Leading questions

The 2001 election campaign was not a high point in Australia's public life. Morality, reason and principles were cast aside as both main parties competed on populist platforms. In the absence of higher principles, economic management and leadership became salient issues. When an election is close it is easy to attribute success to a single factor, but it is evident that Howard's tough and decisive stance on refugees and the Tampa incident worked strongly to his advantage.

Opinion polls showed that on the issue of leadership the Coalition was generally well ahead of Labor, even when Labor held a commanding advantage on the important issues of health and education.

But do we have a clear idea of what leadership is? Amid the din of the campaign, Natasha Stott Despoja provided a lone voice of sanity when she said, on an ABC breakfast show, that we needed to explore the meaning of the word "leadership".

She would have known that there is no shortage of books on leadership - it's a sign of our age that the shelf space bookshops devote to management and leadership now outstrips the space devoted to cooking and sex. There is always a market for advice on how to make it to the CEO's office or to the Prime Minister's Lodge.

Books on management and leadership usually assume, without discussion, that leadership and the exercise of authority are interchangeable concepts. They refer to the qualities, activities and traits of the "leader" of the group (where that group may be a nation, corporation, or a political party), rather than the work of "leadership". The person singled out for attention is usually the person in the authority position.

This may sound like a semantically trivial point, but it is basic to the way we think about leadership. Authority and leadership are different qualities. Authority is almost always associated with certain appointed or elected positions. Leadership, by contrast, can be exercised from any position.

That's one of the basic points in Leadership on the Line, a recently published work by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, two professors at the John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. In this work they use the word "leader" only once (it probably slipped past their editing). It's about leadership, and it follows Heifetz's 1994 publication Leadership Without Easy Answers.

Both works draw on the same body of theory, developed over many years in which Heifetz has been teaching and researching leadership at the Kennedy School. While the earlier work was written for an academic readership, the later work is more a practical "how to" guide. Indeed, those who read the later work only and are curious about its theoretical base may be left wondering, for Heifetz's work on leadership marks a radical departure from the mainstream of management theory.

Leadership, in Heifetz's terms, is about mobilizing people to do adaptive work. It's a set of activities, rather than a delegation attached to a position. And it's quite separate from authority; in fact, leadership and authority can often be in conflict. While a position of authority has certain assets which can aid in the exercise of leadership, it also has certain liabilities.

Most people who exercise leadership without authority are unsung; they are often away from the attention that comes with authority. Some, like Nelson Mandela and Lec Walesa, provide examples of people who have led with and without authority. Closer to home we may recall Malcolm Fraser's period as Prime Minister - a period in which public life seemed to stand still. It was almost as if the nation needed a rest after the whirlwind of the Whitlam years. But Malcolm Fraser was most effective in arenas where he had little or no formal authority, in his role in ending racial war in Rhodesia in 1979, and, after he left office, in his work as a member of the "eminent persons" group, who were influential in bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa. In more recent times he has pricked the nation's conscience in relation to our treatment of refugees.

The challenge of leadership, in Heifetz's terms, lies in handing the work back to the people - as Lao Tze says, when all is done, people will believe they have done it all themselves.

He or she who stands up before the group, however, and says "I am your leader", with or without the backing of formal authority, may succeed for a while in gaining "followers", particularly if all goes well. Such early success breeds dependence, and when the "leader" can no longer deliver, the group's disillusion will lead to rejection. "Assassination" is the term Heifetz uses to describe the process. Assassination and hero worship are both symptoms of a group's lack of ownership of their own issues.

Avoiding work

Handing work back to the people is not easy, however, for people tend to engage in a pattern of behaviour Heifetz calls "work avoidance". ("Assassination" and "work avoidance" are the only two definitional terms to appear in his works, a blessing when one considers the plethora of management books with 2x2 matrices, neologisms and acronyms. Heifetz and Linsky write in lucid English.)

Work avoidance takes many forms, but one of the most common is to make a scapegoat of the person who tries to exercise leadership. For example, when John Gorton tried to take the Liberal Party out of its comfort zone and face up to the way Australia had to change, his colleagues dumped him from office; he had raised more heat than they could bear. It was cold comfort to Gorton that he was proven right when the Party lost the election in the following year.

There are many other forms of work avoidance. One is simply to leave the difficult issues in the "too hard" basket. When did we last talk about our serious economic problems, such as our chronic deficit on current account or weaknesses in our industry structure? Another is the age-old practice of shooting the messenger or engaging in destructive ad hominem attacks. When the ABC provides a forum for those who want to warn that we have serious problems to face up to, such as aboriginal reconciliation and environmental degradation, those who don't like to hear these messages accuse it of left wing bias. The ABC retreats into a timid self-censorship lest it be dealt with more harshly. When Pauline Hanson tried, in a clumsy and abrasive way, to express the pain being suffered by those who had been bypassed by globalization, we neglected the issues she represented and instead turned on her. From his psychological perspective Heifetz might say that we collectively engaged in a process of psychological projection, hoping that in rejecting Pauline Hanson we could rid ourselves of xenophobia and racism.

The most fashionable form of work avoidance in this age of neoliberalism is to evoke the Thatcher plea - "there is no alternative". There is no alternative to cutting public expenditure, selling our collective assets, abandoning public functions to non-existing or dysfunctional markets. It makes public life easy, for we don't have to think of difficult choices such as raising taxes.

