our major rivers and wetlands must be a top priority. The preservation of the nation’s natural and irreplaceable resources, and the prudent use of finite resources such as minerals must be a prime responsibility. To this end Australia must play its role as a conscientious global citizen, collaborating with other nations to combat global warming.
To guarantee a congenial lifestyle for all its citizens, Australia needs a sustainable population policy that uses its natural resources prudently, and provides the infrastructure and amenities that an expanding multicultural population requires. Such a policy needs to balance immigration, the need for skilled labour, and the carrying capacity of the land and its town and cities.
Australia must also play its role in ensuring regional and global security, peace and the alleviation of poverty.
To guarantee fulfilling social engagement, communities need to be inclusive, supportive and satisfying for all citizens irrespective of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, belief, and religious and political affiliation. Orderly border protection needs to be capable of ensuring social cohesion and security.
The Government needs to listen to its citizens: from those in the remotest places to those in the centre of cities, from the young to the old, from the least to the most wealthy, from the worker to the employer, from the productive sectors to the service sectors, across the spectrum of political and religious persuasions, so that all the needs of the community can be assessed and addressed and the nation’s resources allocated in the most equitable and productive manner.
To achieve these ends, Australia needs stable governance that integrates local, state and federal governments in a collaborative endeavour that has as its primary aim the advancement of this country in all its richness and diversity to the benefit of its entire people.
All of Labor’s plans are consistent with this vision.
Now, even although the above vision is likely incomplete, it is still a rather verbose statement. If Julia Gillard were to use such words in her launch, what would the media say? Would they applaud ‘the vision splendid’ or cast it as a wordy bore? Would they gleefully acknowledge the ‘leadership’ inherent in making such a statement? Would they describe any attempt at such a statement as ‘visionary’ and see that setting such a template into which plans can be embedded as just what they have been looking for, yearning for, when they talk about ‘vision’, ‘narrative’, ‘leadership’? I doubt it. Just a few would analyse and critique such a statement, one so hard to condense into a few pithy, eye-catching sentences, or a seven second grab for TV or radio. Just a tiny handful might see this as ‘leadership’. For so many journalists, ‘leadership’ really is an enigma, one few seem to have examined carefully.
So don’t be disappointed if Julia does not go this far; she has a better idea of what the media can digest than I have. I am nearly always disappointed.What do you think?