Category Archives: Leadership

A satirical view of leadership

Inflated, self-important notions about leadership are attractive to some who occupy or seek prominent roles in an organisation or a sector of society. Correspondingly a satirical view of leadership may be attractive to sceptics.

A litmus test for leaders (and for notions about leadership) is how they use language. Puffed-up people and ideas tend to produce swollen clichés. Of all the musings posted on my blog during the last year, the one that received the most hits was on the bogus lingo of big-shot leadership. A few people have asked me for more on this topic, so here you are: a derisive caricature in verse form. Resemblance between The General and any actual leader known to you, whether in government, commerce, industry or some other field, may not be entirely coincidental.

The General

The old-fashioned verse form I’ve chosen to use here is a series of ‘heroic couplets’ – rhymed pairs of lines in iambic pentameter, traditionally favoured for mock-heroic purposes by past masters of satirical poetry like Dryden in the 17th century and Pope in the 18th. Nearer our own time, Vladimir Nabokov also used it for a long elaborate prank poem, ‘Pale Fire’, embedding it in a witty novel with the same title.

Leadership poem-1

What ‘leadership’ should mean

In a previous post, The bogus lingo of big-shot leadership, I commented on ridiculously misconceived ways of describing leadership attributes. Glib business-school textbooks, sloppy newspaper articles and trite job advertisements are full of distorted hype and delusional clichés. There’s an obsession with ‘charisma’, with ‘passion’, with ‘transformational’ leadership and so on.

But why make a fuss about this inflated language? Who cares?

Well, it matters to me because, having had a fair bit to do with community-oriented programs for emerging leaders (more about that later), I believe it’s important to demythologise the concept of leadership – which means looking critically at the way people talk and write about  this topic.

In considering what makes a good leader, we need to shift the focus away from captains of industry, political chiefs and other (usually male) big shots. Not all leaders occupy prominent positions at the head of an organisation. Leadership can develop, and have a significant impact, in many different roles and at all levels. It’s not primarily about the rank you hold. It’s about the influence you exert over others – which depends largely on what kind of individual you are, how you relate to those around you, what values you embody – and how you use language to communicate.

A New Yorker cartoon by Steiner (reproduced here on the ‘fair use’ principle) captures some of this nicely. The patriarchal figure at the front of his flock may think he’s in charge, but the real leadership is coming from further back – and not from an aggressive round-up sheepdog either, but from a quiet female cat. ‘She’s not all over you, but she gets the job done.’

Steiner cartoon

In what I’m calling the bogus lingo of big-shot leadership, personal attributes are too often idealised. In the real world, most leaders are not heroes, clairvoyants or saints. They are just ordinary individuals with an unusually strong sense of purpose, and enough basic knowledge and skills to pursue that purpose in an energetic, persuasive way that draws followers along in a shared commitment.

Leadership isn’t simply about your personal repertoire of talents and qualifications.  Yes, it may help if you’re what people regards as a born leader, with great natural gifts and drive. But we’ve all seen highly gifted and motivated people crash and burn, or just fade away without ever fulfilling their promise. In contrast some people eventually achieve great things as leaders after mediocre beginnings or even a string of failures (think of Abraham Lincoln), if they know how to find value in adversity, learn from others, persevere quietly, and grow into their responsibilities.

To be influential as a leader, it’s not sufficient to have certain innate attributes. The important thing is what you do with them. Someone may possess remarkable charm but use it in a self-serving way for the satisfactions of power, status and popularity. Someone else may have brilliant capacities but never fulfil that potential because no-one wants to follow. The quality and impact of leadership depends on the way a leader relates to other people and motivates them.

For a leader, the most important kind of knowledge is an understanding of what makes people tick, what matters to them, what motivates them, what draws out the best in them. Part of this is self-knowledge: being calmly aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and of how others see you.

In addition to an understanding of people (including yourself), there’s a particular kind of know-how that is vital in a leader’s skillset: being able to imagine and tell a compelling story about where your organisation or group needs to go, and how it is going to meet the challenges that face it. I don’t mean ‘storytelling’ in the literal sense of spinning a yarn. I mean communicating a ‘vision’ in the best sense of that over-used word. Good leaders know how to engage people’s belief that a situation they face can be taken forward to a positive outcome if they are willing to shape the pattern of events. This requires the knack of persuading others to do together something substantial, difficult and worthwhile that they would not otherwise have done.

