Australia’s leadership culture and the role of authority

The Australian Leadership Paradox by Geoff Aigner and Liz Skelton offers insights into Australia’s distinct leadership culture. It exposes the inherent tensions in Australians’ historical relationship with authority. The focus of the book is on the practice of leadership

The authors point out on page seven that ‘we want our leaders to make change that improves things for us, not change where we may have to give up anything or do things differently. In addition, we expect our leaders to be flawless role models with all the answers, yet be vulnerable and human at the same time.’ This is a big, unrealistic ask and points to some of our ‘challenges’ with leadership – the fantasy of leadership is a figure who can guide, protect and provide us with answers.

The authors identify four paradoxes that give the fantasy of leadership a specific Australian texture and complexity.

1.      Anti-authority and authority dependent –  the tensions between our desire and dependency for authority while simultaneously railing against it.

2.      Egalitarian and hierarchical – when the value we place on equality is in tension with a need and desire for hierarchy, we stay safe in the middle where our egalitarian aspirations can remain unchallenged and unexamined.

3.      Relational and competitive –  Australians’ strong desire for positive social relationships creates tension with a desire to innovate and compete.

4.      Battling adversity and living in prosperity – carrying a story of adversity and relying on crisis to lead while at the same time enjoying a high level of prosperity as a country.

Further, Australia’s short-term crisis orientation creates a leadership culture of response rather than of vision and purpose. The leadership requirements of crisis are often quite different to what is required for longer term reform. Orienting systems and people to the future and changing cultures is a different type of work than responding to the present difficulties.

Much of the book is about the role of authority. ‘Authority is a role with a clear mandate and expectations to deliver the core functions required for a system’s survival. These are the functions of direction, protection and order.’ [p. 15]

For people in a leadership role or wishing to move into one, this book offers several valuable insights.

Understand the difference between technical and adaptive challenges

Authority works best when the system is experiencing little change or disruption. This state is management rather than leadership. To understand when leadership is required, we need to understand the distinction between technical and adaptive challenges.

The vast majority of work in any system is of a routine, technical nature. ‘Technical challenges call for a response from our existing repertoire of experiences, skills and processes. If the challenges are known to us; it doesn’t mean they are easy to solve, they can be quite complicated – but we can access what we know or what we can readily find out.’ These challenges require us to respond not change.

Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are difficult to understand or predict, have longer time horizons for both causes and effects, include differences in values and assumptions from those involved.  The problem is not easily understood or agreed on, let alone the required responses. ‘This makes the job of those in authority difficult because they are unable to fulfil the expectation of others that they will just fix the problem – as they can with technical challenges. [p. 21]

Understand the difference between coordination and collaboration

Collaboration is, according to the authors, working with difference. They prefer to use ‘leading across difference’ rather than collaboration.  Leading across difference is the primary work of leadership. The main skills needed for collaborations are predominantly interpersonal not technical.

Technical challenges may require coordination but not necessarily collaboration. Adaptive challenges require collaboration because a system has to think and work together to make progress.

The main traps of collaborating are competition, control, and commitment. There can be an unspoken competition for resources, authority, recognition or power, values and interests. Players may not let go of control of what’s going to happen and my not share equal motivation and commitment.

Own your rank, authority, power

I recommend to people seeking a promotion to ensure that they are ready to step up to the new role if it involves supervision, management or leadership. If people don’t understand what is expected when they have this increased authority, and are not comfortable with it, chances are doubt will leak out in their pitch for the role.

The authors define rank as’ the power that we have relative to one another in relationships, in groups, in the community and the world.’ [p. 109] Rank comes in a number of forms: positional, social, psychological, spiritual. All rank is contextual; it changes dependent on where we are and who we are with, and is always only momentary.

During times of change what is interpreted as resistance, casting others as resistors,  may be more usefully seen as reacting to position or rank.  People with rank have the authority to make changes which are threatening. Resistors may assert their own rank and power in order to express their opposition. The result can be either backing down or running rough shod over resistors, neither a particularly useful approach. Part of this book sets out a process for dealing with such conflict in more useful ways.

Understand the context of the role

Understanding the context of a role is fundamental to being able to tailor what you offer to a new role. Many an application fails for lack of contextual knowledge.

The authors suggest there is no such thing as ‘the right person for the job’. [p. 130] ‘Rather there are people who assume a role that is effective for the context they are in and the purpose they are serving…. Roles are always taken up by what people bring to them and what the context requires.’ Context includes how a role is prescribed in the position description, expectations of the role, who has been in the role before, internal sacred cows. A person brings to a role their own rank, skills and life experiences, ambitions and passions all of which impact on how we take up a new role. A useful question raised in the book is  – what is the role that is required here and am I acting in service of the system? [p. 135]

The book includes useful exercises to help the reader explore authority and leadership. For people wanting a practical, culturally-based easy-to-read text on leadership, this is a book worth buying.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist® specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.