On human leadership

In addressing the graduates of the 2004 Williamson Community Leadership Program—a program aimed at developing leaders in business, government and the not-for-profit sectors attuned to the needs of the community—Victoria’s Chief Justice Marilyn Warren shared her views on leadership. As the first woman in Victoria appointed to the position of Chief Justice, her comments are especially?apposite. The following is an edited text of her address.

From my perspective, the concept of leadership should be seen in context and that context is essentially the human experience. As I reflect upon leadership and my human experience, one of my first thoughts is that leadership has to be for something. It is not a goal in itself. It needs to be seen as an instrument, a quality or a set of qualities that enables a goal to be achieved.

This view of seeing leadership as instrumental, takes you initially away from the task of identifying the key qualities of leadership and directs your attention to what you want to achieve. Focusing on what you want to achieve eventually takes you into a greater landscape—how do your goals fit into a broader vision of the human experience, individual and community welfare and social good?

This raises the question of whether leadership is ethically neutral. Can a leader of a criminal gang display real leadership? Can a leader of a group hell-bent on ethnic cleansing be properly described as a great leader? We are repulsed by the notion that such a person could correctly and finally be described as a ‘great leader’. I suggest that there is an ethical or moral core that resides deep within the heart of the concept we so much like to talk about, dissect and appropriate.

Leadership describes a human relationship. It is perhaps in the nature of this relationship that we find the moral and ethical connection.

What is the nature of this relationship and is it as simple as describing the reality of one person leading and other people being led? The reality is far more complex. There has to be a process of enlightenment, understanding, engagement, acceptance and approval for real leadership to be exercised. The question is: is it a relationship between equals or, by definition, a relationship between people who are not equals?


The teacher exhibiting clear leadership in the classroom will be a teacher who sees her students as young people with the same rights to education, opportunity and happiness that she has and has had. The parents who lead their children successfully will do so because they see their children as entitled to everything to which they could aspire. The manager who successfully leads her department, will do so because her view of where the group is going is clear and shared by the group. Most importantly her success as a manager will be built upon a clear perception by those she manages that each of them is entitled to the same human dignity, work satisfaction and feelings of success to which she aspires.

National and international figures will ultimately be judged as leaders on the basis of their contribution to the quality of the lives of the people they have been elected or appointed to represent.

Our initial thought about leadership is that it is a relationship between people who are not equals. The leader is the one who is ahead, the one who is wiser, stronger, faster, more knowledgeable, more
creative, more innovative, braver, charismatic or just simply better.

As important as these qualities might be to particular leaders, it is a necessary condition of real leadership that it is exercised in ways which reflect the fundamental value that as human beings we are all equal.
Would we say that someone was a leader if his leadership betrayed the notion that people enjoy equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, equal rights to justice, education and good health, equal rights to live in a civil and humane society?

If this view of leadership is valid, what must follow about the way in which a leader relates to those on the other side of the relationship? If leadership functions within relationships that are built upon a notion of equality, the following might be key issues to explore:

How do leaders ensure that all members of their group understand and embrace the purpose or product of their joint labours?

How do leaders relate to those over whom they exercise their authority? Where does this view of leadership sit with notions of trust, engagement, participation, vesting and delegation?

What obligations does this view of leadership entail in relation to information, communication and education?

And finally, what does this view entail about the relationship between leadership and the identification and pursuit of values which are at the heart of a civil, just and free society?

And as a post script, if I had a little longer I would like to explore the notion that leadership is not a quality of the few, but an obligation of all as we pursue in our various ways and in our various roles, a better world.
I am ending with many questions. However, I suggest that if my analysis thus far is correct, then, we have at least two guides for further analysis and understanding of this most sought after and admired quality.

First, a real leader will always act, always lead, in the ways which are consistent with the notion that leadership is exercised between people who see themselves (and others) as equal. Second, real leadership is not exercised in a moral vacuum. It is exercised in the pursuit of values that are aimed at adding to, and improving the quality of, the human experience. 

The Honourable Justice Marilyn Warren is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria.

 

 

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