Of course it’s easy to delude yourself. The rhetoric of setting ambitious goals has to be subjected to regular reality checks. It’s been remarked that some would-be leaders talk a lot about their ‘vision’ because they don’t know how to spell hallucination. In contrast, truly visionary leadership, which can take people forward together as co-authors of a credible narrative, combines insight with outlook in a way that’s well informed and thoroughly realistic. 

A cliché popular among aspiring leaders is that you should ‘follow your passion.’ What – always? Some passionate people are crazy. Think of the image in that  famously scary poem by W.B. Yeats which conjures up a doomsday when ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’ A leader may be passionate without embodying any positive value. (Isn’t it often preferable to be compassionate?) Strong passion will sometimes weaken individuals and groups.

Genuine leaders understand that their apparent strengths can become weaknesses, and vice versa. They know themselves well. They don’t fool themselves or others with grandiloquent slogans. They know the difference between a realistic vision and a shallow mirage. They are open to experience. And their ambition is directed towards the betterment of the wider community, not just the advancement of their own personal careers.

The program devised by Leadership Western Australia (LWA) – currently celebrating its 10th anniversary – embodies those principles. (Declaration of vested interest: I was its founding CEO.) Each year’s selected cohort brings together high-achieving people from many walks of life. They differ in their backgrounds and assumptions but are alike in wanting to use that diversity as a collective learning resource for helping to meet major social challenges. After completing the LWA program, participants contribute their expertise in a pro bono capacity to not-for-profit community organisations. In doing so they benefit from the happy paradox that the best way to enhance one’s individual development as a leader is to take the focus away from oneself and look outwards and forwards to the needs of one’s community as a whole.

The bogus lingo of big-shot leadership

These days the word ‘leadership’ reverberates around us, usually with an inflated meaning. Every second job advertisement claims to be offering a leadership position. Every second captain of industry, according to business magazines and gung-ho publicists, regularly shows strategic leadership of colossal stature. Grandiloquent cliché epithets like ‘visionary’ and ‘dynamic’ often cling to those who are hailed as leaders. Not all leadership talk is suspect, of course; the topic can and should be discussed with useful precision. (More about this later.) But the bogus lingo of big-shot leadership  deserves our sceptical scrutiny.

Hero copyA quasi-military model is popular in the male imagination. You see this in a pervasive lexicon of strategic manoeuvering and in the guru status accorded to figures like retired army generals as speakers on the celebrity circuit. Adulation of highly aggressive corporate warrior lords is part of the same notion: leaders are supposedly defined by their heroic feats on the business battleground – a world of conflict in which winning only occurs if there’s an enemy you can crush. Sporting achievement is often represented in the same melodramatic terms of belligerence and dominance.

The warrior is just one version of a more general stereotype that muddles a lot of thinking about leadership. This underlying stereotype expresses the misconception that a leader is a big shot endowed with extraordinary talents – a superhero. It’s a false image.

Perhaps the most mis-leading notion about leading is that it requires ‘charisma’ – a magnetic, inspirational quality possessed by exceptionally gifted individuals. This isn’t true: a reputable study by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus found nothing in personality or style to distinguish successful leaders from anyone else. What’s more, this misconception is likely to bring trouble: trying to be charismatic is a recipe for inauthentic behaviour that would soon alienate any perceptive group that an aspirant may want to lead.

584086A serious defect of some courses in management and leadership is that they treat what are really aspects of character as if they were simply matters of technique.   One popular textbook on Leadership (by Andrew Dubrin) contains the appalling statement that ‘charismatic leaders…use the assertive impression management strategies of exemplification and promotion to secure and maintain desired identity images of their selves, vision and organisation.’ If only this were a conscious parody of debased language! – But no: the same self-advancement manual goes on to assure the reader earnestly that ‘a person can increase his or her charisma’ by following certain steps. These include ‘remembering people’s names’, ‘displaying an in-your-face attitude’, and ‘smiling frequently.’ I’ve got nothing against smiling, or remembering people’s names, but this ‘impression management’ ludicrously trivialises the attributes of leadership!

