The anatomy of a good political leader can be distilled down to three simple elements – brains, courage and heart – writes Josephine Cafagna.
While discussing the regularity of leadership challenges in Australian political life, a good politician recently told me that every member of parliament thought they had the makings to be a leader. “That’s the reason they enter politics in the first place – to get the top job,” he said.
That may well be true. But sadly, it is also true that very few members of parliament actually have the abilities and qualities needed to become a leader. Those who do make it to the ultimate job often prove to be a disappointment.
So exactly what is the anatomy of a good leader? Having reported on politics for longer than I care to recall, and then having “jumped the fence” to work in the inner sanctum of the Office of Premier, the following is my assessment of the qualities a good leader should have. Individually, they’re pretty basic. Together in the one person, they’re rare and impressive.
Guts or a spine; intellect and instinct; and a heart. It’s pretty basic. In fact, it could be boiled down to an even simpler formula – one eloquently dissected in that beautiful movie classic The Wizard of Oz.
Scarecrow longed for a brain, and at one point in the movie young Dorothy sings to him, “You could be another Lincoln if you only had a brain.”
And, finally, Tinman is the empty vessel longing for a heart – “If I only had a heart I could just register emotion.”
Now, politics has many more characters and is a lot more complex than a single road towards a wizard who has all the answers, but it’s often the simple, basic traits that can secure success and public admiration.
A couple of examples from recent history.
Let’s take brains. It takes more than a university degree to establish that a country needs a universal healthcare system, as Gough Whitlam did so long ago. Generational public policy achievements are rare, and yes, it takes the smarts to come up with such plans. But on a smaller scale, good leaders come up with more mundane but necessary strategies. One obvious plan is to win the next election, but beyond that there is little evidence that our politicians of all persuasions turn their grey matter to a blueprint or a vision for the nation or state.
Now to courage. Think John Howard’s staring down of the gun lobby to do the right thing on gun ownership, a move still being lauded across the world today. It took guts and a spine for Howard to address that public rally of gun owners in 1996 to try to persuade them the move was for the greater good. It was Howard’s instincts, those of a good politician, that led him to that rally. (Although he does concede one mistake: taking security advice to wear a bullet-proof vest. That’s where he didn’t follow his instincts.)
But courage in everyday political decisions doesn’t have to be that momentous. For a leader it can be staring down the factional players or business leaders or union officials trying to control decisions, or disciplining the backbencher who continually embarrasses the party.
Now let’s go to the heart. What is it about our politicians and their lack of emotional intelligence? The sad reality of our politics is that many decisions are made without emotion, without empathy and with little regard to the personal impacts on people.
A political office is made up of hard-heads and number-crunchers and strategists. Little room for a heart. The decision to introduce a National Disability Insurance Scheme was applauded by the public as a sign that political leaders can have a heart. And remember Queensland Premier Anna Bligh leading her state through the floods crisis a few years ago. Shedding a tear, speaking from the heart, and going out to put an arm around those affected. The cynics may see that as political opportunism. I see it as one of those all-too-rare moments in politics when a leader is not afraid to expose their heart. We need more of it and less of what Tinman describes as his “hollow empty vessel”.
At the end of The Wizard of Oz, Tinman, Lion and Scarecrow defeat the Wicked Witch and discover they already had what they were always looking for. They just needed to use their brains, courage and heart.
Politicians of Australia, take note.
Josephine Cafagna is a writer and communications consultant, and a former journalist and political adviser.