JOHN MENADUE. Failed Leadership in Church and State!

From my experience and observation good leadership is about creating disequilibrium and a process to galvanise the group to change. Without disequilibrium there will be no worthwhile change.  

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.

From my experience and observation good leadership is about creating disequilibrium and a process to galvanise the group to change. Without disequilibrium there will be no worthwhile change.

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 changes. 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 a political party or church will invariably oppose change and seek to keep us comfortable in 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 by the group of the problem and the solution 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.

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. 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.

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. It is then when 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 change takes many forms;

  • don’t discuss the issue and delay;
  • change the subject;
  • deny the problem like climate change;
  • keep busy on the detail ;
  • define the problem as a technical one, e.g. ‘clean’ coal;
  • 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. He was almost expelled from the ALP for creating disequilibrium. Without it the ALP would not have changed. Bill Shorten shows no sign of creating disequilibrium.

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

  • Help the group clarify the problem – e.g. climate change, and budget repair.
  • Describe the values and vision that must be pursued e.g. protection of the planet
  • Keep out of the detail and listen.
  • Don’t attempt to solve the group’s problem or make decisions ahead of the group.
  • To secure change, create disequilibrium – people don’t change in comfort zones,.
  • Identify the opponents and their vested interests. Some of these are in the media and not interested in discussion.
  • Don’t rush it. Don’t raise expectations you can’t meet.
  • Use allies and supporters rather than placate opponents.
  • Ensure that people around you are direct, honest and trustworthy rather than a small group of people who agree with you.
  • Be self-aware of your own strengths and weaknesses and the need for assistance. Admit you don’t have all the answers.
  • Passion and energy.
  • Good leaders have a broad range of interests and knowledge – not just politics, business and 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.

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.

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John 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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