Dubrin’s textbook also declares that ‘charisma is a key component of transformational leadership.’  You may be familiar with this alluring phrase. It’s usually invoked as part of a loaded contrast: on the one hand a ‘transformational’ leader, who accomplishes major positive change, and on the other hand a ‘transactional’ leader, who operates on the basis of negotiated deals and expedient give-and-take arrangements. No doubt every leader would like to be seen as transforming an organisation or a society rather than merely conducting some clever transactions. So you get impressionable MBA students and ambitious young managers wanting to learn the formula for turning themselves rapidly into transformational leaders. When I read earnest advice like the following (it’s Dubrin again), I don’t know whether to laugh or cry: ‘Create visions for others.  Being able to create visions for others will be a major factor in your being perceived as charismatic.  A vision uplifts and attracts others. To form a vision, use the guidelines presented previously in this chapter…’

There are three things drastically wrong with this way of attempting to prepare people for leadership:

  • It implies that visions are always splendid and change is always desirable.
  • It’s confused about motivation: are we supposed to be creating and communicating a genuine vision so that members of our organisation will be persuaded to go forward together on a worthwhile journey, or are we producing something that purports to be a vision just because it makes us seem attractively charismatic individuals and fast-tracks our elevation to star status?
  • The assumption that transformational leadership – suffused by a charismatic and visionary radiance – is more valuable than transactional leadership is an absurd oversimplification. James Burns recognised this in his biography of the great American president F.D. Roosevelt, showing how the powerful influence of FDR’s leadership stemmed from his ability to combine the transactional (brokering deals) with the transformational (driving fundamental change).

Burns subtitled his biography ‘The Lion and the Fox.’  That little word ‘and’ sums up the point: successful leadership is not a matter of being charismatically transformational like a lion rather than cunningly transactional like a fox. The best leaders are both: they adapt to circumstances, knowing when to be bold and when to be shrewd. The Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli made this nicely balanced observation in his book The Prince five hundred years ago. A leader, he said,

 should imitate the fox and the lion, because the lion cannot defend himself from snares and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. Therefore it is important to be a fox in order to understand the snares, and a lion in order to terrify the wolves. Those who choose only to be a lion do not really understand.

Does all this matter much? Why make a fuss about the bogus lingo of big-shot leadership? Well, that’s a question I’ll pursue soon in a sequel post…


A Prime Minister in love with literature?

Is it possible to imagine an Australian prime minister in love with literature? Someone for whom poetry could have just as much appeal as politics? A political leader who is not only a keen and discerning reader but also a highly accomplished writer? Hardly! (I hear you cry) – not in our own time, anyway.

While it’s true that Tony Abbott is credited with four books and was once a journalist, even his most enthusiastic supporters probably wouldn’t claim that he’s a literary luminary. But things were sometimes different in earlier periods.

As a schoolboy I borrowed one of the volumes of Winston Churchill’s History of the English-Speaking Peoples from the library, and found it absorbing. I knew, of course, that he’d been Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, and a powerful orator. Only later did I learn that he’d written many other books – more than 30, including a novel – and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature while in office as his nation’s leader.

I’d like to read Jonathan Rose’s recent book The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (Yale University Press), reviewed by Peter Clarke here. I gather that Rose traces a range of literary influences on Churchill’s publications and carefully crafted speeches, arguing that much of what the great British leader had read became transmuted so creatively through his own writings that it exerted an enormous influence even beyond his own country. ‘Sometimes’, Rose remarks, ‘the lives of millions depend on what their rulers read.’

Churchill isn’t a lone example. Nearer to our own time there’s Vaclav Havel (1936-2011): not only a distinguished playwright, public intellectual, humanitarian advocate and recipient of many international awards, but also the last President of Czechoslovakia and first President of the Czech Republic. Then there’s the Peruvian writer, journalist, literary critic and politician Mario Vargas Llosa: born in the same year as Havel, Llosa ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990 (unsuccessfully) and received the Nobel Prize for Literature 20 years later. He is best known for his novels, including The War of the End of the World and The Feast of the Goat.

So what about Australian politicians who were not only highly literate but also actively literary in their interests and pursuits? Well, there are two shining examples, but we have to go back many years to find them. They are the only two PMs who – fittingly – have had universities in this country named after them: John Curtin (1885-1945) and Alfred Deakin (1856-1919).


