Lessons on Leadership from our Politicians

This past week in Australian politics has been as entertaining as really, really bad reality TV. It’s so bad you can’t look away. Bring the popcorn and peanut M&Ms, quick. This is getting really good!

We’ve seen the calamitous exit of Campbell Newman in the garden state, the will-he-won’t-he-fall-then-rise-again of Adam Giles in the Top End and the continued demise of the Prime Minister after a baffling decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip on Australia Day, and the subsequent fallout. The old adage that a week is a long time in politics certainly holds true in the current climate.

There’s little doubt politics plays a part in any workplace or organisation so perhaps rather than shake our noggins at these bumbling heads of state, can these disasters of good governance actually serve us well by giving us something to learn as leaders in our workplaces? I think so. Let’s look at the key lessons from our guest teachers. Ring the bell. Take a seat please, students. Class is now in session.

Class, can you welcome Mr Newman.

[class] Good morning, Mr Newman!

Campbell Newman ignored the leader manifesto #1 when you first come to power. Beware of too much, too soon, and too severe.

If you’re a workplace leader and you’ve successfully taken over from someone else—even if they’ve been awful—you can’t ride in roughshod and enforce change from day one. Storming the beaches, military style, is a tactic of yesteryear and just isn’t accepted by the public these days.

Sure, there might be many things to fix when you assume the role of a leader and take over from an incumbent, but if you go at it too hard in the early days before building trust and rapport, you’re likely to meet one of our most powerful drives: the drive to defend.

Even though your new constituents/employees mightn’t have been fans of the previous hierarchy, it’s important in those first days as a leader to not completely reject all past efforts as ineffective because a) that is very rarely the case, and b) they may feel complicit because they worked underneath it. Regardless of what a train wreck you might inherit, there is undoubtedly good work being done. Start there first.

Key lesson 1: Build trust and rapport alongside your efforts to reform

Class, can you welcome Mr Giles.

[class] Good morning, Mr Giles!

In the words of a great modern-day poet, Ms T. Swift, player’s gonna play. In this case, the player’s getting played. And will continue to do so. I’m sure the betting agencies in the NT will have pretty long odds posted on Adam Giles seeing out a long political career. The Chief Minister catapulted into the leadership by forming an alliance with what could be kindly described as maverick ministers and senators in the NT. Gobsmackingly, this political paratrooper even took leadership while his incumbent Terry Mills was out of the country on a trade mission in Japan. Sounds almost like an espionage thriller—but in a singlet and double-pluggers #NTstyle

Our lesson from Mr Giles is that ambition fulfilled through backdoor deals and contra arrangements is destined to unravel at some point. If not right now, then it seems inevitable at some point. If your pathway to the top is not a transparent one, you set a new roadmap of behaviour for your adversaries to follow.  Possibly student Giles was absent when that lesson from Ms Gillard was conducted just a few semesters ago?

Key lesson 2: Get to the top the right way, even if it takes a little more time

Class, can you welcome Mr Abbott.

[class]Good morning, Mr Abbott!

Prime Minister Abbott certainly has never been backwards in his views on climate change, asylum seekers and of course the monarchy. But even by his own admission, his bestowing a knighthood on the Duke of Edinburgh was a poor captain’s call.

Prime Minister Abbott didn’t just ignore crossing the fuzzy line of separating personal values and party (workplace) values, he took a running jump over it. A staunch monarchist, Abbott’s own judgement ran foul of a public’s collective common sense, and he has been in damage control ever since. He has shown that no matter how powerful a leader, if your personal values aren’t in close alignment to the culture you serve, there’ll be backlash.

Key lesson 3: Leaders serve people first, themselves second

So there we have three leadership lessons from a tumultuous week in politics. In the constantly shifting and sometimes political workplace environment we face today, the overarching reminder is clear. Work hard, take time to listen to the people around you and hold yourself to standards beyond petty politics and ego.

While the electoral guillotine was swift for Campbell Newman and the coming weeks or months may see the bell toll for Chief Minister Giles and Prime Minister Abbott, we can thank our politicians for one thing. A masterclass in how leadership is not done.