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Political leadership: What’s that?

By Don Allan - posted Tuesday, 1 November 2011

The title gives rise to some questions that need answers. For example, what is leadership? What is good leadership? Are our political leaders really worse than any we've had before? And are we better served in any other area? Not being a political expert my answers might please some and displease others.

Let me introduce you to the subject via Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, as Portia speaks to Shylock in Act IV, Scene I, saying:"The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heavenupon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes."

One hopes that leaders in Australian politics have been thus blessed. Unfortunately, my observations suggests they aren't.


So what is leadership? Leadership comes in many guises - Authoritative; Democratic; Laissez faire; Narcissistic. Perhaps the most common of these is narcissistic because of the still lingering effect of words once used to encourage junior army officers, non-coms and even privates to believe that all had a field marshal's baton in their kit bags.

Effectively the unintended consequence of this phrase is that it encouraged narcissists to think they have been blessed with leadership capacity. As a result, Australia's Federal, State and Territory Parliaments have become stages where political narcissists strut.

That apart, will the different types of leadership be effective in all situations or only in particular situations. Will authoritative leaders be effective in organisations where the basic structure is essentially democratic? I think not.

To quote another old phrase - "You need horses for courses." But regardless of finding "horses for courses," the best leadership is provided by men and women who, although their sympathies seem more aligned to one category, manage to combine elements of them all.

And can leadership be likened to greatness? I think so. And nor am I in doubt that some people are born leaders, some acquire leadership and as with greatness, some have leadership thrust upon them. Unfortunately, and apart from narcissists, I think Australia has too many people who think of themselves leaders but whose performance suggests they are without that basic sense of direction essential to all leaders, that they cover up courtesy of an outsized ego and an ocean of vanity.

But defining leadership is almost impossible as is evidenced by the tomes of Plato and Plutarch and since them by the thousands of academics, philosophers and psychologists who fill kilometre after kilometre of bookshelves with books on leadership. While some may be read, most are really intellectual exercises because leadership is something most will never practice outside the sphere of their particular discipline.


However Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, is one of many men who has displayed natural leadership as he made it one of the world's leading business organisations. Of leadership Welch says: "Good leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision and relentlessly drive it to completion." And whilst I agree with Welch, I'd like to add two other important qualities: Leaders should have a social conscience and be inspirational.

Not that all theoretical approaches to leadership are bad. Genentech scientistAndrew Keith, has described leadership 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."

The reality is that while Keith's thinks of leadership as a process, Welch thinks leadership is an instinct. The difference between them? Keith's process tries to avoid mistakes being made (it rarely happens), while Welch's is to do and find out.

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About the Author

Don Allan, politically unaligned, is a teenager in the youth of old age but young in spirit and mind. A disabled age pensioner, he writes a weekly column for The Chronicle, a free community newspaper in Canberra. Don blogs at:

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