Ultimately leaders must be judged not through popularity polls but against what they actually do in power and the courage they have shown in doing it.

Written by Meena Thuraisingham, Director and Principal, TalentInvest, Feb 2012


A recent article by Bill George in the HBR caused me to reflect on the process of leadership, rather than the attributes of the leader. The stories in that article centred on the attributes of great leaders rather than the process of leadership or the collective endeavour that is leadership. More recently I turned my attention to how this heroic model of leadership has also shaped the way those who are led have come to judge their political leaders.

We seem obsessed with the personality of the leader rather than the process of leadership. Let’s start with the wave of excitement that seized the US and the rest of the world, sweeping oratorially splendid Obama into the most powerful leadership job in the world. Expectations were quickly dashed when the realities of working with a partisan and dysfunctional congress failed to deliver the change speedily. The mood of the voting public quickly soured. Despite that Obama has worked hard and passed several key pieces of legislation – health care, renewable energy rebates, the bailout package, diluting the bush era tax breaks for the super rich and so on, through the process of collaborating and compromising with a largely hostile Congress. Despite this track record he trails in the polls and during a visit this week to the US, I observed that a very dark anti-Obama mood seems to have descended on America. He is blamed for everything from the rise of China to the rise in fuel prices!

In Australia there is a comparable story. The Gillard government has passed a large amount of legislation including some profoundly reforming legislation despite being a minority government, namely the Mining Tax, the Carbon Tax, private health insurance rebate changes, renewable energy legislation and so on. In last week’s edition, the Economist commented “In the sense of being able to get legislation through parliament despite having only a minority, Ms Gillard has proved an unexpectedly successful prime minister”.

However despite this universally recognised track record for change (one reflected in Australia enjoying one of its most successful economic periods in history), shrill and misinformed voices fill the media, the coffee shops, the shopping malls and the office cubicles pointing to her irritating voice, bad dress sense, the school marm look and more – comments that centre around her personality and her lack of it.   Over the years, Angela Merkel has also had her fair share of ridicule, her weight, her frumpy clothes and shoes and so on. Despite this she is one of the more successful German Chancellors, taking the lead to navigate Europe through one of its darkest and most troubling period, and of course experiencing expected delays caused largely by having to work meticulously with her minority government partners.  But before we assume that that this is leading to a gender based insight, think of David Cameron who also presides over a tenuous coalition in the United Kingdom who has had his fair share of ridicule as a young, somewhat inexperienced leader of the Conservative party.

Leadership is a team process and like Obama, Angela Merkel and David Cameron, Julia Gillard has had to work assiduously and tirelessly with unpredictable and at times mercurial personalities that make up her coalition. This is clearly something that the voting public don’t actually see and show little interest in or patience with.  And yes leadership is also about being able to excite others with a vision about the future and on this she has been less successful. She has failed to sell herself or the performance of her government. But her reforming agenda is there for everyone to see even if her selling of it has not been great.  The same can be said for Obama. But as with the political arena, in the business arena too, we look for a ‘wow’ leader and show little patience or compassion for a young leader to grow into the job.  Admitting mistakes along the way, rather than seen as a mark of strength, is perceived as a mark of weakness.  Revealing your vulnerabilities and admitting to your stumbles or flaws is seen as a sign of weaknesses because it destroys the cult and mystique of your leadership. So despite the mindless negativity and the policy vacuum that has characterised Tony Abbot’s Australian opposition government, his polling has continued to strengthen because he is perceived as having the stronger personality, and sports a largely populist persona. And lest this be viewed as an Australian phenomenon, take the current Republican Candidate Race in the US. Mitt Romney, who has better credentials than anyone else in that race, is however seen as not ‘authentic’ enough and has struggled to break free from the other less qualified candidates.

This drive for perfection has put untold pressure on leaders to alter their persona in order to better fit the personality ‘the led’ think they should be.  This creates an authenticity dilemma which in the end helps no one.  ‘Spin’ has unfortunately become a necessary part of the leader’s toolkit.

We expect our leaders to be more celebrity like, with armies of PR people, and to trade on their personalities rather than on results or the way they work with others. Until we take a broader more systems view of leadership rather than obsessing about personal heroics, we will not bring out the best in our leaders and neither will we be served well by our leaders.

In the end leaders must be judged not through popularity polls but against what they actually do in power and the courage they have shown in doing it.


For more about leadership, visit www.talentinvest.com.au


Written by Meena Thuraisingham
Director and Principal, Talent Invest

Meena Thuraisingham is a consultant, author, executive coach and thought leader in the area of People and Culture. An organisational psychologist by training, she founded TalentInvest, a niche consulting practice, advising global clients in the UK, Asia and Australia in Capability and Culture. Meena is also a regular speaker internationally on leadership effectiveness and culture change.

Her published books are The Secret Life of Decisions, Careers Unplugged and Derailed!. Get Your Copy Today