IAN McAULEY. Reframing public ideas Part 1: Leadership

Jan 3, 2018

Leadership is the hard task of getting communities to make progress on difficult problems requiring adaptive change. It is not to be confused with authority. Beware of the call for a “strong leader”.

“Because of Anthony, this nation and this state are fundamentally changed forever”.

They were the words of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews at the state funeral for Anthony Foster. With his wife Chrissie he had worked hard and persistently to bring the Catholic Church to account for the abuse inflicted on their daughters – Emma and Katie – and the abuse inflicted on thousands of other Australian children who had been entrusted to the Church’s care and betrayed.

The abuse inflicted by paedophile priest Kevin O’Donnell had terrible consequences: when she was 26 Emma took her own life, and Katie, having turned to alcohol to deal with her memories, has enduring severe mental and physical disabilities after being hit by a drunk driver.

The work of Chrissie and Anthony Foster, including Chrissie’s 2011 book Hell on the Way to Heaven, was influential in bringing the Gillard Government to establish the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

People variously describe their work in terms of courage, patience, persistence and integrity – all fitting descriptions – but it was also the work of leadership.

That is, the work of getting communities to make progress on difficult problems requiring adaptive change, a description of “leadership” used by Professor Ron Heifetz, Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

No one would deny that child abuse in religious and other institutions is a difficult problem requiring huge adaptive changes. As the Commission has pointed out, the established cultures of those institutions have to change. Within the Catholic Church traditions of assumed exemption from certain secular laws, clerical celibacy, the seal of confession, gender-segregated institutions, and the culture of “muscular Christianity” all have dysfunctional aspects.

The impetus for change did not come from the bishops and cardinals – the church’s authority figures. Even after five gruelling years of the Commission’s inquiries the church hierarchy is still in a state somewhere between denial and defensiveness. Nor did it come from the Government. To her credit, Gillard did establish the Commission, but not of its own initiative. No government, particularly a Labor Government, was going to take the initiative in confronting the Catholic Church and other respected institutions.

The impetus came from the Fosters, and others who worked tirelessly to bring the issue to the fore.

We tend to look for leadership in the wrong places, usually among those who occupy positions of authority – prime ministers, bishops, corporate CEOs, heads of institutions.

But, as Heifetz points out, that is to conflate the exercise of authority – a necessary function in any organization – with leadership.

While those in positions of authority have certain powers, such as the capacity to call commissions of enquiry or to direct research, they also have certain constraints. One of those constraints is the need – at least a perceived need – to maintain the organization’s equilibrium, to protect it from disruption so that it can go on functioning.

In federal politics we see this phenomenon writ large. Prime Minister Turnbull’s energies are absorbed in keeping the Coalition from splitting along ideological lines. Bringing hard issues to the fore, such as dealing with climate change, the fate of asylum seekers in offshore concentration camps, an incipient housing price crash, foreign debt and the corrosive effects of widening inequality would upset the political equilibrium.

Heifetz coined the term “work avoidance” to describe the mechanisms people use to avoid dealing with hard issues. The most common form of work avoidance is simple denial (“climate change is crap”). Others include appeals to tradition (clerical celibacy), adherence to simplified mantras (“small government”), denigration of experts (Trump’s dismissal of science), creation of imagined enemies (refugees, dole bludgers, ethnic minorities), downplaying the adaptive challenge (“she’ll be right mate”), disregard of unwelcome data (rising personal debt) and selective interpretation of data (a few positive scraps in otherwise miserable statistics on school education).

Sometimes people in authority acknowledge the existence of a problem, but mis-identify it as a technical problem calling for a technical solution rather than one calling for the harder task of adaptive change. The long-standing “war on drugs” is a case in point: even the most effective law-enforcement mechanisms do not deal with the underlying conditions that support a market in deadly substances.

Work-avoidance is not confined to governments. Business lobbies persist with a model of capitalism that bears little resemblance to economic realities; trade union bosses cannot come to grips with the way the workforce has changed over the last hundred years; political party officials and journalists cannot incorporate the decline of the two-party system into their models. All are bound by the constraints of authority – not only the formal rules and traditions of their organizations, but also the expectations of their stakeholders, who often call on their “leaders” to protect them from hard realities. Jobs, status, reputation and long-cherished beliefs are all at stake.

That’s why Heifetz in his work does not talk or write about “leaders”.  It’s an over-used term, and it leads to the easy assumption that leadership is something to be left to those in positions of authority. The idea that a strong “leader” can solve our problems relieves us from personal responsibility in tackling hard issues, and at worst it can provide fertile ground for a charismatic “leader” to take us to destruction – a Jim Jones, an Adolf Hitler, a Pol Pot – or for false prophets offering simple solutions to difficult problems.

Sometimes a release from the constraints of formal authority allows people to engage with the task of leadership. Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson are two prominent examples. Contributors to this blog – former ambassadors and other senior public servants who have held positions of high authority – are adept at raising hard issues.

Similarly a prime minister in the early days of office may take on hard issues, doing so before the constraints of positional authority are fully effective – before rent-seekers and other beneficiaries of the status quo have got the new government’s measure. Would John Howard have acted so strongly on gun control if the Port Arthur massacre had occurred two years rather than two months into his term in office? Was it our good fortune that Kevin Rudd was able to respond decisively to the global financial crisis which developed before he had served a full year? Unfortunately however, policies developed in response to a crisis, even though they may be good decisions, lack the permanence of policies developed through processes of community engagement and involvement in the hard work of adaptive change.

In general, we should not expect leadership to come from those in positions of authority. The work of leadership takes place down the line and is largely unsung. Chrissie and Anthony Foster rose to prominence in part because of the particular horrors of their experience, but there were thousands of others involved in that task. And as Heifetz stresses, the work of leadership is ongoing. The work of leadership can lead to progress but adaptive change takes time.


This is the first of a series of eight articles on re-framing public ideas, to be published over January 2018.

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