Leadership failure

Leadership failure

Cheating at sport is, well, unacceptable. Yet it happens every day with no sport immune. There will always be one individual in the tournament or player in the team or coach on the sideline who will succumb to the pressure to win, the stress to perform, or simply base instincts.

This is why each sport has rules that sets the frame for what is acceptable, what’s on or close to the nose, and what is simply cheating. Equally, most sports have a fair bit of trouble either defining or enforcing the rules even with umpires and referees present to observe and, where required, intervene.

So if the soccer forward dives in the box at the slightest hint of a nudge from a defender then the referee has to decide. Is this a penalty or not? Some forwards dive. Some don’t. Sometimes it is actually a foul. Altogether a gray area of the rules.

Messing with a cricket ball is similar.

It is against the rules at all levels of the sport but it happens every now and then. Most of the time unnoticed and most of the time to no material effect on the outcome of the game. But it is against the rules. Players who do it are cheating.

So what is different in Australia right now?

A player in the national cricket team roughs up the ball with sandpaper. National outrage. Incredulity and anger. A failure of leadership because the captain of the the Australian cricket team sanctioned premeditated messing with the ball.

In short, cheating surely.

But, on the face of it, nothing.

All it took was a player, the vice-captain, with a history of volatility who was under a lot of pressure from the opposition and the crowd, his captain also under strain, and a compliant junior team member making a really bad choice when the team was losing.

Nothing more than a dive in the box.

Well the face is not the story at all. The response of a nation is always more. It reflects real needs. In this case leadership in the way that the society wants and needs.

The public frenzy over a misdemeanor that the international sporting body punished with a one match ban and a match fee fine, is the release of feelings that are simmering under the surface, a deep anxiety that has been there for a very long time. And it has something to do with a lack of direction. An uncertainty in the collective moral compass of not knowing what to stand for or against. And until a cricketer did something really stupid we did not realise how bad this feeling was or where it comes from.

Here is one possible source.

People mostly have no idea what the rules are in politics and business so they can’t really tell if societal leaders fail or not. Most of us have an inkling that they do but we cannot be sure. When they transgress with their secretaries it is one of the few times we see the line we want them to keep behind. The rest of the time we just have a hunch. So when they fail asylum seekers or spend way too much on submarines or let the energy grid fall over whilst carbon emission go up we don’t really know if they are cheating. They are not strictly breaking the rules, just dancing on the line through omission.

On the sporting field, however, we do know.

We can see the cheat. And when that is a premeditated act not only sanctioned but organised by the leadership, we are appalled. It triggers our real need for leaders to be better than us. They are not supposed to cheat, not even to dive in the box. But we know that they do. Seeing it starkly in our leisure time is shocking. It tweaks our subconscious to the truth that this is also happening in other leaders, the ones that really matter to our lives. It freaks us out.

The difficulty is that the leaders that matter stand up and lament the errors of the sportsmen, neatly deflecting from their own vast inadequacies. Until we call them out on their equivalent of ball tampering that they indulge in almost every day, and we do it with the same fervor we have for a national sport, then we will have to live with leadership failure everywhere.

Grubby

Grubby

I am not a Unionist, never have been. Perhaps, back in the day when labour was ruthlessly exploited by capital, I would have joined, but today it feels unnecessary. This, of course, is a delusion on my part.

My political nirvana, where left and right are conspicuously absent, would deliver progressive economics and social benefit through positive leadership without the need for exploitation. This centrism is also delusional.

So even as union membership declines along with their influence, I will concede that they are still needed. The balance between worker and employer will always be precarious.

Nevertheless, I have little time for the modern union movement, mostly because, to me, they epitomise a blinkered, dogmatic worldview that raises their issues ways above any other. My prejudice may not be a good thing, but it is what it is. Recently though, I found myself siding firmly with the unions as they rebutted claims of grubby slander on how they use their money.

Federal police raided the offices of the Australian Workers Union, the uniformed arrival to dig for dirt preceded by a media scrum who had obviously been tipped off. The union claims it has cooperated fully with the authorities on all outstanding matters. It is no coincidence that the leader of the opposition was once the leader of the AWU. On a hunch or a sniff of a lead, unleash the hounds on your suspect who just happens to have past connections to your main rival.

