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Leadership is the art of the impossible

By John Tomlinson - posted Thursday, 3 November 2011

In 1967 Barbara Wootton in her autobiography In a World I Never Made wrote:

"The limits of the possible constantly shift, and those who ignore them are apt to win in the end. Again and again I have had the satisfaction of seeing the laughable idealism of one generation evolve into the accepted commonplace of the next. But it is from the champions of the impossible rather than the slaves of the possible that evolution draws its creative force"

Leadership comes in many shapes, sizes and hues. About the only thing that all leaders have in common is that they influence the behaviour of their followers.


In the 1960s, conservative commentators were wont to suggest that Aboriginal Australians had no leaders, because in traditional societies important decisions were made by a gerontocracy. Indigenous spokespersons that attempted to speak on behalf of the Aboriginal community were not seen as leaders but as troublemakers or communists. Unemployed people or social security recipients were also generally described as lacking leaders.

In 1955, W.F. Whyte in the University of Chicago publication Street Corner Society correctly observed that the apparent lack of leadership in less affluent groups is not due to the absence of leadership but rather to the manner in which affluent observers conceptualise leadership.

During the 1960s, it was fashionable to describe leadership in terms of dichotomies, such as: intended or unintended, formal or informal. Since the 1970s writers have been much more inclined to describe a far wider range of leadership styles.

Writing in February 1948, in volume 13 of the American Sociological Review, Phillip Selznick noted that even in formal authoritarian structures, control and consent couldn't be divorced. Such ideas were a central component in many of the judgements at the Nuremburg War Trials, where it was held that it was not a defence to argue that one was just following orders.

Australian Political Leadership

With this brief introduction in mind, I would like to tease out some of the differences between pragmatic managers of the political system and political leaders who create change, even where the general consensus suggests that the status quo is firmly in place.


I recognise that such an analysis looks remarkably like a 1960s dichotomy, similar to those described above, and if it was conceived of in terms of two polar opposites then it would indeed be a dichotomy. But I view the Australian political reality to be a spectrum and any particular elected representative will have elements of each of these polar positions in their kitbag.

When it comes to pragmatic managers of the political agenda, it really boils down to such leaders trying to serve broader community interests as they set out to advance their narrower personal aims. It is unwise to assume that pragmatic managers know what the general public desires or would attempt to achieve it even if they knew.

Political leaders who create significant change in a country's direction are often not seen as outstanding leaders until after dramatic events take place. When Menzies' United Australia Party lost office in 1941, few would have foreseen his 1949-66 period in office as even a remote possibility.

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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