New Leaders who don’t move early to set a tone of openness and authenticity, breed suspicion, doubt and mistrust

When a new leader takes the mantle much is expected in the early days by their  followers. Real leadership requires an open and authentic tone to be swiftly set from the top. This way early slip-ups are forgotten as part of trust that the new tone inspires.

The way political leadership in Australia is shaping (although some may argue an early call) holds important lessons for leaders everywhere. Prime Minster Abbott’s first weeks have sounded to many (judging from social media traffic which leaders may ignore at their peril) that he has continued his ‘small target play’ as opposition leader with one big difference. He is no longer visible or accessible to live media or the ‘Average Jo Public’, except to friendly ‘known’ audiences, thereby escaping real public scrutiny. Contrary to inspiring a ‘getting down to business’ impression, it is being seen as failing to take his followers along on the journey. In Abbott’s case this has not been helped by the ‘modifications’ the new government has made to FOI guidelines for every department. It feels more like a descending shroud of ‘we will tell you what we think you should know’. Followership is never strengthened by that attitude.

Some of the Prime Minister’s more radical views are now starting to slowly emerge through the mouths of others. First the conservative ex PM John Howard (his mentor) speaks ‘honestly’ about how he really felt about climate change, but could not say at the time. Then his chief economic advisor Maurice Newman speaks in support of all the policies that Abbott strenuously denied supporting in any way while in opposition. Perhaps, some will wonder, it was the only way he thought he could get elected. Abbott has yet to publicly distance himself from the sentiments voiced by Newman, which in itself tells its own story. A leader who leaves tough messages to others to deliver  is not employing a great trust building strategy in their early days.

But there is a  pattern emerging. His ministers are saying little on any major public policy or any operational issue for that matter. The somewhat naive attitude to Indonesia while in opposition has now turned into perceived disrespect after the election and now has justifiably earned the ire of the Indonesian government. A leader who remains authentic before and after his/her elevation to the leadership role is more likely to earn trust of their publics quickly, inside or outside the company, in this case the country.

And then the public assumed that the 3 word slogans would have ended after Abbott’s election to Prime Minister. However they have not and neither has he or any of his cabinet really explained in detail what those 3 word slogans actually mean beyond the words. We know now what the “stop the boats” slogan meant. Many are still waiting to hear what the “open for business” slogan really means and if this includes the sale of strategic assets, including the remaining public assets not yet in private hands.

But before we blame Abbott or the public who bought the somewhat vision-less negative narrative disguised as an election mandate, let’s not forget the role that the Australian Press played. The lack of scrutiny of opposition policy or call for a detailed vision for the country has been breathtaking.  Top corporate leaders are never let off the hook in terms of the scrutiny their external stakeholders including investors and analysts subject them to, which acts as a sober reminder whenever hubris driven action is merely contemplated in the executive suite.

A leader is only as successful as the belief that followers have in them. Belief can ebb away in 2 ways – slowly and painfully or swiftly and brutally. Either way it is never helped by not thinking about how trust is built and broken.

So how does a leader get back on track when they find belief ebbing away early in their term? Be more open and trusting in your dialogue with others – be prepared to have your views scrutinised – you may learn something new. Be open with information even with information that does not support or align with your view and be prepared to explain your logic for the differences in a well-reasoned way. And in your conversational style start treating your people as the rich mix of views that they represent, leading for all not just for some. And finally give credit where it is due. What works in ‘opposition’ does not work in ‘government’. Leaders have to build a compelling narrative that is inclusive of all, delivered authentically and respectfully of the intelligence of your followers before they ”walk away first with their hearts and then their feet”.

For more on trust building strategies contact meena@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