This is truly grubby politics designed to slander your opponent. The Americans call it a fake news, but fake or not, some of the mud will stick. The seed of doubt is watered in its cosy garden pot of compost. Keep the compost moist and the voters will do the rest.

But governments should not be able to manipulate police to achieve this end. When they do, it’s called fascism. And that has a very unpleasant history.

The AWU has my sympathy.

I will always be wary of unionist philosophy and especially of their tactics but when the government behaves in this way it makes unions look like saints. That should tell you enough.

The logic behind this kind of behaviour assumes we can be led by the nose.

It is imperative that everyone is vigilant enough to prove this assumption is always false.

Malcolm

Malcolm

Malcolm, Malcolm, Malcom, what in the name of all sane people is going on with you?

Is it because you were rolled the first time around for holding fast to a policy that actually would have worked and indeed did work for a time when your successor was only shouting loudly?

Is it because the feelings back then really scared you to the core undermining confidence and purpose so much that it was only when you decided to return to fight again that life meant anything?

Is it because there is so much fear of loss now that you’ll do anything you think it takes for it not to happen again?

Is it that you love the limelight so much that your life will be over if that light shines on someone else?

Is it Lucy?

Is it… Well, is it you Malcolm, and you are not the conservative progressive dude with a bit of social nous we thought had come to the fore with an opportunity to shuffle off into history the stupid white men?

Is it the system Malcolm, the endless cycle of media grab and inanity that passes for public consumption of news that has sucked you in along with all the other morons?

Is it wrong Malcolm?

We all think that it is.

Post revisited – Leaders not heroes

Post revisited – Leaders not heroes

This revisit was a challenge. I am often confused and confounded by what defines true leadership. There are qualities and attributes that are easy to see and then there is a secret ingredient that only the great have. It is something to do with knowing, a sixth sense perhaps that allows true leaders to do and say the right things at the right times so that they first connect and then take people along with them.

Anyway, have a read of this thought from 2011.

Leaders not heroes

Leadership is hard to define, not easy to learn and is, perhaps, only gifted.

True leaders inspire us and we trust them. We listen to what they say and we accept what they decide. This is because leaders do and say things that make us feel good about ourselves. And what they do we believe in, often without need of explanation or a spelling out of logic.

Heroes are a little different. They motivate us because they are admirable. They do what we would like to do. We can imagine ourselves slaying the dragon and winning the adoration of the damsel or, if you prefer, as a heroine beating up the patriarchy to create equality and emancipation. Our heroes actually do these things. Heroism generally requires conflict.

In our modern ritualized world, our heroes do our fighting for us or they act bravely in the face of danger. Leaders can do these heroic things for they too have courage. Only they do them without having to fight.

Leaders show the way forward as not only the logical but the truthful path. They do this instinctively; picking their way with ease through the complexity of options to choose those that really make sense. They can slay the dragon if needs must, only they will more likely convince it to live happily on the top of the mountain.

They also have vision. A clear notion of what the future looks like that is not an idealized utopia but achievable and likely futures. And leaders are not afraid to explain the future to followers and skeptics alike. The dragon will live on the mountain and will not visit the valley unless invited.

And there is one more critical element that sets leaders apart from both heroes and mere mortals: they can combine fearless vision with timing. They know instinctively how to act and when to act to achieve the desired outcome. Heroes are presented with their opportunity and instinctively move to the front of the cowering throng sword in hand. Leaders anticipate the dragon’s arrival and go outside the village to engage the foe on neutral ground.

It takes courage, smarts and conviction to be a leader. It also needs a certain lightness of hand (and word) dispensed with ease and grace. And wisdom helps, preferably born of experience, or where time has yet to allow for this, then from instinct.

There have always been leaders who have most of these things and these people have become important in our societies. You could probably name your own favorite. And if we did a survey of favorites, the majority of the many leaders that people would chose to name as inspirational come from the past. Many favorites will be historical, a few will be modern, but hardly any will be in public office. Bar the notable exception of a few charismatic entrepreneurs, our current leaders do little to inspire us. This is especially true in politics.

