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Is political leadership a lost art?

By Ruth Townsend and Neil Glasson - posted Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Winston Churchill once said, "courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities . . . because it is the quality which guarantees all others."Leadership and courage are interdependent. You cannot have one without the other.

Despite some rare exceptions, Australians could be forgiven for holding a cynical and pessimistic view of our political leaders and the distinct lack of courage demonstrated by them in their political decision-making. Politicians are loath to tell voters things they don't want to hear, especially if it requires change or a consideration of the long-term perspective.

This, combined with an avaricious media driven by a 24-hour news cycle and an apparently apathetic, time-poor, politically ignorant, entertainment-addicted electorate, seems to have resulted in us being subjected to a seemingly endless cycle of tit for tat sound bites between warring parties, who insist on reducing complex issues to slogans designed to appeal to a carefully selected voting audience.


This does nothing to promote respect and admiration for the high office of political leadership and does not permit us the luxury of being inspired by robust rhetoric, a solemn soliloquy or an arousing oratory. But has this always been the case?

Surely there was a time when politicians were respected and admired by the voting public for having the courage of their convictions? When their vision was inspirational, their integrity was beyond doubt, and their enunciation of the issues and policies that affected our lives carried the gravitas that we now only see in Hollywood films?

Of course there were. Winston Churchill's rousing speeches and stoic leadership united Britain during its darkest hour and gave hope in the face of defeat. Nelson Mandela's long walk to freedom inspired not just a nation, but also the world. Ben Chifley's 'Light on the Hill' vision helped shape Australia and its values for over half a century.

The characteristics common to each of these leaders highlight the differences between an appointed leader and truly great leadership. Today we are confronted by largely homogenised political parties, which do not seem to hold any particular long-term vision other than re-election. Their respective leaders change according to who is more popular, not according to who might make the better leader.

In his book, 'Sideshow', Lindsay Tanner writes, "the creation of appearances is now far more important for leading politicians than is the generation of outcomes." Inspired leadership requires an investment of time and effort by both the leader and the follower that some argue is impossible to achieve in a world dominated by the white noise and 100-character attention span of the Twitter generation.

Laurie Oakes, in his recent Andrew Olle lecture, claims that the media is not responsible for politicians failing to make decisions and develop policies in the national interest, rather, he says, the problem is "weak politicians." Oakes recalls things weren't all that different 40 years ago when Billy McMahon was campaigning and espousing rhetoric like: "We will honour all the problems we have made."


Hardly the stuff of a great leader but McMahon is not the only leader in history to fail to display a level of gravitas that could change a nation for the better. George W Bush is infamous for his many pearls of wisdom including, "they misunderestimated me," and "if this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator." And he was elected. Twice.

This, perhaps inadvertent acknowledgement by Bush that democracy is hard (or that authoritarianism is easier) demonstrates the challenges of good leadership.

Philosophers have contemplated the elements of good leadership for millennia. Lao Tzu suggested that leadership is about guiding constituents in a humble, caring, compassionate yet straightforward manner and that a good leader leads not by preaching or politicking but by example, by their honourable actions.

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About the Authors

Ruth Townsend is a Lecturer at the College of Law and Medical School ANU.

Neil Glasson is a medical student at the ANU School of Medicine.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Ruth Townsend
All articles by Neil Glasson

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

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