The end of hero leadership in Australia?

by | Nov 11, 2015 | News

Jane Hayman from Cirrus writes for HR Director

The demise of the Tony Abbott leadership marks Australia’s fifth change of prime minister in five years and the third time since 2011 that a sitting PM has been ousted by their own party. Irrespective of political policies, where did it all go wrong for Abbott? And what can Malcolm Turnbull do to create positive change? Jane Hayman from Cirrus offers her opinion.

Tony Abbott positioned himself as a sole hero – a rescuer and a strong man who could  singlehandedly stave off disaster. He regularly kept up commitments as a volunteer firefighter and surf lifesaver, participated in Army bootcamps and famously threatened to ‘shirtfront’ Vladimir Putin. This individual, heroic style unfortunately translated into what he termed ‘captain’s picks’ – solo decisions which were seen by the electorate and often his own colleagues as absurd and indefensible. Examples included reinstating knighthoods in order to award one to Prince Philip (a surprising move in an inching-towards-a-Republic Australia), the design of a gold plated maternity leave scheme for high earners (so lavish that even some feminists felt obliged to disagree with it), and a declaration that coal was ‘good for humanity’.

Yes, there’s no doubt that Abbot’s leadership style was a very individual one. His lack of connection to his own team, and to the wider electorate, made his leadership unsustainable. Abbott is left to absorb the lesson that the determination he showed in putting out fires, threatening Russians, running up hills and rescuing surfers was just not enough to engage the people around him and create sustainable success.

So what about his successor, Malcolm Turnbull? The former journalist, lawyer, investment banker and venture capitalist has been notable for using  contemporary corporate language, calling for agility, innovation, disruption, and a government for the 21st century. He has said that we need a different style of leadership.

So just what could this different style of leadership look like? The indications are that Turnbull is no ‘hero’ leader, and that’s a good thing. The type of ‘hero’ leadership that Abbot personified simply does not work in a world that is increasingly complex, unpredictable and tightly networked. Change happens quickly and constantly. Our leaders need to be more agile in order to respond to this continual change. They also need to be more collaborative. And, very importantly at a time when trust in political leaders is at an all-time low, they need to be authentic and to have very clear values.

This style of ‘connected’ leadership is the opposite of ‘hero’ leadership. As Turnbull himself said, we need a style of leadership that can explain challenges and opportunities, as well as knowing how to seize opportunities. Connected leaders can understand this. They collaborate to create effective solutions. They value the skills and abilities of others and share decision making responsibility. They cut through hierarchy and bureaucracy.  This combination can help introduce change with speed. Not only that, the change is more likely to have a lasting impact because it has been co-created and has a high degree of buy-in from others.

As Turnbull also said, “My firm belief is that to be a successful leader in 2015, perhaps at any time, you have to be able to bring people with you by respecting their intelligence and the manner you explain things.”

Those of us with a professional interest in leadership are watching with interest and anticipation. Business leaders who enthusiastically welcomed Turnbull’s appointment are hoping his leadership will result in increased investment, political stability and economic reform.  Can he fulfil our expectations? Quite a few observers think he can.

Telstra chief executive Andy Penn said he expected Turnbull to deliver a “welcome focus on innovation, technology and economic reform”.

And Catherine Livingstone, president of the Business Council of Australia, said that Turnbull can build “lasting prosperity through a more agile, innovative and creative nation”.

Turnbull’s cabinet reshuffle saw the removal of older ministers and the promotion of a number of young MPs. He also appointed five women to his cabinet – five times as many as Abbott had in his initial line-up. Announcing his cabinet, Turnbull commented that it was hard to let people go, but that turnover and renewal were essential. He also said that he would create “a culture of engagement, consultation and collaboration. The Australia of the future needs to be a nation that is agile, that is innovative, that is creative.”

Will Turnbull’s actions continue to live up to these bold words? We’ll be watching with interest.

© HRD 2015

Jane welcomes your views on this article. Please email her or tweet @JaneHayman12.

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