Scott Morrison is facing a significant leadership challenge: how to learn to deal with ‘wicked’ problems. The PM’s situation is complicated by a manifest loss of confidence in his capacity to do so. The question is – “can Scott Morrison (or any leader) learn to lead?”
Leadership is not a mysterious, elusive ‘black box’ but a set of learnable competencies. (Whether it can be taught is another matter). Leadership can be a puzzle but there are some pieces which Morrison could identify and assemble to solve it.
Firstly, does Morrison possess the intrinsic capacity to lead and the desire to learn to lead? Research has found that having inherent characteristics or traits is less important than acquiring the requisite competencies. The old debate about leaders being born or made has long been settled: leaders are made (nurture) while it does help to possess certain traits and characteristics (nature). The evidence of over 50 years suggests that some traits and characteristics increase the likelihood that a leader can be effective but they do not guarantee effectiveness.
The leadership scholars Gary Yukl and Peter Northouse have variously identified key inherent leadership traits as average intelligence, self-confidence, the desire to lead, determination, integrity, and sociability. Morrison seems to demonstrate reasonable intelligence, and the drive and desire to lead – or at least a keen desire for the position of PM. However, disguising the real reason why he was out of the country lacked integrity. Moreover, he seemed to believe that coming back from Hawaii to be sociable and to try to shake people’s hands would be well-received in his role as PM in handling the fire disaster. Being seen as ‘everyone’s Dad’ and ‘a good bloke’ is not enough for a PM or any senior leader. Leaders have to add value and have to be seen to add value. Morrison now seems to have belatedly realised that providing strategic direction for the future, building a powerful guiding coalition around him, and taking high-level decisions is necessary. Is this enough to restore his credibility?
Secondly, Morrison’s effective performance (P) as the PM could be assessed as a function of three factors: P= AMO, that is, the interaction between ability (A), motivation (O), and organisational support or the opportunity (O) to exercise one’s ability and motivation. Our PM clearly has the motivation to lead but many are wondering about his capacity to do so, and whether he has the support and recognition he needs from the very people who are now looking to him for national leadership. The tragedy for this PM and for the office itself would be that community and business leaders simply bypass him as being incompetent or irrelevant, and they just get on with addressing the serious issues we now face. After all, a shared vision and a professional mind-set are good substitutes for a lack of leadership.
Thirdly, a leader’s overall effectiveness is further reinforced by a combination of knowing and responding to one’s strategic context, being aware of one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and being able to meet followers’ reasonable expectations and attributions. This last piece in the puzzle is what Morrison appears to be lacking. He seems more attuned to like-minded supporters in the Canberra ‘echo chamber’ who recommended the recent advertisement extolling the government’s efforts to deal with the fire crisis and to elicit donations to his own political party. Morrison also seems to be more attuned with the dinosaur climate sceptics within his own party rather than with an informed public who have known for years that climate change is real (this is an issue which has been well- analysed in ‘Pearls and Irritations’ over recent weeks). Instead, as PM, Morrison needs to understand that he should be primarily aligned with the needs and expectations of the Australian people rather than with the needs and expectations of his own political party. After all, as PM, he represents us all and is mandated to be there to serve us – not them.
Finally, the danger of hubris and ego inflation is especially problematic for more senior leaders. The psychoanalyst Manfred Kets de Vries revealed that hubris can be addressed by embracing one’s own humanity, exercising humility, displaying appropriate humour, and offering hope to others – all the ‘Hs’. Morrison has attempted to display humanity, humility and (awkward) humour but he has not yet appeared to offer much credible hope that Australia will actually learn from this fire disaster or that as a nation, we will plan for similar events in this climate renaissance.
In conclusion, one wonders about the PM’s capacity to lead us when it counts more than ever. Managers are answer-givers who deal with complexity. The people on the ground, the fire-fighters, the coordinators, and the many volunteers across the country in recent months have provided marvellous operational answers in real-time. Rather, the PM must become a leader – someone who embraces and deals with change. John F. Kennedy apparently once said that ‘leaders are learners’. Leaders must learn in order to add value and be credible. One can only hope that Scott Morrison as our PM will learn to do so. The country needs and deserves no less.
Greg Latemore lectures at two Australian Universities in strategy and people management, and has written extensively about leadership for over 40 years. He submitted his PhD in human resource management in December 2019. [end].
Director, Latemore Consulting