Australian Leadership Paradox - extract


The Australian and global leadership challenges that we face now and in the future will not be solved by our current ways of thinking. The focus on one leader, usually male, with expectations that he will solve our problems, while at the same time maintain our comfortable way of life, is past its use-by date. This expectation is impossible to fulfil and keeps us in a position of dependency. It is an idea about leadership that belongs to a time when there was less complexity and more certainty, when roles and expectations were much clearer and power was deployed in a traditional command and control style.

After more than a decade of consulting and teaching at Social Leadership Australia (SLA) we hear two unmistakeable messages. Firstly, that we face a unique Australian leadership challenge and secondly that the world is calling for new ways to use power well.

We know that a new kind of leadership is needed to match these times, but what exactly are we looking for? This is a global question yet in it lies a uniquely Australian leadership challenge. We cannot ignore what it means to exercise leadership in Australia and what it means to be an Australian. The two are intertwined. This intertwining is what we name in this book as the ‘paradoxes of Australian leadership’. We explore how they represent Australia’s area of learning and opportunity to make progress.

The purpose of leadership is always and unashamedly about the creation and maintenance of a better world and a more civil society regardless of who is leading and from what sector. It is time to demand that leadership be exercised more effectively in Australia to deliver on this opportunity. This is everyone’s problem, and opportunity. How we as Australians, from the prime minister to the business owner, government bureaucrat or grassroots activist, relate to and enact leadership is fundamental to our long-term progress—not just economically, but as citizens.

The last 50 years has seen tremendous material growth in Australia and by global standards the creation of a well-functioning democracy. Australians have freedom, relative prosperity and the power to make choices. We have peace, the advantage of distance and relatively little cultural baggage. We could wait for others to lead, locally or globally, or we could do it better ourselves. It is an opportunity for us as individual Australians doing our daily work and for the country as a whole. This opportunity is for all Australians regardless of culture, race, gender, level, sector and location.

‘There are times when the only pragmatic course is to be visionary.’
- Donald Horne, The Lucky Country

This book is an ambitious and naive venture. It aims to shift the thinking and practice of leadership in Australia, by Australians—for all Australians. To do this we need to understand more fully who we are, where we are, how we got here and what might transform our leadership.

These are the questions we need to ask if we are to shift our thinking and practice of leadership:

  • What does leadership look like in Australia?
  • How did we get here?
  • What’s the opportunity before us at this stage in our development as a nation?
  • What would make a difference in how we all operate so that leadership can improve in every sector?

The answers to these questions may go some way to answer the dissatisfaction with, and confusion about, leadership in Australia. In early discussions about writing this book, we received a chorus of approval and encouragement from almost everyone we met. ‘Yes. You need to write about that!’ This was consistent, whether we were talking to people in the government or business, academia or community, young or old, country or city, black or white, and men and women. There seems to be a general agreement that things need to shift in how we take up the roles of leadership.

But to what? This question generates less consistent responses or a perplexed silence. We seem to know what we don’t want and don’t like. But when it comes to leadership, we find it hard to articulate, let alone agree on, what we do want. We also haven’t thought too much about how we got to this point in terms of leadership or how we could participate in making it different.

Without a clear idea about what we want from leadership, we struggle to make progress on fundamental changes for the future. We ignore the impact of the way we exercise leadership and are drawn to the short term, negative and divisive. This manifests in a culture of complaint about leadership which is incongruent with how the world sees us and how we see ourselves. Australia remains an optimistic and solutions-oriented country. How do we reconcile a generally poor report card on leadership with one of the highest standards of living in the world, a safe and stable democracy in a unique and beautiful landscape? Are we channelling all of our pessimism and cynicism into one place—leadership?

Or does this complaint and dissatisfaction relate to our unsatisfied hopes and dreams? We saw this hope awakened in the election campaign for former prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2007. The ‘Kevin 07’ campaign ignited an optimism and hope that many reported they had not felt for years. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that it was doomed to wane when the reality of enacting change emerged. Whilst this story had a more dramatic and rapid end than usual, the waxing and waning on leadership is predictable.

We can wait for the next saviour and suffer the inevitable disappointment when our expectations fail us. Alternatively, we can start thinking differently about what leadership means and what we want from our leaders and ourselves.


Hope for purposeful leadership

We are often asked by our course participants and clients to give Australian examples of good leadership. When we look ‘up’ at those in formal positions of power and ‘out’ to those who are led—it is not an inspiring picture. That is not to say that useful leadership is not being exercised in Australia. It is, but often in unexpected and less visible places in communities, organisations and systems.

Effective leadership is characterised by actions that have positive impacts beyond ourselves. It is not management, entrepreneurism or dictatorship. It involves using our privilege and power to connect with others to create progress for the whole of the country, not just one part of it. It enables people to understand and solve their own problems. This means that leadership always embodies a higher dream and purpose that things are left better than we found them—more resilient communities, sustainable organisations and people who are willing to step up and take over when we are gone. This kind of leadership needs to extend across business, government and the community sectors. It is not confined to any one place, profession or level.

To shift the thinking and practice of leadership in Australia is an ambitious goal. It won’t happen through some new government policy or dazzling leadership model from overseas or the arrival of a political saviour. Rather it relies on each of us understanding what leadership really means for us, for the future we seek and how we use what resources we have differently. It is inevitably and inextricably linked to exploring the kind of life we want to live and the world we want to live in.

Who else other than us as Australians has the opportunity to ask these questions and indeed answer them? Who else has the natural resources and high national social and political stability? And who else is as unencumbered by the expectations that constrain larger powers? Like never before in our history, our high privilege is matched only by a lack of a clear and compelling vision for the future: something to lead towards. One could argue that the complaint and negativity about leadership in Australia today is largely a function of failing to sense and create the future we want. To paraphrase an old Zen proverb: As long as we look obsessively at ourselves we find problems. When we look outwards we find useful things to do.

We have the power to make progress and we have the opportunity to take responsibility for that power. The exercise of power with responsibility gives rise to the opportunity for both wisdom and compassion. As Geoff Gallop, former premier of Western Australia, reminds us:

‘Accept your responsibilities and really care for their application.

Always take the debate to another level. The responsibility of

leaders in all aspects of life is to keep raising the debate to

a higher level, always thinking about the bigger picture and

reflecting that in all you say and do.’

This attitude and practice can provide the opportunity for growth in us as individuals and foster the potential in our organisations and societies.

It’s time to stop accepting anything less in our ideas and practice of leadership.


This is an extract from The Australian Leadership Paradox: What it takes to lead in the lucky country by Geoff Aigner and Liz Skelton, Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99. Available from bookshops in August 2013.

Return to the book page.