John Curtin reading, c1942. (Records of the Curtin Family. JCPML00381/33)

Curtin’s lifelong immersion in poetry was the subject of an illuminating public lecture that I attended recently in Perth, held under the aegis of the John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library (JCPML). You can read the text of it here. The lecturer was Curtin’s great grandson Dr Toby Davidson, a poet and academic. I’d previously known a bit about Curtin’s literary interests – e.g. that before he entered parliament he was already an energetic journalist, lecturer, editor, book reviewer and orator, and that as the member for Fremantle during most of the period 1928-45 his prowess as a writer and speaker grew steadily. (My novel  That Untravelled World makes brief mention of his rousing radio speeches during the Great Depression.) But I learnt a lot more from Toby Davidson’s lecture.

Davidson demonstrated cogently that Curtin committed to memory a wide range of poetry over many years, and continued to draw inspiration from it throughout his career, even while leading the nation through the anxious years of World War 2. ‘Every man should read poetry – for the good of his soul’, he said in an interview on becoming PM in 1941. It was fascinating to be shown by Davidson how extensively Curtin annotated his well-thumbed copy of a translation of Dante’s Inferno, commenting in the margins on its applicability to politics and everyday morality – or to see how he quoted lines from Swinburne and O’Dowd to frame his most momentous wartime broadcasts to the Australian people.

Alfred Deakin

Alfred Deakin, PM: ‘My heart is always in the highlands of literature’. (Creative Commons)

Alfred Deakin was even more thoroughly literary. Though one of Australia’s most successful politicians, he confessed in a personal letter ‘My heart is always in the highlands of literature.’ Late in life he wrote that ‘the intoxication of public success’ could not compare with ‘the transports I receive from books’ and that he had ‘lived more, & more intensely, in & through books’.

In an article on ‘The Literary Statesman: Alfred Deakin and his Papers’, Graeme Powell emphasises the wide range of Deakin’s reading, which included not only English writers (e.g. Shakespeare, Meredith, Hardy, Shaw, Twain, James, Kipling, Conrad and Bennett) but also French (e.g. Rousseau, Balzac, Sand, Maupassant and Daudet) and many more in translation, such as Cervantes, Goethe, Dostoevsky and various Greek and Latin classics.

Deakin’s diaries show that he read on average about 100 books a year, despite a huge weight of daily political chores. But extensive reading was not his only activity in ‘the highlands of literature.’ He also authored several book-length works, covering diverse subjects including literary criticism, spiritual allegory and political history; he filled manuscript notebooks with creative compositions in several genres from verse drama to poetry; and he contributed many articles, often under a pseudonym, to newspapers and journals. He was also a prolific letter writer, one of his most enduring correspondents being Walter Murdoch, essayist and professor of English.

There’s an odd omission in Powell’s article on this ‘literary statesman’: it makes no reference to Deakin’s lifelong admiration of Wordsworth, the predominant figure in his literary pantheon. (In that regard he wasn’t alone among political leaders; for instance Deakin’s contemporary Woodrow Wilson, the US President, used to read Wordsworth’s poems to his family at the end of a day, and quoted them in print to support his views about the study of literature.) Deakin’s devotion to Wordsworth’s poems was steadfast over the course of many years. He continued to re-read them, transcribing some into a notebook, including others in an anthology he edited,  adopting Wordsworthian blank verse for compositions of his own, consulting many articles on the poet’s work, and writing (with continual revisions) his own very long essay on ‘The Gospel according to Wordsworth.’ I refer to these matters in my book on Wordsworth.

Deakin’s love of literature had tangible benefits for the nation that he led. Most notably, he did much to promote literary activity in Australia, both through generous personal encouragement of individual writers and through his role in establishing the Commonwealth Literary Fund – the first systematic federal government initiative in support of the arts.

Today’s politicians may seem utterly different. But Havel died only three years ago and Llosa is still alive. Perhaps it’s possible that a  highly literate and actively literary political leader could yet emerge influentially in our country in our time. Sometimes, as Rose reminds us, the lives of millions can depend on what their rulers read. So if, as a start, you could choose half a dozen literary works to put in the in-tray of a 21st-century Australian PM, what would they be?