And then there is one final, and perhaps the most critical, quality of leaders, one that seems to be missing from all modern politicians. That is the ability to realize that leadership is not about them, even though they must be strong, stand out and even be heroic. Leadership is actually about the outcome, the means proposed to get there and the timing of the actions. So true leaders must have humility. The quality of knowing that it is just a channel that they present to the people who look to them.

People follow what they intuitively know to be right. All they need is for it to be presented. Sometimes we are conned. A few infamous historical leaders have taken their people down horror roads through force of rhetoric and oratory but have all fallen when the truth came out. When it became clear they lacked humility they were ousted. It sometimes took a great effort but they did not survive any more than the pathways they proposed.

So in the end leadership cannot be about being heroic because actually we lead ourselves. All that leaders really do is show us the way. Outcomes happen as each one of us as individuals take responsibility.

Mental musings on leadership might help a little. The real issue is what the future holds and who will lead us to it.

In our children’s lifetimes we will reach 9 billion souls, oil will be $200 a barrel making alternative energy an economic imperative, agricultural soils will show the symptoms of overuse and we will have to wrestle with the consequences of land, water and food shortages. These things will happen with or without climate change and we will want wise heads to lead us through the challenges with confidence and surety.

Can we expect this from our political elite? Yes we can. Indeed we should demand it. We should ask for courage, smarts, timing and, most of all, humility.


The implication from all this is that we are bereft. Even the apparent honesty of Obama’s ‘yes we can’ was bogged down in partisan politics and mostly failed to shift anything. We have witnessed a generation of working-class stagnation as, simultaneously, economies have concentrated wealth.

This has given the US Trump, a mandate to the UK leadership who decided to pass, and a Russian keen to take his shirt off.

So at this time in human history, true leaders are few and certainly not appearing through the democratic process.

It is not that we are short of causes. We truly need help navigating growing inequality, precarious economies, the evils of terrorism, and any number of specific social problems. But who is strong enough and has the humility to show the way?

Revisiting this particular post was indeed a challenge. I have an idea of what is needed but the times make it almost impossible for it to happen through one or two charismatic individuals. The causes lack obvious conflict and are too diffuse for single voices.

The leadership we need has a morality to it that can belong to everyone and so let everyone lead. It is an awareness of self and empathy to others but without a bleeding heart; for the system of supply and demand is still the foundation that holds everything up and we cannot easily replace that life support.

Can we lead the way as a collective? Maybe.

As a great man once penned, ‘We can be heroes, just for one day’.

Post revisited – Serious change should be controversial

Post revisited – Serious change should be controversial

This little missive from October 2011 laments the loss of meaningful argument over important issues…


Serious change should be controversial

Back in 1979 when I still needed a hairbrush, I wandered the campus of the University of East Anglia as a sporty nerd. I was the type of student who spent far too long in the library but covered up this flaw with an addiction to team sports and the associated drinking games.

At the time I barely noticed that some of my peers were far trendier. They took to barricading themselves in the University registry – the main administration building that housed the office of the Vice–Chancellor and senior management staff – for days at a time. They would drape sheets out of the windows with slogans denouncing whatever oppression they were feeling. Each time the occupation was for a political, and no doubt, worthy cause that usually involved solidarity (a big word back then).

The longest occupation lasted a week. It was in solidarity with mine workers who were on the receiving end of a crusade by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to break the power of trade unions. Both Thatcher and those trendy students were railing for or against a serious change.

Thatcher won of course and sent the country into a market-driven phase that arguably brought some prosperity but also eroded much of the traditional political divide and eventually gave the UK ‘New Labour’.

Even nerds got caught up in some of the radicalism of the day, albeit safely. Many of us boycotted Barclays bank because they happened to have a subsidiary of the same name in South Africa. We didn’t realize that undermining banks was probably not all that helpful to the struggle against apartheid but it was a statement we could make on the way to the library. I had my account with the Midland.

Spectacles may be rose-tinted when remembering such heady days, but it does seem that naive as we undoubtedly were, the issues of the time stoked ire and action. Politics was controversial as societies across the world brought about change.

Serious change should be controversial.

It was a big deal to break down union power that itself had come about in a struggle to correct past wrongs in exploiting the workforce; the same kind of wrongs that were fought against in the apartheid struggle.

Today there are still hard and controversial choices to be made, especially about the environment, climate, and resource use, but we seem to have lost the ire and action that sets up an issue as controversial.

