Professor Chris Styles

Now that the party’s votes are in, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has to make up ground with the voters. The polls are indicating the Labor Government is in deep trouble. Kevin Rudd was nothing if not analytical and blunt about their prospects at the next election. And everyone knows it.

As leader, what does Gillard do now? Perhaps the leadership drama is a gift in disguise. Some leaders would love a crisis to give them an excuse to instigate change and rally the troops around a cause.

In this case, Gillard has been handed a real crisis where there is nothing to lose and everything to gain. It’s clear that business as usual is not an option.

In her speech after winning the leadership battle she said as much. She admitted things have to change otherwise defeat is a sure thing. Perhaps what is needed is a genuine paradigm shift across a number of policy fronts.

The Business Council of Australia (BCA) among others are calling for the government to look away from in-party fighting and focus on the big issues the country faces with renewed vigour.

BCA President, Tony Shepherd, said the leadership ballot should be a catalyst for “more focused government and a renewed commitment to make Australia more competitive and productive”, reiterating its stance on a need for a more competitive tax system, a more flexible, mobile and skilled workforce to improve competitiveness, and a regulatory environment that encouraged business to invest.

The question for Gillard now is how she goes about instigating this change. The government could do worse than start with a clean piece of paper and devising some paradigm shifting approaches. Some would say this is a risky strategy, but perhaps it is not.

The most daring approach for any organisation on the decline – such as this government – is continuing on as they have been. We often see this in business when organisations take a safety first approach and employ what see “sensible” (conventional) strategies to the detriment of innovation. Strategic convergence may feel good at the time but it can’t win in the long run.

Let’s consider the wise words of a great philosopher: “My life is the opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have, in every part of life, be it something to wear, something to eat … It’s all been wrong.” The great philosopher was George Costanza and advice came from his good friend Jerry Seinfeld. “If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.”

The weekend papers highlighted perceived flaws in the instincts of the Prime Minister – such as agreeing to appear on the ABC’s recent Four Corners program, leaving out references to the achievements of Kevin Rudd during last year’s Annual Conference, and so on. It has been suggested that she would be in a better place if she had done the opposite.

This isn’t a bad starting point for any leader facing dire straits. What are the sacred cows? What do we consider conventional wisdom? Is it right? Was it ever? Perhaps it once was but now is no longer?

The role of a leader is to ask the big questions and encourage those working with them to be brutally honest and rigorous in their answers. Being brave enough to suggest “the opposite” is more likely to illicit innovative and creative ideas than the same old, same old. That’s leadership.

One of the criticisms of the Prime Minister’s leadership style is that she is very managerial. This is great for “getting things done”, but perhaps not great for generating “big ideas”.

There is no doubt she has ground to make up with her party and Australian voters; but if she truly wants to win over the business community, then she needs to be open to more radical ideas. Perhaps she should think beyond the “business as usual” approach, particularly given she has nothing to lose by approaching her Prime ministership with an entirely new perspective. Being brave enough to consider the opposite view of everything she’s done before maybe a good start and signal to the electorate.

After all, it worked for George. He ended up getting the girl and job of his dreams with the New York Yankees.

If the Prime Minister adopts this approach perhaps she has some chance of turning a positive into a negative and salvaging something from this crisis.

There is a lot to be said for rigorous thinking and daring to think the unthinkable. It’s what we expect of our leaders.

Professor Chris Styles is Deputy Dean and Director Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM). This article first appeared in The Conversation, 28th February 2012