The many guises of Australian leadership

| March 17, 2017

Australians are looking for clarity and transparency from their leaders within the community and the nation in general. David Singleton talks to about getting the leaders we deserve.

Leadership in Australia wears many guises. The characteristics broadly prescribed to Australian leadership are humility, authenticity, flexibility, a resistance to authority, a little larrikinism, an ability to envisage solutions to seemingly intractable problems, and developing simple answers to complicated problems. These characteristics are regularly visible in leadership in an Australian context.

Also typical are elements of humour, cynicism, and irreverence, not only in the style of leadership but also in the style of being led. For leadership to be effective there also needs to be followship. So for a leader to be comfortable in an Australian context, they also need to have been in the role of a follower.

What are Australians seeking from our leaders?

Australians at the moment are confused about what we are seeing from our political leaders. It is a disappointing statement about the leadership of our country to see factions feathering their own nest as opposed to acting in the interest of the Australian community. It is said that we get the leaders we deserve and I think that is where we are at present. We have allowed a system to develop where smart lawyers are elected into parliament because they have won an argument. But that argument is seldom for the good of the country. They craft an argument in favour of their client irrespective of the rights or wrongs of the argument. The argument that is put best wins, irrespective of the merits of the case.

Australians today are seeking greater transparency. The country is hoping for a clear statement on our future direction, one that is believable and transparent and not based on pecuniary interests or on the debating merits of the proponent. On the corporate front, we are looking for leadership that is community focused and not merely driven by profit and shareholder value.

The community wants transparency and honesty. I like seeing clarity around executive and board roles, and inhibiting this clarity of purpose and roles doesn’t help anybody in my view; this is why I believe that CEOs should not be members of the board of directors.

Clearity and diversity

Australians are seeking clarity within the community and for the nation. They seek leaders with authority when appropriate, and leaders with humility when that is appropriate. Diversity of leadership is important because there will be differences in the leadership characteristics relevant to the culture and gender of an organisation and its teams. For successful leadership of a diverse organisation, the leader needs to understand the diversity and nuances of that organisation.

I recall that at Arup in the late 1990s we were in the process of appointing a new Board [effectively an executive committee] member. As CEO I believed it was time to appoint a female Board member. With much resistance facing my decision, we did so. My intentions were good but what I learned to our cost, is that doing the right thing is sometimes not the right thing to do. I needed to have prepared and planned ahead for the appointment of a female Board member much better than I had. Her position was sabotaged, and I feel that I let her down. I feel a certain responsibility toward her, to this day.

Diversity is critical to leadership and Australians expect leaders to accommodate diverse members of the organisation, but we do need to consider the dynamics of an organisation before accommodating diversity.

To read the full interview click on this linkTo participate in the Australian Leadership Project please fill in the survey on Australian Leadership.


One Comment

  1. Alan Douglas

    April 8, 2017 at 2:41 am

    It has been said that any group finishes up with the leadership it deserves. It is easy to say that we deserve a better leadership but the only way to get that is for good leaders to put themselves forward. And they aren’t. Why not? Because the interest/incentive is not there. At present we do not appear to have one person in parliament who has the qualities required for true leadership. Private enterprise offers a far more attractive alternative. Sure, there are a few who can see and work hard for their own small group but no-one who looks at the complete picture and has the strength of character to forge ahead no matter what the faceless men behind the scenes say.
    You tell us that you are sad that your idea of putting a woman in charge failed her. Until we face up to the manipulators behind the scenes we aren’t going to get too far. I feel for you but only because you were not able to plan adequately against those who are, basically self-serving cowards.