At best we get posturing and egoist rhetoric with an occasional ‘straw man’ to give the appearance of real debate. In short, we have an argument for the sake of it. Nobody seems to occupy the registry anymore.

As the Harvard philosopher Michael J Sandel puts it:

“When everyone – Democrats, Republicans, corporations, and consumers – claim to embrace your cause, you should suspect that you have not really defined the problem, or framed it as a real political question.”

We seem to get this all the time in the age of the soundbite. No one seems to define the problem.

Rosy or not we need some true controversy back. Real dissent forces us to argue our position from first principles. We must not just react against the alternative view but think it through and become convincing, drawing on as much logic as we can muster.

Do this often enough and we shake hands with our core truths and get to know the problem.

The result will be some argument, perhaps even a demonstration or two, but also some political innovation. There will be thoughts that are outside the narrow middle ground into which the bulk of the west has converged.

A little controversy might help us to find real solutions to the challenge of keeping 7 billion people happy without destroying nature or each other.


Nothing has changed since this post appeared — apart from the fact that we are now more numerous by about 500 million, that’s the population of the US plus Indonesia who are 3rd and 4th on the list of most populous countries. Political debate is still vacuous and the problem remains woefully undefined. Radicalism has been purloined by a handful of evil people.

Here is a thought as to why.

What if you can’t touch the problem? You know what it is — the unwanted side effects of market-driven economics that, by and large, gives you what you do want — but any attempt to define or even mention the truths of wealth concentration, resource use inefficiencies, debt burdens, bailouts, and plain old corruption; let alone frame their politics. These things risk upset that you cannot control. The economic system is untouchable. Breathe on it and it might fall over or cause chaos.

Instead, modern politicians argue amongst themselves about themselves.

In the absence of anything more meaningful, ordinary people become trolls or commit road rage with little idea of where their frustrations originate.

So we don’t need old-school radicals to occupy University registry buildings and we certainly don’t need religious radicals blowing them up, what we need is to ask and debate some of these type of questions…

  • What would happen if markets were regulated to make them more efficient?
  • Can you regulate without destroying the essence of opportunity?
  • What if there was a cap on profit margins?
  • Would the world end if taxes increased or levies were raised to pay for public services?
  • Is the market really that fragile? And if it is, what the hell do we do to buck it up?
  • Can our unprecedented ability to capture and access information help?

So you see the political frame can be constructed. If a grumpy old blogger can come up with a start, surely the massive bandwidth of human intellect can go on with it.

Innocence of youth

Innocence of youth

YouTube has thousands of videos of kids being cute. Not quite as many as there are of cute cats but a lot.

Many of the kids videos are so endearing because the little darlings are cooperating, making reasoned arguments, listening to each other and showing compassion. They are being their unsullied selves even with chocolate ice cream all over their face.

This purity not only generates clicks, it shows us truths. Gentle yet powerful reminders of the way things should be done if we want a safer, more humane world.

Elizabeth Broers, a head teacher at a primary school in the UK, knows this better than most and wrote about how her 11 year olds could give wise counsel to politicians. The most provocative being ‘be honest’.

Youngsters can smell a fraud from 50 yards and then call it out, often with some cruelty — yes, they have that too. And this is clearly the trait most lacking in our pollies.

And this is clearly the trait most lacking in our pollies.

It is trite to suggest that we elect a few adolescents to parliament because they would drown in a tsunami of cynical narcissism that would knock them flat as soon as they walk through the door. No, we need to let them spend their youth learning how to mask the smell of the dishonest otherwise they will have a difficult life. We can’t send them to the parliamentary penitentiary, that would be too cruel.

So what about if we get our politicians to grow down.

Send them to spend a few working days a year in a primary school. Not for the photo op but for the experience, in the playground at little lunch, in the classroom, and even in the 4×4 on the way home.

Let them see what a kid sees for a few days a year, as though they were a kid.

If it made them even a smidgen more empathic it would be a start.

Political argument

Political argument

It’s a Saturday lunchtime and I am at home minding my own business when a 60 something couple wearing matching purple polo shirts saunter up to my front door. One of them knocks.

