Time for leadership is now

By Anthony Spargo

Right now, more than ever, we need good leadership over politics in Australia.

We have all been first-hand eyewitnesses to the ongoing COVID pandemic and it’s impossible for us not to feel fully invested in the day-to-day dramas of the ever-evolving situation. Putting politics aside, it’s also clear that we’re desperately seeking and in need of some genuine inspiration from our leaders.

I have seen in various forms over the years how much politicians rely on the information provided to them by various advisors, the media and community members. Lately, it’s been almost impossible to not notice the pressure that the country’s politicians have been under. Mostly my interest has been twofold — firstly on what it means for business, and secondly also how they have been assisted by their myriad communications and ministerial advisors.

I do acknowledge the need and importance of government relations and political advisors and I’ve witnessed that over and again, both in my previous roles, as well as in my current role with New Romans. I’ve also been lucky enough to work with some amazing Government Relations people. One in particular, years ago at GE, emphasised to me just how valuable relationships are in government. Our own Head of Government at New Romans reminded me of that very point recently in his latest piece and he’s right. I distinctly remember the GE Government
Relations boss expertly wandering the halls of Canberra knowing who to speak to, on what and when. At the time we were lobbying for medium sized businesses in Australia — trying to raise the profile of these mid-market businesses. The work she did in helping us tell the story to various senators, MPs and advisors, helped put these critical businesses in focus.

It really helped me understand just how much politicians rely on that information often provided to them by various advisors, the media and community members. But equally, once they receive the different sources of information, it’s then their job to distill it, craft it and personalise it — always monitoring the ‘temperature’ of the public to help inform, inspire and even nurture the people through a crisis.

Surely, that’s what leaders are supposed to do.

Of course, it’s easier said than done. Realistically, it’s important to keep in mind just how challenging 2020 has been — starting with the crippling bushfires and then rolling rapidly into a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic in COVID.

But it’s also reasonable to say that the messaging from politicians, federal and state and across the different political parties, has been mixed at best, dismal at worst. Inconsistency, lack of inspiration and clarity and a complete lack of relatability seem to underline the messaging from our pollies during the disaster that has been 2020.

To be fair, crisis situations are not easy to cope with. They’re stressful, often long and protracted. Which is why I believe there are a set of reasonably straightforward rules that are well worth sticking to during a crisis, whether it be from politicians, business leaders or emergency services bosses.

Keep it real, but there’s nothing wrong with a little dose of inspiration and positivity…

We’re living in a pandemic. It’s not easy, for anyone. But our leaders — business, community and political — are the ones we’re obviously looking to for some inspiration.

There’s no need for BS or spin, no need to fabricate the messaging. And the roadmap doesn’t have to be totally clear, but surely a little (tiny) bit of positivity wouldn’t hurt. Something that gives people hope. Start with some good snippets, talk about how things can turn around positively, explain the glass half full version. Everyone needs hope. The community and its people need hope. Don’t fabricate it, but do what good leaders do — bring us some optimism and show us at the very least some positive body language. In other words, balance gravity with hope.

American entrepreneur and business leader Jim Rohn once said: “A good objective of leadership is to help those who are doing poorly to do well and to help those who are doing well to do even better.”

It’s simple, but true.

Most memorable from our politicians and many of our business leaders during this pandemic has been a sense of doom, without any hope for the future. Never before has the country been crying out for leadership across the board. That starts with positivity and inspiration — of any kind!

What’s wrong with saying I’m wrong. Or I’m sorry!

It’s obvious that our politicians have never been great at saying sorry for a mess up. The quarantine mess in Melbourne at Victorian state level, the Aged Care disaster at Federal Level, Queensland’s Premier refusing to allow a daughter to see her dying father … the list goes on.

The mistakes though have only been exacerbated by the refusal to acknowledge them. If they had admitted fault, said we need to do better, then apologised, the public would somewhat understand. It’s the constant refusal to acknowledge errors, especially during a crisis that jars the most. Remember former Victorian Police chief Christine Nixon defending herself after having a dinner while fires were ravaging the state during Black Saturday bushfires — the story would have been fish and chip paper in days had she been quicker with an apology.

Unfortunately, too many senior politicians and business leaders during a crisis tend to go into ‘defend mode’ at a time when people actually will have compassion for them if they admit a mistake.

There’s been a litany of errors during COVID, but many are understandable especially considering the unique nature of the pandemic. Some though, are unmistakable and instead of defending them, an apology and an honest concession would work best.

You don’t have to know the answer to every question — just don’t make it up…

Politicians aren’t experts on every topic. They aren’t supposed to be. They rely on their internal and external advisors to assist them on the many topics they have to be across. So while people expect them to lead through tough times, they don’t expect them to be fonts of knowledge on every single topic, every single time.
Basic media training rule 101 is clear — if you don’t know the answer, just admit it and say you’ll come back with more information when you have it.

How many times during COVID have we seen politicians pretend or masquerade as health experts? Or even as law enforcement experts! By doing so they’ve only made it harder for the ‘real experts’ who have then had to try not to contradict the leaders.

How about these easy rules. If you don’t know the answer, admit it. If you don’t have expertise, allow someone who does to answer it. Don’t make it up!

It’s a crisis, you’re human and don’t need to do a presser every day

Everyone who has watched the Victorian COVID situation unfold, would have to admit that Premier Dan Andrews has turned up day-in, day-out.

But is that good leadership? Surely people understand if someone doesn’t attend a press conference every day. People understand that every human needs rest and time to recuperate. Judgement calls need to be made during crisis situations and the best judgement calls need to be made by people who have had a spell.

Whether it’s a politician, business leader or sporting team, no party or company or team is about one person. It’s critical to share the load, allow people some out time, spread the thinking and allow the audience to also see and hear someone else.

People understand and respect someone having a rest. There’s a very fine line between thinking you’re doing the right thing and doing the right thing.

And It’s ok to show your human-side: we’re all humans.

Remember when President Trump told People Magazine in 2015: “When I see a man cry I view it as a weakness. The last time I cried was when I was a baby.” Well, like so many things Mr Trump says, he’s wrong. It’s ok to show some fragility as a leader.

It’s ok to speak with others and collaborate more to get the right answers.

Gone are the days when we wanted our leaders to act like robots. We want them to be sincere, vulnerable and authentic. Unfortunately, we’re getting low doses of any of those right now.

Communicate the roadmap early and clearly

Another thing I think that is really important and politicians have failed to do is communicate the plan as early as possible.

Every business has a communications strategy which of course can and should change and adapt depending on the changing circumstances. But it has to get out there, be circulated and shared both internally and externally. Broader expert consultation should always be harnessed, welcomed and embraced. It’s the only way to stress-test situations, get a feel for the audience-reaction and most importantly seek and receive different ideas, thoughts and perspectives. Bunkering down during a crisis never works.

Unfortunately, during Crisis COVID-19 (like in so many other areas) it feels like our leaders have failed to do what we need them to do the most. Lead.