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The ARLF leadership blog

Six leadership practices in the political context

27 April 2022

When I ask people to think about leadership, in many cases it is political leadership that is top of mind. This is understandable as it is a form of leadership subject to more scrutiny and public exposure than most. With a federal election not far away, leadership or a perceived lack thereof is in the headlines once again. While politics represents only a very narrow window into leadership, I thought it would be worth reflecting briefly on leadership in this field in the context of two of the six key leadership practices we believe are needed more broadly, and the challenges faced by those in politics. 

We know that awareness is foundational to leadership growth. That is a deeper awareness of self and behaviours and a growing awareness of others. Leadership growth rests heavily on the ability to choose to change one’s own behaviours given changing contexts and not just revert to base behaviours.  

Like in any part of society, people enter politics with varying levels of awareness. The practice of awareness requires regular critical reflection to gain insights from one’s interaction with others to support behavioural change and building meaningful relationships. In politics this focus on awareness appears mostly valued only to the extent that people can answer what they stand for, not how they need to adapt their behaviours to different circumstances.  

There are many examples of good leadership in the sense that politicians seek to understand others so that those others can be supported and to make progress through common ground. There is also the darker side of this which is to find and exploit a perceived weakness, and to promulgate division. Perhaps a part of disillusionment with modern politics is that we are seeing too much of the latter and not enough of the former?  

This destructive, self-serving partisan behaviour is often forgiven as par for the course in an environment where gaining and retaining power is a prerequisite to governing. Our political system has much to be admired however by its very nature, it also promotes ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ and a ‘contest’ of ideas and ideology over working together towards a common good. This can appear to be paradoxical as the very reason most people enter into politics is to serve others. 

So, politicians must in many ways make progress in choosing to change their own behaviour and to understand others despite the environment they are in. Because the profession comes with a full schedule, creating space and time for critical reflection can be difficult. Yet, this remains key to leadership growth.  

Politicians will say they knew what they were up for, yet many did not know themselves in depth. There are many pathways to politics and somewhere space must be created within the system to allow those interested to grow and test the very foundations of leadership. 

Affiliation is also a key leadership practice and involves aligning with others to enrich problem solving. For many in the political world (and elsewhere) this practice is much with those of similar worldviews, values, experience, and backgrounds. It may be easier within political parties but many of these also have factions with differing ideologies grouped together under a broader banner. Interestingly the increasing number of independent and micro-party representatives must align to some extent in order to make progress while leadership across the major parties must also achieve this within and outside their party structures. 

The difference between leadership and exercising authority within political structures is the extent to which politicians can create environments that extend participation, not seek to marginalize, that draw on the leadership within the room, not concentrate power and wield authority and to build trust. I have heard many times that influence is wielded by those who turn up. I have heard equally as many times that politics is about winning the contest and staying in power. 

I recognise the realities of the system in which we all live and operate. However, as our world shifts, we encounter greater disruption, and the community becomes more disillusioned with the body politic something needs to change. Behaviours of our elected officials that are self-serving, seek to lay blame elsewhere, drive divisions and that focus on winning over governing will be less and less tolerated. 

Many will say you are not rewarded for reaching across political barriers and seeking middle ground to make progress. But as the core constituency of major parties continues to dwindle, approval rates remain stubbornly low and levels of trust dive, there is an opportunity to do something different. This does mean abandoning key decisions or values, but it does mean you are not weak if you show vulnerability, not abandoning those who voted for you if you reach out across divides to find a way forward. The question is do we, that is politicians and voters, have the courage to try a different path? 

Matt Linnegar, April 2022