How values-based leadership can help fix our broken political system

By Chloë Spackman

Friday March 13, 2020

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Values-based leadership is the way to cut through personality politics and have political insiders start fixing their own system by repairing Australia’s future-making system, writes Chloë Spackman.

The 2019 Australian Election Study found that only 25% of Australians believe that people in government can be trusted — a record low. The recently released 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that government leaders are close to being the least trusted, globally, to address countries’ challenges. But this isn’t really news, or a surprise, to most Australians. Whatever your analysis of the trust crisis globally, I’m sure we can all agree that there is something unprecedented going on when it comes to trust and confidence in democracy and its institutions.

When it comes to trust in politics, there is a common lamentation around the dearth of “authentic” leadership. But what exactly constitutes authentic leadership? Authenticity comes from living and leading in integrity with one’s core values, which is harder than it sounds. What challenges our ability to do this? First, ourselves, and secondly, the systems we operate in, and often both of these things operating in a dynamic, self-reflexive and complex interplay. In our work at the non-partisan, non-profit, Australian Futures Project, we often highlight the importance of understanding and addressing challenges from a systems perspective, rather than focusing on discrete issues.

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Our hypothesis is that working with politicians to help them lead in integrity with their values is an avenue to addressing the broken political system. After all, as the Barrett Values Centre outlines, leadership development is an essential part of cultural transformation, and many would agree that a complete cultural transformation is exactly what the political landscape needs. We believe that when leaders are making authentic decisions based on their core values it builds both trust and commitment, and we envisage politicians who lead and make decisions consistent with both Australians’ values and aspirations and experts’ advice about the realities of a changing world.

Political values-based leadership matters in a system under immense pressure. We can see evidence of this in moments of great political courage when we least expect it, as we did when NSW Minister for Energy and the Environment, Matt Kean split with the Federal coalition to urge immediate emissions reduction late last year. In this recent article on leadership by The Ethics Centre, leadership consultant Wayne Burns applauded Minister Andrew Constance’s natural leadership in the face of the recent bushfire crisis when he “stepped up and really led the community. He really did stick his neck out and rock the boat”. When politicians are unwilling or unable to lead in integrity with their core values, when it is simply about power, and not about leadership, politics spirals into a zero-sum game. We see hyper-partisanship, hyper-divisiveness and the kind of inertia that straight-jackets meaningful progress, whatever ideology it is dressed up in.

Our initiative, the Parliamentary Leaders Program, starts with a two-and-a-half day values-based leadership development course open to all sitting parliamentarians. Designed in the context of a political system under pressure, the program follows a two-step process, (i) a transformational experience for each participant that improves the ability of parliamentarians to address the complex challenges of the day by understanding and leading in integrity with their values, and doing so with renewed purpose and courage, and (ii) a supportive network of politicians across party lines with new understanding, confidence, and impetus to influence and improve the political system itself.

As Nick Dyrenfurth said at the end of 2015, “One of the problems here is that our fixation with Canberra-based politics and the potential for some messiah to “fix” politics is out of whack with the ability of governments of all party stripes to seek meaningful reform.” No one leader can transform this system. It requires collective, intentional work. Work we expect, inspire and incentivise the alumni of the Parliamentary Leaders Program to do. Work that will restore trust with the public. We need to address the weaknesses of the political system with the help of those in the system. Who better to transform the system than those who are already in it and who are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo?