Impression management is another form of work avoidance. As recent collapses in Australia and the US reveal, many corporate boards and senior managers devote their efforts towards impressing investors and creditors, rather than facing the adaptive challenge of building sustainable value in their corporations. In political life, public relations has slowly taken the place of public policy, as we engage in Orwellian celebrations of positive economic indicators beamed to our telescreens by a smiling Federal Treasurer.

For those in positions of authority a tempting form of work avoidance is to try to confine the definition of a problem to its technical aspects while ignoring its adaptive aspects. We need authority and technical solutions. Some may misinterpret Heifetz's views as anti-authoritarian, and perhaps he does not stress this point adequately. Competent administration, from setting interest rates through to fixing burst water pipes, requires authority and technical expertise.

But we are avoiding hard issues when we define problems purely in terms of their technical aspects. In the current debate over public liability there is a great deal of technical work on the issues of torts law, insurance pooling, contracts and reinsurance. Many are probably taking delight at seeing two of the least loved groups in the community - lawyers and insurers - at loggerheads. But we are ignoring serious adaptive issues concerning the meaning of personal responsibility, our definition of rights, and the nature of our social contracts towards those who suffer misfortune. The sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic and Anglican Churches have led to the questions of whether or not there have been cover-ups. These are important legal issues, which will no doubt be resolved with legal authority, but they are technical in nature. The adaptive issues centre on the nature of church institutions and their relationship to society.

The work of leadership

Will attempts at leadership inevitably be thwarted by work avoidance? Not necessarily. Exercising leadership is difficult, but Heifetz and Linsky have many practical suggestions illustrated with many short case studies of leadership success. Because those who exercise leadership often come from the foot of the table rather than the head of the table, most of them are unknown to us, but some examples of successful leadership in which authority has been restrained do come to mind.

If Heifetz and Linsky were writing in Australia, they would probably mention Sir William Deane. As Governor-General he had strictly prescribed authority, but he was able to use the platform provided by his office to raise many important issues. He brought us all a little out of our comfort zone, but never to the extent that he raised distress and reaction. Even if we had enjoyed the fortune of a more responsible and trustworthy Prime Minister than Howard, we would have needed Deane, for the position of Prime Minister has all the liabilities of formal authority; it is accountable to too many interest groups. Politicians rarely get thanked for raising hard issues.

John Button's work in industry reform is another case study in Heifetz's principles. Although he had a ministerial position, he held off on exercising the authority which came with his office. When he became Industry Minister in the Hawke Government, his task was daunting - to get firms and unions, cosseted by decades of tariff protection and sweetheart deals, to accept the need for modernisation. Protection of living standards through trade intervention, we should remember, was one of the sacred principles of the Labor Party.

Button didn't scream his messages from the pulpit and lay down the law; had he done so unions and businesspeople would have joined forces to ensure his assassination - probably a diplomatic post in Paraguay or Iceland. He didn't articulate a grand vision; he probably had in his mind a vision of a modernised Australian industry, but it would have terrified his constituents, and, in any case, the vision has to emerge from the group's own work. (Compare this notion of vision with that which is often suggested in management books - the charismatic "leader" stands before the ignorant masses and enlightens them with his vision.) He was patient, working with unions, businesspeople and other stakeholders, until they came to see the need for change and worked together on a set of industry plans.

Deane and Button provide examples because they happened to be prominent in public life. Most of those who exercise leadership, however, will never come to the notice of writers and academics. Leadership on the Line has numerous anecdotes, recalled from the writers' memories, of people who have exercised leadership without authority, in corporations, families, aboriginal American communities, and government agencies. Women are heavily represented in these anonymous case studies; perhaps women are more adept at leadership. Here we might think of people in similar situations who have helped their groups take ownership and work on hard issues. It may be the woman in the farming family who gets them to take a realistic view of their economic prospects. It may be the political party member who consistently but quietly raises hard policy issues, and retreats into the background when these issues become mainstream.

It's a pity we didn't listen to Senator Stott Despoja when she asked us to consider what we meant by leadership. Had we not equated leadership with toughness and stubborness - the qualities which have been great assets in Howard's political career - we may have seen the events of the time in a different light. We would perhaps have seen the leadership exercised by Arne Rinnan, the dignified captain of the Tampa. His actions made us confront the difficult issues; that was leadership. Howard's were designed to demonstrate his authority in building an iron curtain around Australia; that was work avoidance.

We should have identified the "Pacific solution" in its true light, as a mechanism of work avoidance, to try to keep the hard issues away from our scrutiny. Similarly we might identify the "war on terror", necessary as it is to deal with terrorism, as the technical side of a set of problems which poses huge adaptive challenges, concerning globalization, poverty, development, US power, and the relationship between religion and the state.

Those who have an interest in leadership - in helping their families, corporations and societies make progress on difficult issues - will find both works challenging and useful. But those who want a guide on how to claw their way up to the executive suite would be better advised to buy one of the glossy management texts; there is no shortage of books designed to cater to our egos.

Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky Leadership on the Line - Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Harvard Business School Press MA 2002).

Ron Heifetz Leadership Without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press MA 1996)