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Leadership - everyone talks about it but does nothing about it

By Sandra Kanck - posted Thursday, 3 November 2011

I have been fortunate to conduct a school choir and to have that amazing experience which every conductor must have – to witness and be part of the surrendering of the individuality of each of those choristers to their conductor. It is extraordinary to stand in front of a choir and to know that until you bring your arm down not a note will be sung. Of course this is a very restricted form of leadership, but it does show some of the necessary components, including winning the trust of those you lead, their desire to be led and the uniting in a common cause.

Mark Twain's observation about the weather - that everyone talks about it but does nothing about it - applies equally to leadership. And the talking itself finds many people confusing leadership with a whole range of other concepts such as celebrity and the ability to talk tough. Journalist, Geraldine Doogue, wryly observed that "celebrity is when the fame outstrips the credentials," but as a nation we are generally unable to see this.

The media are players in this blinding and confusion, not just observers, and they are responsible for a dumbing-down of the coverage of our political leaders. The media action is around disagreement, and the highlighting and exaggeration of it. Every day a photo opportunity must be provided of a Prime Minister pressing the flesh or an Opposition Leader inspecting an assembly line. When mistakes are made, as they must be because our leaders are human beings, our media parades these mistakes as unforgivable sins.


Opinion polls about preferred Prime Ministers are little more than popularity contests, which confuse leadership with the cult of personality. It is unlikely that a celebrity can also be a leader, as a leader has to make decisions and take action that will not necessarily make them popular.

It is clear that you cannot lead from behind, the corollary being that if you put yourself out in front you are a much easier target. As a consequence, very few people who hold positions of leadership really lead. In recent years polling and marketing have played a strong role in the major political parties adopting populist 'tough on crime' positions even though the facts show this is unnecessary and counterproductive. It makes the gang leaders the media targets and not the politicians who can then duck and avoid the pejorative label of being soft on crime. But it is not leadership.

As a society we are no longer clear what it is we require of our leaders – the power of religious leaders has waned, and the meanings we inherited from our grandparents are not always relevant. The old concept of a military commander leading his troops into battle is redundant, and with the enemy being the potentially catastrophic problems of burgeoning population, peak oil, climate change and dwindling water resources impacting together in the next decade, an entirely new style of leadership will be needed to get us through the disruption and division that faces us.

As a state, a nation and a planet we are sorely in need of real leaders with the courage to take on these big issues – but it is nigh on impossible for our political leaders to lead when it means going to the people and asking for sacrifices to be made, knowing that they will face the anger of voters within a few short years or months. Yet Winston Churchill managed it, famously offering his people "blood, toil, tears and sweat" as the cost of achieving victory.

When nations are on a war footing, when its citizens are told the truth by their leaders of the peril that faces them, then asking people to work and walk together becomes possible.

Former US Congressman, Sam Nunn, said of leaders: "They've got to be able to inspire hope, and change hearts and minds, primarily by vision, and certainly by example. People can command without love. But if you are really going to lead you have to love those you are expecting to follow you."


Such love involves the healing of wounds, and former South African President, Nelson Mandela, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu did this with their Truth & Reconciliation Commission at a time when the inclination of the people was to bay for blood. Such love can be tough love. It can involve telling followers that more is demanded of them, that second-best is not good enough and then guiding and supporting to get the best from them.

But it is a two-way street and a true leader will be listening and learning from the followers (as distinct from reading reports from focus groups), admitting if a mistake has been made and even saying sorry. It will require valuing the different contributions made. Metaphorically speaking, it will require the recognition that some people will make the banners while others will carry them. The followers' knowledge of their leader's belief in them is empowering.

Right now it is time to recognise that we must be on a war footing if we are to apprehend the problems facing our planet. It is time to acknowledge that we are in desperate need of leadership, of people with vision and the courage to speak about the huge problems that face us and to enrol us all in working together, if necessary making sacrifices, in order to deal with these problems.

But it will not happen with the old styles of leadership. It will not happen if so-called leaders surround themselves with a coterie of admirers who fail to speak truth to power. And it will take a change in the media commentary to acknowledge significant actions and to report, not based on conflict, but on vision and integrity.

Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu and Martin Luther King were not members of parliament but were leaders. We might sometimes forget that, in addition to political leaders, there are spiritual, business, community and environmental leaders and they operate at all levels from the international to the local. Perhaps we are all leaders at different times.

As theologian Dorothy McRae-McMahon has observed"Most of us will never be widely known for what we have done, but we will hold deep in our beings that moment of truth when we inspired others to move beyond where they thought they could go."

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About the Author

Sandra Kanck is the former parliamentary leader of the South Australian Democrats. She is national president of Sustainable Population Australia, SA president of Friends of the ABC, President of the Australian Democrats (SA Division Inc.) and an Executive Member of the SA Council for Civil Liberties.

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