What we have learnt in the process of working with our — now 50+ — alumni

  • Values-based leadership is difficult in contemporary Australian politics, and difficult to see among the overarching narrative of scandal and failure, but it is there.
  • Being a politician is a really hard job, and the pressure on both their professional and personal lives is immense. We are living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, and leading in that context is one of the greatest challenges of our times.
  • Like a lot of the Australian public, politicians, too, are unhappy with what they see as a broken system and their seeming hopelessness to do anything about it.
  • We have worked with many parliamentarians who are eager to lead in integrity with their core values and are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo when it comes to the way Australian politics works.
  • Parliamentarians are up against a debilitating culture in politics that frowns on them pursuing professional development. Many participants have remarked that it’s viewed as “self-indulgent” or “weak”. There is a pervasive assumption that (impossibly) they should already know it all.
  • Unearthing shared values surprises and galvanises people. We have seen this with participants in our course regardless of political ideology. Many of our participants remark on their surprise (and relief) at the shard values in a room of politicians from across the spectrum; indeed, that they are all human.
  • It’s not constructive to simply blame, or completely ignore politicians, no matter how frustrated we are. Finding solutions will require us to work broadly, often with those on all sides of the debate.
  • The role the media plays requires particular scrutiny. Politicians’ top dislike about democracy is “misrepresentation by the media” Museum of Australian Democracy/University of Canberra (2019). Their top “fix” for politics is a “media that enables more constructive conversation” (Australian Futures Project Parliamentary Leaders Program ​Class of 2019).

In Australian politics over the last decade, too much of the debate has been on the perceived trustworthiness of any one individual as part of our growing obsession with personality politics. Which is understandable, when, as Jonathan Freedland pointed out back in 2007, “People don’t believe in ideas, they believe in people who believe in ideas. Personalities do matter. They are in fact the way we human beings understand and process politics.” But the underlying issue is a system issue. And a system under pressure requires great leadership. Leadership is not only formal, hierarchical leadership, but can also take place anywhere in the system. Australians should be able to trust our political system, regardless of how trustworthy particular individuals are in the political system. Our systems should be designed to be robust and withstand the fickleness of personality politics.

But it’s important to remember that a system is, at the end of the day, made up of individuals. In other words, we are the system. Acknowledging the failings and challenges of the broader system and how this comes to bear on politicians’ performance is not intended to assuage the responsibility of our political leaders; quite the contrary, it’s a lens with which to view each individual’s responsibility and a strategic view on what individuals can do to change it. This is what informs our approach at the Australian Futures Project: self and system.

As frustrated as many people are with our parliaments, investing in the leadership capability of our politicians through professional development is a key part of the solution. This is normal in every other profession. There should be no stigma attached to seeking to get better at one’s job. The public, media, business, community groups, and parliamentarians themselves should welcome an investment in our leaders of the future. In fact, industry benchmarks are to spend between one and three percent of remuneration on professional development annually. That would be between $2,000 and $6,000 for a Federal backbencher and between $5,500 and $16,000 for the Prime Minister — annually.

And what about that system?

Our work has already catalysed a response from the system. In particular, we have started to dismantle stigma attached to politicians pursuing professional development, and we have inspired key leadership in NSW parliament to implement innovative cultural and financial incentives to transform the negative perception around the pursuit of leadership development. A good example of a forward-looking initiative to incentivise greater member participation is the introduction in 2019 of the annual Skills Development Allowance, available to all NSW members to be used specifically for professional development.

At the Australian Futures Project, we are practically optimistic. We have alumni from across the political spectrum including Ministers, Shadow Ministers, Speakers of the House, Whips and back benchers: the course is pertinent for both seasoned politicians and the newly elected, and for front- and backbenchers. And it’s not just those within politics who have agency. The media, business, universities, community leaders and the Australian public are all parts of the system with a role to play. We have taken on a challenge with the Parliamentary Leaders Program, and we already have runs on the board demonstrating how the system can be shifted off the back of transformational experiences for just a handful of players within that system. We have unearthed a lot of good will in the system. There is much to be hopeful about if we are looking at the right lever points, and we are investing in, and rallying around those with the intention and vision to transform the system and restore trust. We know, because we’ve seen them in action.

Australian Futures Project is running a state program from May 27-29 in Sydney and a Federal program from June 10-12 in Canberra. Details available here. Australian Futures Project wants the public to nominate current sitting parliamentarians who are eager to transform the political system and restore trust with the Australian public. If you have someone in mind, email [email protected].

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