Moments of truth for Morrison: lessons in transformational leadership

Apr 4, 2021

Many of us are watching and listening intently to our PM and his Government at present. There are some serious lessons to be learnt about leadership. Two are suggested here – one being ‘transformational leadership’; the other concerning ‘moments of truth’. Morrison and his Government don’t seem to grasp either.

Transformational Leadership

The literature on transformational leadership is extensive. One just needs to access the works of Gary Yukl, James Sarros, James Burns, Bruce Avolio, Amanda Sinclair, Peter Northouse, or many other scholars on ‘leadership’.

In a nutshell, transformational leadership refers to the process whereby a person engages with others and creates a connection which raises the level of motivation and morality in both the leader and the follower. Such leaders elicit the highest performance from others, and help others to achieve their full potential  — see Northhouse (2013) Leadership (page 186).

Transformational leadership is usually distinguished from transactional leadership which is merely focussed on the exchanges that occur between leaders and followers, such as when a politician promises ‘no new taxes’ to potential voters.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 7e, 2020) identify five (5) aspects of transformational leadership. They are:

  • Model the way (be a role model of sound values and exemplary behaviour)
  • Challenge the process (‘why is this happening?’ not just ‘how can we do better?’)
  • Inspire a shared vision (use charismatic language and bring others with you)
  • Encourage the heart (motivate others to a higher level of performance)
  • Enable others to act (equip them with the skills and resources to be their best).

Transformational leadership seems to be elusive for our beleaguered PM. Indeed, moving from transactional to transformational leadership is never easy, especially for a leader whose default position is to ‘spin’ his way out of crises and to address and react to issues in a linear fashion.

Where is the PMs capacity to prioritise, address and manage serious issues? We have many serious issues – climate change, drought, fire and water management, this pandemic (and the next one), aged care, the mismanagement of our First Nations peoples – the list goes on and on. The toxic sexist, male-oriented culture in Parliament House is a distraction from what should be the real agenda of the Government and this Parliament.

Moments of Truth for Leaders

‘Moments of truth’ in the service world refers to any significant experience the customer has that can ‘make or break’ the relationship with the service provider. For example, you go to a restaurant and the meal is expensive, ordinary, tasteless, and the waiter is rude. Or, you patiently wait for ages in line, and the service person ignores you to serve someone else who is ‘more important’ behind you.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner have also identified four (4) moments of truth for leaders. Actually, they are moments of truth for followers, in that these are the times and situations when followers actually judge us as leaders:

  • How do we spend our time?
    (the meetings you convene and attend – and about what)
  • What questions do we ask?
    (quality leadership and management questions)
  • How do we deal with critical incidents?
    (both the big successes and the big failures)
  • What do we reward?
    (the excellent behaviour that gains your attention and recognition).

Not endorsing an independent inquiry into the allegations against the Attorney General is a ‘moment of truth’; not reading or actioning the recommendations from the Respect@Work report is a ‘moment of truth’; not listening to women is a ‘moment of truth’; not attending to the 110 000 women protesting at March4Justice is a ‘moment of truth’; having to invoke his wife and daughters to find empathy regarding Brittany Higgins’ allegations is a ‘moment of truth’; Nationals MP Michelle Launry ‘feeling bad’ for the male staffer who was dismissed for committing a lewd act on the desk of another female MP is a ‘moment of truth’; bringing in male prostitutes to Parliament House, and filming sex in the prayer room at Parliament House are ‘moments of truth’.

Being seen as ‘everyone’s Dad’ and ‘a good bloke’ is not enough for a PM or any senior leader. That Morrison’s invoking the women in his life as being ‘central’ is well-meaning but this still misses the mark – he has failed to read the mood of women and of most men who do ‘get it’. This is a threshold time for us in the same way as #BlackLives Matter was for the USA. March4Justice and the national outrage that has followed is a watershed moment in civic consciousness for Australia, and great Aussie leaders must discern it and respond appropriately.

The Pathway Forward

We are angry, disgusted, disillusioned, dismayed, and exasperated by recent events in Canberra, which won’t be further elaborated here. We have all watched a PM and a Government reeling from crisis to crisis like a huge, rudderless ocean liner caught in a hurricane.

Leaders have to add value and be seen to add value. Transformational leaders have to be in tune with others and lift them to a higher level of engagement. They must resonate with their constituents, and not be dissonant or disconnected (McKee & Boyatzis, Resonant Leadership, Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2005).

Morrison now seems to have belatedly realised that providing strategic direction for the future, building a powerful guiding coalition around him, and making high-level decisions is necessary. Is this enough to restore his credibility? I hope so but I suspect not.

The amazing thing is that there is a huge body of research and experience in this country on leadership development. The sad truth I have found over 40 years as a consultant and academic is that the leaders of organisations and State and Federal Departments have much more leadership development ‘under their belts’ than do nearly all politicians at local, State and Federal levels.

Leaders outside Parliament House have engaged in leadership training, coaching, mentoring, team building, strategic planning, cultural assessment, diversity training, performance management, and self-directed learning over their whole careers. I suspect that many of those inside Parliament house has come from insulated partisan backgrounds with little experience of the real world, and without the benefit of any such management, team, or leadership development. And it shows. Especially during crises.

We need strategic and transformational leadership from leaders who can respond to moments of truth. My fear is that our PM is unable to provide this, even if he might be motivated to do so.

Let’s listen to women from both sides of the House in the Parliament and from men who are prepared to tackle male arrogance, male privilege and the toxic culture of ‘big swinging dicks’.

We are better than this.

The women in Parliament House and in our communities deserve better than this.

We all deserve better than this.

Enough is enough.

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