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Leaders: entrances and exits

First published on LinkedIn, 25 Sept. 2015

Two noteworthy events over the recent past have stirred my thinking about what it means to be a leader in contemporary Australia. The first is the elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to the position of Prime Minister. The resignation of Adam Goodes from the Sydney Swans is the second.

Both events have roused much discussion in the media. Turnbull has made an impressive entrance but will he be effective in the role? Goodes has excelled as a sportsperson and is widely admired as a champion of social change. How will he be remembered?

I can’t recall a time when leadership was as robust a talking point as it is today. Noteworthy events do stir discussion. Of course they do. But something more is going on. I believe the talk is driven by a deep-seated dissatisfaction with the quality of our leaders and serious concerns about how we should navigate towards the future.

Australians believe their leaders have let them down. They want to feel more positive and hopeful. Turnbull burst onto the political landscape with the promise of better things to come. That’s why we want to talk about him. Adam Goodes came from nowhere and hewed his own hard road to success and recognition. He is down-to-earth and a credible role model. That’s why we want to follow him.

Goodes and Turnbull are different in almost every regard. One built a following from the bottom up, while the other presides over a whole system of government. Despite this, each demonstrates aspects of leadership that are vitally important.

Goodes never saw himself as a leader when growing up as a young man and playing for the Sydney Swans. But his lived experience was a daily reminder of how racism can crush the hopes and aspirations of Indigenous Australians and fragment communities. He was determined to make a difference, so he stepped up and acted courageously. Despite the taunts and criticism he continues to do so.

This week the media described Goodes as self-effacing, modest and humble. Tim Dick (SMH) had this to say: He proves that modesty remains both honourable and popular. He lives the motto: actions, not words. He is a proud Indigenous man, an inspiration to all Australia.’

Goodes is like many renowned leaders from history, including Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Emmeline Pankhurst. In Australia we have Rosie Batty, 2015 Australian of the Year, and Bernie Banton, the asbestos campaigner, to inspire us. They also wanted to make other people’s lives better. There was no ego, hubris or hope for personal gain involved. On the contrary, they faced up to criticism, exclusion and much worse.

What does Malcolm Turnbull bring to leadership? His demeanour is entirely different from the serious and stern Goodes. He exudes confidence and optimism. That is the point. He wants to change the national psyche so that we build future wealth through innovation and creativity. He wants us to plan for the longer term and start communicating.

Turnbull has got this much right. We now know from neuroscience that positivity and creativity are closely linked. We have to feel good, individually and collectively, before our best ideas bubble to the surface. Fear closes us down. It narrows our vision and strips our imagination. We withdraw into our shells, stop talking to one another and put too much energy into watching our own backs.

Have we become a society more driven by fear than optimism? Is it showing up in our achievements as a nation? The evidence says that it is. A recent report from the Australian Industry Group uncovered a plethora of problems undermining our capacity to innovate. These included a focus on the short term, lack of collaboration and a leadership culture set in the past. The colleagues I speak with every day are saying it too. They see business leaders fearful of making mistakes and clinging to outmoded work practices.

Will Malcolm Turnbull’s approach work? Yes, but only if he supplements his style with the kind of substance that Goodes displays. People expect him to take a stand on issues that really matter. This will come with a lot of pain, as Adam Goodes knows. Not everyone will be happy about it. His risk is in public censure on the one hand and sly undermining on the other.

The signs are favourable. Yesterday Turnbull stood next to Rosie Batty and announced new initiatives for tackling family violence. He declared that as a national objective, respect for women and gender equality would be at the forefront of what it is be an Australian. This is a brave act – it surfaces a ‘great shame’ and ‘national disgrace’ in this country. Turnbull will find, like Adam Goodes, that some people prefer such things to remain veiled.

In my view, Australia needs leaders with Adam Goodes’ humility, courage and drive. We also need those same leaders to articulate a national purpose and inject hope and optimism into the mix.