Professor Chris Styles

As a Monday showdown looms, one of the big questions being asked by members of the Labor caucus is whether Kevin Rudd in 2012 can be a different kind of the leader to the Kevin Rudd of 2010.

Even as Rudd held yet another press conference after arriving in Brisbane this morning, former colleagues were speaking out against him.

This morning Health Minister Nicola Roxon described the way he ran the government as “ludicrous”.

“I doubt I would be asked but I absolutely wouldn’t accept if I was,” she said. “If Kevin succeeds I won’t want to serve in his ministry but I will absolutely wish him and the government the best of luck.

“I will hope that he has changed and I will be there campaigning for Labor.”

Wayne Swan earlier this week also hit out at Rudd’s leadership style in a scathing attack. Prime Minister Julia Gillard described him as “dysfunctional”, resulting in “chaos and paralysis”. Yet others have pledged their support.

So the big question for the caucus is a question also facing many businesses – are leaders capable of really changing?

The answer is yes, although it’s hard to find examples.

Significant change to a managerial style depends on a number of things. First, like any area of personal change, the individual has to accept that they have a problem. Without this, no real progress can be made.

In Mr Rudd’s case, he must be willing to genuinely believe there are aspects of his leadership style that don’t work and need to be changed. Mr Rudd has been variously accused of being a micro-manager, overly-controlling and chaotic.

Many management education programs help participants identify strengths and weaknesses in their management styles and provide strategies for dealing with this. While this is a very confronting process, enormous results can be seen once these issues are identified.

Secondly, Mr Rudd must have in the past, or be willing to now, engage in self-reflection and seek feedback from others. Currently there is certainly no shortage of people pointing out his failings.

The ability to reflect is not an easy skill to develop, nor is it easy to gain the trust of others so they will give honest feedback. We are often too busy “doing” to take time to think about what we did and identify ways to improve next time.

Thirdly a self awareness of his natural leadership style is important. We all tend to adopt a management style that we are more comfortable with. Bob Hawke was the consensus builder while Mr Rudd’s colleagues seem to suggest he displays more “command and control” tendencies.

Command and control may be okay in the heat of battle, but it isn’t the greatest way to motivate people and foster creativity. Even the armed forces are changing.

Being aware of the type of leader you are is a critical step in any effort to modify that style. Mr Rudd may never be the easygoing boss other individuals can be, but being conscious of what style he is predisposed to will help him moderate that style if it clearly doesn’t work.

Finally, others have to believe he wants to change and has changed. He has four days to convince others, and judging by comments over the last few days, this won’t be easy. And it won’t be about words but deeds.

Without tangible proof he is unlikely to get the opportunity and mandate to bring about real change.

Of course, not everything needs to change. It is equally important for any leader to understand what they do well, develop it further, and have the confidence to make it clear that there are areas of their leadership that are here to stay. We need to remember he does have support from a number of colleagues who have been pointing out his strengths in communicating with the public.

Whatever your opinion of the two leaders, it is clear their styles are in stark contrast to each other and this suits both to a point. However, if Rudd chooses to take the advice of his colleagues it will not serve well him to morph his leadership style into Ms Gillard’s, which is reportedly more managerial and focused on problem solving.

What is interesting about the current situation in the Labor party is that unlike a commercial operation, the managers (caucus) are voting for their boss. The opinion polls tell us that the majority of “customers” (in this case the voters) rate him better than the alternatives. But the management team is not so keen on him, and they ultimately are the ones who decide.

In business it is often said that the customer is always right, but in this case their vote doesn’t count. This week’s soap opera has therefore become more about organisational leadership style than the ability to lead the country.

Chris Styles is the Deputy Dean and Director of the Australian Graduate School of Management.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.