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  • LEADERSHIP - THE POSITION OR THE PERSON?

    The present state of the Australian Democrats Party clearly illustrates the importance of leadership in any organisation. There is no need to describe the predicament facing the Party – the media is full of it. And the repercussions will provide substantial fodder for journalists and expert commentators for some time to come. For readers unfamiliar with Australian politics, the Democrats are the third largest party and hold the balance of power, along with the Greens and some independents, in the Senate. It is left of centre and claims to be the only truly democratic party, in that party members rather than the elected representatives directly elect their parliamentary leader. Dissension within the party is common and the leadership has changed four times in the past five years. It would be interesting to know what the various protagonists involved, and commentators, understand by the term ‘leadership’. From the evidence available through the media it seems that the focus is largely on the position. That is, the appointment of a person to carry out a particular role, which happens to be the head of the Democrats’ Parliamentary Party. In our experience, appointment to a position is not necessarily an indication of a person possessing leadership, at least not what we understand leadership to be. In our view, leadership is the ability to achieve desired outcomes with and through others. This involves a combination of what are commonly known as traditional management skills such as planning, organising and controlling, and the vital ingredient of ‘people skills’. These include understanding of and the ability to apply attributes and skills such as assertive behaviour, communication, delegation, coaching and counselling where needed, resolving conflict, and setting the example for others to follow. The best leaders are those who are firstly people oriented and secondly are also credible managers. This combination will result in leaders, irrespective of level or circumstance, who are able to create the environment in which their people (the team) can be successful. For those having to make the choice, choosing people to be leaders is itself a problem, and often a predicament. This is because perceptions of leadership and the possession of it by individuals vary. For example within universities, many academics see leadership as their being the best in their particular research discipline. This perception has an individual focus and appears to have little to do with anything other than self-achievement. On the other hand, some people in the caring fraternity see empathy with the group and the need to reach consensus as being perhaps the only way of providing leadership, even if this means not reaching the desired goals. In the world of business, achievement in terms of return to shareholders is often perceived to be the only real purpose and the team and individual members are seen only as a means of achieving that monetary goal. We often see people who have been appointed to positions of leadership with little consideration of what they need to do or how they should go about being a leader. Popularity or even the possession of perceived charisma is often reason for the appointment. Additionally, a person might be appointed as a result of them possessing some or all of, for example: an attractive presence and personality, conciliatory style, media savvy, some specific academic, technical or other qualifications, and factional influence. Another reason, as has just occurred with the Democrats’ predicament, is the selection of a person as the best compromise. While all these factors, except the last one, might be useful for the incumbent, and might provide some level of management or supervisory credibility, much more is needed. The ‘people skills’ mentioned above, together with attributes of intelligence, integrity, initiative, firmness and resilience are vital if a person is to be a successful leader. The predicament facing the Democrats is essentially twofold. Firstly, the election of the parliamentary leader by the ‘grass roots’ of the party may well prove problematic, as it is very difficult for people removed from the action to make sound judgements on the true leadership ability of the contestants. Secondly, not understanding the complex nature and requirements of leadership, they may well elect someone for all the wrong reasons as pointed out above, and not take into consideration the broad sweep of responsibilities needed to, as some wit has said, “keep the bastards relevant”. Peter McDougall August 2002