There’s a line in an old episode of The West Wing that goes : ‘What do you call a leader that no one follows? Just someone walking around.’
In the past week we’ve seen another change of political leadership at the top, our 5th Prime Minister in 5 years, which some refer to as “the new normal”, while others blame everything from the media, the 24 hour news cycle and even social media.
I see it differently. A leader is (by definition) someone that others follow. The art of leadership is to move other people in a direction, perhaps worked out together, that they would not have moved to on their own accord. They move en masse, as if led by an invisible force. A leader articulates the mission, where they want to get to, and why, and motivates and stirs the masses to action. Together, everyone achieves far more than they could on their own. It’s what Churchill did so well in the 1940s, what Lincoln did in the 1860s, and many others before and since.
Simply put, when a ‘leader’ (or someone in a leadership position) does not (or cannot) take the people with them, they are simply a person walking around. Leadership has disappeared, all but for a few rusted on acolytes. Ergo, Rudd, Gillard and now Abbott.
In 2007, and well into 2008 and 2009, Rudd took the Australian people with him. With his snappy freshness and Mandarin-speaking abilities, he looked like the ‘PM for the times’. A country weary of 11 years of the political machinations of John Howard, while still respectful of his achievements, cast the old aside and ushered in the new. Rudd had no real Labor stronghold, just his hold on the people, and when, after a few missteps, that waned in 2009/2010, his party unceremoniously threw him out before the end of this first term of office. How the mighty had fallen.
His replacement, Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female PM, was a feisty fighter, but the legitimacy (or lack of) her ascension and its anti-democratic nature (there was not even a caucus vote), plus her broken promise over the carbon tax (people do not like new taxes, as a rule, especially one you’ve promised on the eve of an election not to impose) saw her whittled away to an ultimately undignified exit. She never had the people, and never took them with her. After her minority government limped on through 2010-2013, the assassin turned PM was replaced by the PM she assassinated, and Rudd was back as PM, if but for a few months, as a damage limitation exercise to save the deck chairs as the ship sank to its inevitable defeat to Tony Abbott’s Coalition.
Two years on, for the third parliamentary term in a row, we witness another elected PM taken down before their first full term is up. Was Abbott more a Rudd or a Gillard? I would say the latter. He had the political apparatchiks behind him, but he never took the people with him. Pretty much anyone as leader of the Liberals would have won in 2013 after the disunity and tragi-comedy of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. The ‘I don’t like him but I’ll give a go’ nature of the Australian public allowed Abbott to sweep to power.
It turned sour pretty quickly. Never before had a 1st term elected government lost the popular support (as measured by polling) so fast. It took only 3 months. Three months! 30 polls in succession since bear witness to Abbott’s government falling behind in the popularity stakes to a rather blandly led Labor opposition with Bill Shorten as leader. Australians looked at both sides and switched off.
The situation lurched on for another 18 months before Abbott’s ultimate denouement. The Liberals did not want to be seen to take down a sitting PM in their first term, in stark contrast to what the Labor party had done in recent memory. Unity and steadfastness was promoted as strength, making the ‘tough decisions’ that had to be made after the ‘disaster Labor left us’. However bad Abbott got, and he was not all bad by any means, this argument was his strongest suit. Surely the Libs would not ‘do a Gillard’ on their own 1st term PM?
Back in February, some disenchanted Liberal MPs called for a leadership election. This became a double embarrassment for Abbott, in that not only was this a back bench revolt (neither heir apparent Turnbull or deputy and potential rival Bishop initiated it hence could not be neutered by defeat), Abbott only won 60% of the vote against nobody. 39 of the Liberal caucus voted for “no one” rather than their leader and Prime Minister. Ouch. Abbott was mortally wounded after that, given another 6 months and then it was all over fairly swiftly.
Abbott’s leadership could have worked if he took the country with him, but he didn’t. In truth, he never really had them. They gave him a go, they suspended their worries for a while, but they never loved him, never even liked him. Most breathe a sign of relief now he’s gone, and it’s Malcolm Turnbull’s job now to see if he can communicate better to the people, persuade them that his way is the best way, and take them with him.
For a digital/business person like myself, I applaud the positive argument Turnbull made in his victory speech Monday night, about the future that Australia needs to become as digital disruption and technology becomes more and more important….
“We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility and change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.
“There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.
In that brief statement, he articulated his vision and the battleground for the economy, and how he will distance himself from Shorten. Not beholden to old ideas, he will seek to argue we need flexibility, resolve and intelligence to win the day. He clenched his fist as he spoke, his voice rose and you could see the passion and belief come through.
This looked like leadership, born of someone who’s actually been there and done it in business. Let’s see if he can take the people with him.