Professor Chris Styles

A great deal will be written about leadership this week. But little of it will be about real leadership.  This is a pity given the significant challenges and opportunities Australia faces.

What has gone wrong?

When we talk about leadership and provide examples of great leaders, we often refer to some of history’s great political leaders. Whether they like it or not, politicians are seen as role models in many facets of life, including leadership.

At the moment public perceptions of our political leaders are at a low ebb.   Irrespective of where they stand on policy issues, not many people would describe them as ‘authentic leaders’, a phrase coined by Professor Bill George of Harvard Business School. Being genuine, having a clear set of values which you put into practice, and forming a deep set of enduring relationships, are all part of authenticity.  It leads to trust and confidence.

Unfortunately there is a public perception of our current crop of politicians that they regard being a leader as the end-game in itself, rather than becoming a leader to have real impact on the community. If this is our central belief, then any policy position is seen as self-serving rather than to advance the nation. This makes it hard to bring others along with them, a critical aspect of leadership. 

This is a great lesson for leaders in all walks of life.  Success is more likely to come to those who are seen as wanting to use their leadership to achieve broader goals than just their own; who communicate – good news and bad news – in ways that we can believe; whose actions support the values they espouse; and who can admit when they get it wrong or don’t know the answer.   And who have demonstrable impact.

The media in all its forms surrounds us.  Words, phrases pictures and videos spread like wildfire.  This has many leaders worried, and has resulted in large contingents of minders and public relations machines ‘protecting’ our leaders, whether in politics or business.  While it’s important to ensure the right (and true) message is communicated to stakeholders, this should not get in the way of leaders being – and being perceived to be – genuine. 

We often hear journalists say that a particular politician is nothing like the way they come across in the media.  If nothing else, we should learn from our politicians that the first casualty of spin is authenticity.  And that weakens the ability to lead.  Leading a political party, a country or large corporation is hard enough.

It’s not a bad thing for leaders to remind themselves – and have others remind them – why they are there and how they got to the position they occupy.   They would also do well to make it clear to those doing the messaging that they should be portrayed as they are, rather than as an ideal made for media personality. Employees, customers, shareholders and voters are more likely to believe, follow and forgive the genuine article.

There are also important implications for how we develop, and indeed select, leaders. Whether through coaching, mentoring or more formal development programs, those identified as potential leaders need to be made aware of what counts, and then be rewarded for delivering.   Those in senior leadership positions also have a responsibility need to role model the right behaviour.

Given critical issues in education, productivity and indigenous issues, to name a few, that we face, let’s hope the debate turns to real leadership sooner rather than later.  

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