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Political leadership – when there are no winners

By Gary Neat - posted Friday, 28 October 2011

We're a cynical lot! Ever since Federation we've lampooned our political masters, but even our iconic PM's could never have imagined the maelstrom that is the 24-hour news phenomenon.

Combine this national cynicism with a population which is increasingly time poor and message saturated and you have an alarming disconnect between the electorate and its leaders.

Into this communication black hole have stepped Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott – two tough, highly intelligent people but both seemingly devoid of that most requisite of new communication-age leadership attributes – language-impact skills.


Political leadership is not meant to be easy. But, it's also not meant to be impossible. Political leadership, indeed leadership of any kind, starts with resilience. Without resilience you'll eventually fail – both because of your own insecurities and because others will quickly assess your vulnerability.

Effective political leaders also need a 'narrative' by which they can position not only themselves but their political movement. What distinctive value do they bring to the political debate? What's their point of positive differentiation? And, of course this is all pointless unless you can enunciate your platform with clarity.

Some leaders fail because they long to be liked, when what most voters actually want is a leader they can respect. There is a difference.

Political leadership in Australia also seems increasingly thwarted by minders who, brain-dead for imaginative photo opportunities, insist on the daily diet of shopping centre walks or factory visits – always wearing a hardhat. Each event is then capped off by the obligatory interview-grab with fawning local members/candidates nodding furiously in agreement in the background. So, overwhelmed by the repetitive boredom of this daily diet of democracy, is it any wonder that Australians are turning off political leadership in alarming numbers?

The measure of a political day's success should not be how many spots you garner on the TV and radio bulletins, or the column inches in the papers. Rather, it should be the audience's responsiveness to whatever is your message.

If great leaders tend to be those who seize opportunities, then a "walk-thru" in a mall is hardly an act of statesmanship. Neither is wearing a factory hardhat, riding a bike or that riskiest of shallow photo-ops – trying to engage crèche children in casual conversation (with a dozen cameras and microphones hovering).


The perceived loss of political leadership can be partly attributed to the current players, but overall it's a worldwide trend. Turnover of democratically elected leaders, and more recently even dictators, is gathering momentum. Saturation media coverage and the instant headlines of the blogosphere together with social and economic upheaval are placing a premium on effective political leadership. With no circuit breaker in sight it can only get worse.

What then is the alternative? Australia, where healthy cynicism was once a strength has much to lose. Without some truly dramatic intervention, Australia's faith in political leadership will continue to plummet. Have we become so apathetic, so self-absorbed and blinded by our economic boom that we can't envisage the harm to Australian society by our leadership woes? Despite our economic wellbeing we're increasingly despondent and despairing of political leadership in general.

Perhaps because leaders generate less authority in today's message jungle, we ourselves are more unforgiving and less inspired by a political system seemingly obsessed by party political sniping and personalities than real substance and meaningful social change.

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About the Author

Gary Neat is a former National President of the Australian Institute of Management, a Behavioural Strategist and Company Chairman, a former Political and Foreign Correspondent and the Campaign Director of 20+ election campaigns. He also has a Masters Degree in International Management.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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