“Hello, we are from the Coalition for Marriage”, the man said as he thrust a pamphlet towards me as though it were a weapon.

“G’day,” I said, “what can I do for you?”

“We are worried about civil liberties,” he said.

“Really,” I said, “And why would that be?”

“This legislation will open the door to a vast erosion of civil liberties, just like it has in 24 other countries. It’s all in the brochure.”

“Really,” I said again.

Now I should point out that Australia is in the throes of a postal vote on the question: Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?

Yes, I know we are way behind the times. It is possible that down under is still in the era of big hair and shoulder pads or, at best, still partying in the millennium. Our political dithering has become laughable with same-sex marriage just one of any number of issues where neither major party are able to find a consistent policy. The go-to solution being to punt decisions down the road for another day or at least until all the excuses for dithering are exhausted.

Still unable to find their consciences on equality, some bright spark in Canberra thought a ripper solution would be to have a postal vote on the issue, a plebiscite costing $122 million. The dictionary says that a plebiscite is the direct vote of all the members of an electorate on an important public question such as a change in the constitution. Few will doubt that same-sex marriage is an important issue but all it requires is some common sense, it is not a constitutional crisis.

It is obvious to anyone with an ounce of sense in their noggin why we are having a voluntary postal vote in a country where voting in elections is compulsory and most under 25 would not even know where to post a letter on a topic that should be dealt with in the parliament like all the other issues of the day. It’s the only way the minority ‘no’ has any chance of winning.

But I digress.

Gathering my senses I stepped out onto my front porch and looking the gent in the eye I said, “Can you explain how this matter alters my civil liberties? If two folk want to get married, what could that possibly do to affect me or you?”

“It has happened in 24 countries?”

“What has happened?”

“It’s in the brochure.”

“Forget the brochure”, I said, “Can you explain to me how, if a gay couple across the street gets married, that has any effect at all on you or on me?”

“This will mean, well not this but later legislation will erode our civil liberties.”

“How so?”

“It’s happened in 24 countries, it is in the brochure.”

“Forget the brochure. You are here at my home, you tell me what your argument is?”

“There will be later legislation that erodes our liberty.”

“Again, how does a couple across the street getting married affect your liberty or mine?”

“It will be later laws..” my visitor’s voice tailed off because even if he had read his brochure he could not articulate an argument for his position. His wife, at least I assume it was his wife, just smiled and nodded.

“Hold on,” I said, “the sum of your concerns is that maybe some future legislation may come in to erode civil liberties so you want me to vote no on this current issue?”

“Yes,” he said.

“And that’s all you have?”

“Yes.”

“Well, thanks for dropping by”, I said, “both my wife and I voted yes.”

“That’s great,” the wife said, “so glad that you voted.”

The couple left and I reflected on this unusual interaction rather more than I thought I would. Not on the topic of marriage equality for all discrimination should be weeded out from our social systems, bit by bit if necessary. Arcane rules that prevent another person the same liberties to love and marry that I enjoy should be removed and pass into history. Yes is the only morally just answer to the plebiscite question.

What got me was the debate or lack of it.

Here was a topic that two ordinary folk felt strongly enough about to give up their Saturday morning and go door knocking. Yet when pressed for some logic or rationale for their viewpoint they had none. Well, they thought that they did, but imagining some future disaster fails any pub test that I know about.

It also showed that these folk knew little about the political process. The deals in the corridor, the politics over policy, the influencing over persuasion, the burying of the real issues, and the downright bastardry of it all. This seemed lost on them. They came across as naive and I believed that they were.

Foot soldiers are not generals. They supply the delivery grunt at the bidding of the strategists and given this role, I should give them some slack. Perhaps I was expecting too much.

It’s just that we debate so little that when such an opportunity presents itself there is a degree of excitement at the chance. Perhaps I was too excited. Perhaps I let my love of a good argument get the better of me.

Whatever the emotions in the encounter the real reflection was the lack of political argument. There is plenty of polarised opinion but very little to explain why. We are struggling to articulate a position on issues of all kinds. Not able to understand where they come from or any logic that might underpin them, our opinions just appear like blind faith.

So I am very grateful to the Coalition for Marriage. They taught me an important lesson. If you have a strong opinion, make sure you know where it came from and why you have it.

You might need to justify it someday.