Gangs of Canberra?

May 16 / 181

For the second instalment of the Centre for Workplace Leadership’s Great Leaders Masterclass series, Vice-Chancellor Glyn Davis spoke about political leadership.

Professor Davis, who is also a Professor of Political Science and former fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, argued that it’s very difficult to predict who will become a leader. Quoting Machiavelli, Professor Davis observed that circumstance and chance play a major role in determining who becomes a leader. 

“I don’t think you can predict leadership,” he said. “The problem is that you are reading the leader and not the situation.”

Professor Davis pointed to early 20th century studies of street gangs in Chicago and South Boston, which studied the leadership of thousands of organisations yet found the characteristics of leaders to be vastly different. 

Professor Davis encouraged the audience to think about Australia’s political system in these terms.

“Think about the parties, but think about them as gangs,” he advised.

The Vice-Chancellor drew particular attention to the Hawke-Keating leadership change in 1991. He said that despite then-Prime Minister Hawke having won an election the previous year and becoming the longest serving Labor Prime Minister, the introduction of the Fightback document by the newly elected opposition leader, John Hewson, changed the game.

“It isn’t really about the leader, it’s about the needs of the gang.”

The gangland studies also revealed that leaders were cycled through quite regularly. Professor Davis argued that this pattern has been evident throughout Australia’s political history.

He suggested that while much has been made of the recent leadership instability in both parties, this is in fact a continuation of a pattern of instability, and pointed out that Tony Abbott’s recently truncated prime ministership was only the tenth shortest in Australia’s history.

In line with Machiavelli’s argument, while prudent planning and a leader’s ability to control or manage their circumstances are important, leaders must accept that the forces of history can always make a mockery of their efforts, Professor Davis said.

“The party moves on, the gang moves on. That’s the story of leadership. You can be a great leader, but when circumstances change you need to know when to get out of the way.”

Explore the Great Leaders Masterclass Series here.

Story by Sigourney Young


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