JOHN MENADUE. Failed leadership in church and state. Repost from 24 August 2018

Good leadership is about facing the group up to the hard issues. Without clearly defining why and how we need to change and creating  some disequilibrium there will be no worthwhile change. 

In the AFR on September 14 2018 Laura Tingle asked ‘What makes a good leader?’.That article makes a similar case to the one I outlined on 24 August 2018. See below.

We have an unfortunate habit of thinking that if only we could change our leaders we could solve our problems. Yet it is clear that after disposing of our PM’s one after the other we are no better off. Changing Popes by itself is unlikely to help much because the problems with bishops and clericalism are so deep seated in the Catholic Church.

Leadership is a set of activities in which the group – small or large, corporate, government, religious or social, is persuaded to make necessary but difficult and painful changes. Some will be disadvantaged. That fact has to be faced. We can’t run away from it.

 It is about asking the hard questions and pursuing them until a resolution is found. It requires disequilibrium to force us outside our comfort zone. Change and reform does not occur in comfort zones. Vested interests whether in  business, politics  or church will invariably oppose change to maintain their power and privileges . They seek to keep us comfortable with the status quo.

Good leaders guide the process and do not stipulate the result in advance. The test of good leadership is to achieve a difficult outcome in which the group can in the end claim ‘we did it ourselves’, i.e. it wasn’t imposed by a strong or charismatic leader. Ownership of the problem and the solution by the group is essential. 

Leadership is not the same as authority or position which are usually bestowed . Authority is designed to keep the organization on an even keel and to observe the ceremonial. Authority figures like the group to be comfortable. A good example are Catholic bishops who have authority bestowed on them by Rome through a rigged system of appointments. They may have ‘authority’ but few have leadership qualities.

Anyone can exercise leadership in any group and at any level, if they are prepared to keep asking and focusing on the hard questions and possible solutions.

Leadership is also not the same as charisma. Some charismatic people like Bin Laden, were clearly mad. Obama’s problem may have been that he was too charismatic. For some Donald Trump is charismatic! Winston Churchill was certainly charismatic but rejected in 1945 as being unsuitable for post war reconstruction. Clem Atlee who replaced him was regarded by many as dull and boring .But he got things done and was described by many historians as Britain’s most successful post WW2 Prime Minister. Ben Chifley was not charismatic. . He was regarded as genuine. He laid the basis for Australia’s post war social and economic prosperity.

Leadership is particularly necessary when we accept that it will be very hard to change strongly entrenched attitudes and self interest such as on climate change or the preservation of property values by property owners at the expense of non property owners. Other hard questions include budget repair with fairness, drugs and reconciliation with our indigenous people.” The whispering in our hearts’. In addressing these hard issues we have to adapt, and undergo painful change; even changes in our privileges and lifestyle. That is when leadership is essential.

Compromised leadership and avoiding painful change takes many forms;

  • run scare campaigns to divert attention
  • don’t discuss the issue and delay
  • hide the problem like Catholic bishops
  • change the subject…. from climate change to the price of electricity
  • deny the problem like climate change…it is ‘crap’
  • keep busy on the detail …NEG
  • define the problem as a technical one…‘clean’ coal and building more roads to combat congestion.
  • change the ‘leader’ and hope for an easy solution.

Management and leadership are different. Management is about coping with complexity whilst maintaining equilibrium within the organisation. In contrast leaders promote disequilibrium as Gough Whitlam showed. Without his ‘crash through or crash’ the ALP would not have changed.  But perhaps he created too much disequilibrium!

In summary let me describe what I see as the features of good leadership

  • A quiet and determined courage to keep the group focussed on the key issues
  • Help the group clarify the problem and why we need to change– e.g. climate change and inequality
  • Describe the values and vision that must be pursued e.g. stewardship of the planet, fairness
  • Keep out of the detail and listen to the group. The strength is in the group not at the top.
  • Don’t attempt to solve the group’s problem or make decisions ahead of the group. Don’t rush it
  • To secure change it is necessary to create some disequilibrium – people don’t change in comfort zones. The powerful and privileged will resist. The leader says ‘we must change and some will be disadvantaged’
  • Use allies and supporters rather than placate opponents as Malcolm Turnbull has done to his cost, promoting his enemies and giving way to their policies.
  • Good leaders have a broad range of interests and knowledge – not just politics, business or religion but familiar with the world of ideas, philosophy and history.
  • Integrate public and private values. A lack of integrity becomes very obvious. We will tolerate mistakes by leaders but not phoniness. This has been a real problem for Malcolm Turnbull

Lao Tzu

As for the best leaders, people do not notice their existence … when the best leaders’ work is done, the people say “we did it ourselves”’

That is what ‘adaptive leadership’ is about as Ronald Heifetz at John F Kennedy School at Harvard University described it– encouraging the group to focus on the hard questions and encourage it to find solutions.

This is an update of an earlier post


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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4 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. Failed leadership in church and state. Repost from 24 August 2018

  1. Michael D. Breen says:

    “Change and reform does not occur in comfort zones.” And aren’t we just so comfortable in Australia. I believe with Michael Keating that a leader has to inspire (spirited breathing) by living his/her vision fully and understanding the impacts on all the stakeholders. The Church thought its stakeholders were glued on by fear of loss of their fire insurance. Then someone questioned the after life.
    There is another problem for leaders. How does the leader deal with self funded powerful figures like Murdoch or Abbott? How do you play win win when the other guy is playing win lose?

  2. Rosemary O'Grady says:

    The Catholic bishops are ably-assisted by key Catholic laity in ‘hiding’ the problem – but it’s more than that; the Catholic Church is actually succeeding, to date, in a ‘containment’ strategy of focussing, post McClellan Royal Commission, on the now excruciatingly-visible scandal of sexual abuse of children – whilst steadfastly ignoring what would become a tsunami of adverse comment if the extent of sexual abuse of adults were ever to be exposed.
    This may be observed this weekend in Ireland, during the Pope’s visit. And, if one probes – the evidence is compelling, and tumultuous, globally.

  3. Michael Keating says:

    Thanks John. There is a lot of wisdom in your observations about what defines leadership. However, on one point I think I have a difference of emphasis.
    You say”Good leaders guide the process and do not stipulate the result in advance”. I agree that good leaders seek to achieve preferred outcomes by a consensual process. However, I think good leaders need to have a “vision” of what change is necessary and where that will lead. Otherwise, how can they persuade us to take and/or accept what you describe as difficult decisions? As you put it: “Leadership is particularly necessary when we accept that it will be very hard to change strongly entrenched attitudes and self-interest”.
    You knew Gough Whitlam much better than me, but I think he did achieve major changes, not least in the labor movement, and he relied heavily on his “vision” in prosecuting his case.

  4. Brian Coyne says:

    Thanks, John.

    The instability engulfing the world all has the same root cause…

    It is the enormous rise in anxiety, fear and insecurity by a vocal sector of society. That is the core problem that the rest of us need to collectively address — but not by the tactics of the element who have been stirring up the insecurity by fostering fear and anxiety and attempting to offer simplistic, dogmatic, “we-have-all-the-answers” solutions. It is the problem that has wrecked the Catholic Church to the point where, across the face of the educated world, about 90% of the faithful have walked away from participation and listening.

    It is a falsehood to keep understanding, or proclaiming, the present problems as a political division between the left and the right; or liberals and conservatives/progressives and reactionaries. The principal division in society at present is psychological and the contrasting, mutually exclusive ways in which different sectors in society deal with all the change and things causing anxiety and insecurity at the moment.

    Brian Coyne (editor,

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