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The type of leadership Australians want


Turnbull burns Abbott's speedos as crowd turns awayMalcolm Turnbull's main justification for contesting the Liberal leadership was that Tony Abbott was not capable of providing the economic leadership the nation needs. He also maintained that the country needed a 'different style' of leadership.

Notwithstanding Abbott's recent decision to increase the intake of Syrian refugees — which deserves applause — the former PM's appetite for leadership around policy reform was low.

His way of leading was perceived as reactionary and non-consultative, and his behavioural values were seen to be playing to his own constituency and the demands of short term political opportunism. His infamous 'captain's picks' were just one manifestation of his leadership style.

The contrast between the leadership styles and values that our political leaders believe we need, and what Australians actually want from their leaders, was highlighted in the report of the Swinburne Leadership Survey that was launched in April.

The study surveyed leadership across political, religious, union, community and business sectors, which was a wider canvas than previous surveys that were focussed solely on either the business or political sector.

The survey's major findings included the reality that leadership perceptions of political, religious, union, community and business leaders could be graphed across two models — namely 'trustworthiness and competence' — and 'short term/long term interests and self/public interests'.

Its 'trustworthiness and competence' model highlights the fact that political leaders rank below all other categories of leaders — business, union, religious, and community leaders — in terms of perceived trust and competence. By contrast, community leaders are more highly thought of than other categories of leaders, in both trust and competence. Religious leaders rank midway.

Meanwhile the survey's 'short term/long term interests and self/public interests' model found that Australians believe leaders from all sectors — apart from the community sector — are motivated more by their own interests rather than the greater good, and do not take a long term approach. Again, religious leaders only fare marginally better than political leaders. Community leaders are seen as the most concerned about the wider needs of society and to take a long term perspective on problems.

One of the report's authors, Professor John Fien, concludes that Australians have 'nuanced and sophisticated perceptions of the leadership they experience in Australian society'. He argues that they can and do distinguish between the capabilities of leaders in different sectors, and their expectations of these leaders. 'This gives added weight to the judgements they make about leadership.'

These judgments lead Australians to express the desire that they want leaders who are living out of clear values. The values the study identified included: making decisions in the interests of all Australians, not just their own supporters; caring for the long term future of the country, not just short term responses; and maintaining the infrastructure, environmental and social systems — 'the commons' — upon which all economic and social development depends.

The survey took place against the backdrop of diminishing public faith in religious, business, community, political and trade union institutions. There is a sad litany that includes recent examples of the failure of our public institutions, such the Royal and other Commissions into the 2009 home insulation scheme, trade union and political corruption, and institutional failures to address the sexual abuse of children by the clergy, teachers and other community leaders; investigations by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission into unconscionable conduct by a major retailer and corrupt practices in the financial planning arm of the largest bank in Australia, the failure of the Australian government to convince the public that its 2014 national budget was fair and the rapid changes in government in Queensland.

Make no mistake, the challenges facing our leaders independent of sectors are profound. One of the 'wicked' challenges facing the social/community sector — outlined by the Dropping of the Edge Reports in 2007 and 2015 — is entrenched disadvantage which has remained intractable over the decades.

Consequently it is important not to rush too easily to judgement. However, the events of last Monday evening confirm the survey contentions and provide salutary lessons which our leaders, be they political, business, religious, community or trade union ignore at their peril.

I suspect the recent ascension of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — who has lived out the values outlined by the survey for over 30 years of political life — reflects a shift in the public's mood towards a greater desire and affirmation of values based leadership.

The survey's two simple take home messages for Australian leaders are: 'Lift your game' and 'Think long term'. Take note Malcolm Turnbull.

Paul JensenPaul Jensen is the Wagga Wagga based CEO of Centacare for South West NSW.



Topic tags: Paul Jensen, leadership, politics, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull, values, economics



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Existing comments

It is surely a leap to suggest that the election of Jeremy Corbyn by a very small proportion of the British public represents "a shift in the public's mood". What it tells me is that UK Labour has a "courageous" electoral system which carries the risk of choosing as leader a candidate utterly unelectable at national level. The next election will tell the tale, but I suspect that David Cameron is just about the luckiest leader in the western world.

Paul Rodan | 21 September 2015  

I don't know if it is an Australian thing but, we, on the whole, seem to think that people who put themselves forward for elected office (in the smallest club or the House of the Hill) have tickets on themselves. That makes it very difficult for aspiring leaders to convince the electorate that they want to be elected for the good of the members of the community. So to get elected candidates are forced to dissemble. They all have weak spots (We all do) that they try to cover up. Sooner or later their weaknesses are exposed and the electorate becomes disillusioned. The successful leader is one who can manage expectations of followers best.

Uncle Pat | 21 September 2015  

"a candidate utterly unelectable at national level" ... which doesn't necessarily mean that he won't have influence. Corbyn's leadership has already seen him elected to a position that gives him a platform, and has already attracted more people into politics. Let's see how he goes.

Russell | 22 September 2015  

There you have it;the dilemma between having principles and being electable. And as Uncle Pat points out to get in you have to dissemble. You also have to be bound over to get a coalition as did Turnbull in getting the support of The Country Party. Turnbull had to sign up to 10 agreed policies in a side let to Paul Bongiorno (The Saturday Paper Sept 19-25) So such issues as marriage equality, water policy for farmers, direct action on the environment and other remnants of the Abbotsphere persist. The irony is that a leader is never as powerful as he/she/they/we would like which could be a good thing. And while we are about it will this mean that alternative leader Shorten captive of the unions and his ego will have to raise his game in the interests of the Australian people?

Michael D. Breen | 24 September 2015  

The article says: "These judgments lead Australians to express the desire that they want leaders who are living out of clear values". I have a problem with placing too much reliance on what people say they believe (by responding to a survey) and what they actually believe (in large part, for our purposes, by how they vote). The malaise in our electoral system (such as the inordinate power the wealthy have over our 2 main political parties) means that any major party politician rarely puts up policies that: " - make decisions in the interests of all Australians, not just their own supporters; - care for the long term future of the country, not just short term responses; and - maintain the infrastructure, environmental and social systems — 'the commons' — upon which all economic and social development depends". When such policies are put up, powerful vested interests - acting through the media and through the Opposition - soon easily convince the public that the policies are not in their (hip pocket) interest and so they are voted down. The carbon tax is the latest example of this. There is a lot of blue sky between what voters say they want in a leader and what they actually end up voting for.

Rex Graham | 25 September 2015  

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