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Analysis

What real business leadership looks like

Analysis

Only true leadership will break the “us versus them” workplace culture that is damaging Australian business, argues Richard Blandy.

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Many are chiefs, but too few are leaders. Too few of those holding some degree of formal authority create the emotional chemistry that transforms authority into leadership.

True leaders derive their authority from a bond of trust and consent between themselves and their followers. Their authority is born of their followers’ confidence in their quality and dedication to the real interests of the group as a whole. A real leader will find it difficult to separate his or her own interest from that of the group that he or she leads.

In the cynical, egocentric, power-driven worlds of the big political parties, natural selection often militates against real leaders filtering to the top. A typical chief emerges from a Machiavellian rat race that rewards capacities to manipulate, dissemble, grease – and pass the buck, but collect the credit. A ruthless dedication to personal advancement is an advantage.

Some political chiefs are leaders despite the handicap of getting to the top by being good at snakes and ladders. Bob Hawke is the classic example of a true leader emerging out of such a world.

I accompanied Hawke (post Prime Ministership) to a high-powered OECD Futures Programme Conference in Hanover, Germany, in March 2000 on “21st Century Governance: Power in the Global Knowledge Economy and Society”. We represented the Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre of the University of South Australia (and Australia, by default). The international group of about 30 people was exceptionally high level. It included another former Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers of the Netherlands, for example.

Hawke was given the unprecedented honour at such OECD meetings of summing up the proceedings. I worked most of the night to come up with some pertinent things for Hawke to say, handing them to him in the early hours of the morning. What Hawke did with those words a few hours later was quite amazing. The orator in him went into full flight. He got a deserved standing ovation from this high level mob for his sheer charisma.

In contrast with the confusion of normal times, crises often produce real leaders. Group goals become sharply defined and simplified. The captain is the last to leave the sinking ship (unless it is the Costa Concordia); the air hostess tries to protect the passengers from the hijackers; the town policeman organises the battle of the levees against the flood; the town chemist leads the CFS in the battle with the bushfire.

There is a moment of true leadership in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli. Required by a remote high command to order his men into a suicidal charge against the Turkish machine guns, the Australian officer tells his men he is going over the top with them, because he would not order them to do something he would not do himself.

Without the trust and confidence that real leadership brings about, Australia’s workplaces will be neither competitive nor satisfying to work in.

Leadership is the inspiration of group morale created by selfless identification with the fate of subordinates. As the Bible says, the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. Australian officers understood this sort of thing by refusing to be separated from their men in prisoner of war camps.

When I was involved in the Industries Assistance Commission’s inquiry into the textiles, clothing and footwear industries in 1979, I met quite a few leaders. Two whom I recall most vividly were a plant manager and a board chairman.

The plant manager led several hundred machinists in an ancient factory in Melbourne. This man greeted his workers by name when they arrived each morning. If someone unexpectedly failed to show up, he telephoned their home to inquire if they were OK. He would join his machinists on the factory floor every hour or so to do anti-RSI exercises with them. “The exercises won’t have credibility unless I do them, too” he said. He ate lunch in the canteen with his people. They obviously loved him.

Turnover, absenteeism and workers’ compensation claims were low. Productivity, quality and cost-competitiveness of the product were very high. This man was an outstanding leader.

The board chairman led an enterprise employing perhaps 30 people sewing duck-shooters’ camouflage jackets. She was, I would judge, in her 70s. She sewed camouflage jackets with the rest of her people. She was a former employee of the factory. The team had recently suffered casualties through lay-offs. The chairman clearly grieved over this loss of her friends. “Why doesn’t the damned government leave us alone?” she wanted to know. She was every inch the battle commander in the front line with her troops. I loved her – like everyone else in that hot tin shed.

Leaders have that quality to inspire the trust and affection of their people. They rejoice in the successes and suffer in the misfortunes of those whom they have the honour to command. Leaders are not simply winning-oriented: leaders are willing to lose the lot for their people and for what they believe to be right. For real leaders, integrity outguns success.

Any management that permits third parties to intrude on a direct and personal relationship with their own people should be sacked out of hand by their board. Without the trust and confidence that real leadership brings about, Australia’s workplaces will be neither competitive nor satisfying to work in.

As one of Australia’s great trade union leaders, Charlie Fitzgibbon, said in 1986: “The one thing that no ideologue or anybody else can ever overcome is a feeling of being part, of being fairly treated, and seeing the advantage of the enterprise also meaning an advantage to the individual.”

How many of our chiefs run places like that? Until most do, our workplaces are going to be subjected to third-rate regulation to prevent the worst excesses of an “us versus them” workplace culture wreaking havoc with enterprise-level productivity. Opting-out from the ambit of Fair Work Australia and most labour market regulation should be an option for all firms where a majority of employees indicate at an annual secret ballot of employees that they would like to opt out in favour of simply dealing directly with the firm and its management.

Such businesses will be run by real leaders. They will prosper because they will be super-competitive – not because their employees are paid low wages and are overworked, but because their employees “feel that they are part of the enterprise, are fairly treated and see the advantage of the enterprise also meaning an advantage to the individual.”

Richard Blandy is an adjunct professor of economics in the Business School at the University of South Australia and is a weekly contributor to InDaily.

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