Scott Morrison: anti-leader, absent leader, or maverick?

Sep 10, 2021
Scott Morrison, ScoMo, second-rate

What sort of a leader is Scott Morrison? Most of us want our leaders to do well but does our PM have the capacity to do so? Has he grown as a leader in the role or not?


In a recent and perceptive speech, Barry Jones identified a number of characteristics of effective leaders when speaking about General
Sir John Monash including vision, urgency, courage, knowledge and judgment.

Barry also commented on the current crop of Commonwealth “anti-leaders”, lamenting those for whom “the greatest issue is winning (or failing to win) the next election, so politicians walk on egg-shells, fearful of offending vested interests, incapable of thinking globally or contemplating the long-term future”.

Like anti-heroes, anti-leaders act unconventionally and often out of personal interest. Clearly, our current PM believes in the miracle of his own ascendency. Scott Morrison became a willing but accidental leader “doing a Bradbury” – unexpectedly, he was the only one left standing after the latest incumbent in the role, Malcolm Turnbull, was deposed.

Absent leaders

A leader can be invisible or missing in action rather than being there to motivate and empower others. Research on “substitutes for leadership” is telling. It questions the popular myth that leaders make a huge difference. The truth is that the positive impact of effective leadership is modest at best while the negative impact of dysfunctional leadership can be hugely destructive. Leaders do make a difference, but often the biggest difference is negative (Manfred Kets de Vries, Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership, 2018).

State and territory leaders now seem to be leading their various jurisdictions in spite of the PM not because of him. Morrison appears to lack the capacity or the desire to form a national consensus, to exercise strategic leadership, or to display distributed/shared leadership. He is daily “in your face” but effective collegial leadership seems to be elusive.

There has long been research regarding “substitutes for leadership” among followers including – a shared vision, shared values, ability, indifference to rewards, and a professional orientation.

Our state and territory leaders seem to be manifesting aspects of these attributes. They are trying to manage the pandemic, especially for their own jurisdictions; they are balancing health, the economy, and fostering their state’s or territory’s well-being; and they are getting on with the job while (mostly) listening to their medical experts.

They are not acting as a coherent whole, despite now being part of a national cabinet – the PM is not uniting them. Rather, he is pitting them against each other on issues such as lockdowns, vaccine availability, vaccine rolls-outs, and quarantine facilities.


The maverick leader is commonly regarded as being wilfully independent, energetic, and unconventional. Mavericks are often regarded as being undisciplined but courageous.

Recent research by Dr Ree Jordan and her colleagues at The University of Queensland Business School has found that, while mavericks do challenge organisational norms, they do so for the benefit of others. Additionally, they are not wildcard nonconformists as they do in fact conform to higher-level norms and goals.

Judith Germain (The Maverick Paradox, 2017) refers to two types of maverick leaders – extreme and socialised. The former is more charismatic, and the latter is more transformational.

Charismatic leaders reflect the ability to inspire, to motivate, and to expect high performance from others based upon strongly-held core values (Peter Northouse, Leadership, 9e, 2021).

Transformational leaders challenge the process, model the way, enable others to act, inspire a shared vision, and encourage the heart (James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge, 5e, 2012).

Our PM seems to be non-traditional and even ordinary, but few would regard him as being either charismatic or transformational. He could nonetheless be regarded as being a maverick.

Summary assessment of our PM

Our PM seems to display some characteristics of all three versions of leadership – an anti-leader, an absent leader, and a maverick.

He is an anti-leader: he prides himself on being an ordinary “blokey” person who loves the Cronulla Sharks, and he likes to come across as everyone’s favourite uncle. He lacks the demeanour, gravitas, and presence to be a great leader. Admittedly, Aussies are generally suspicious of inspirational and charismatic leaders (unlike Americans) but we do expect our leaders to “step up” and to lead and to unite us when needed. Morrison seems to divide and conquer the state and territory leaders rather than to unite and coordinate them.

He is certainly present and highly visible, but this is more “presenteeism” than authentic engagement. More is not necessarily better when it comes to leadership – as with communication. Too much visibility and constant verbiage does not lead to clarity of the message or to willing followership.

The PM does not seem to add much value apart from constant ‘catch-up’ announcements portrayed with wry grins. His efforts to engage us, the Australian people, seem reactive, reluctant, and awkward. The Australian public gave him and the federal government the
benefit of the doubt in 2020; now people in 2021 are working out the PM for who he really is.

Often, his blunt announcements have been inappropriate and unfortunate – “I don’t hold a hose, mate”; “get out from under the doona”; “I asked Jenny how best to respond”; “NSW has the gold standard”; “it’s not a race”; and “technology, not taxes, will fix climate
change” … etc.

Scott Morrison’s capacity to “read the room” and to sense what needs to be done and what needs to be said as a prime minister seems to be quite limited.

He is a maverick: he is indeed his own man, just like Donald Trump who certainly did it “my way”. However, he seems to lack key transformational and charismatic behaviours. He doesn’t fit the mould as a PM or as a national leader.

Ironically, many senior leaders do grow into their roles and they can rise to the occasion in a crisis – our PM has not appeared to have done so. His behaviour in the role is just more of the same. He stumbles, he reacts, his demonstrations of compassion are strained, he won’t accept responsibility for mistakes, and he certainly can’t and won’t apologise.

He divides us and does not unite us as a nation. Ironically, as PM, Morrison seems to delight in comparing one state and territory with another.

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