Leaders need more than “on the ground” achievements

Google “leadership” and you’ll get 5,440,000,000 results.

Perhaps the best example of how leadership is currently perceived is exemplified by the ongoing AFL scandal shrouding new North Melbourne manager Alastair Clarkson and Brisbane manager Chris Fagan.

Clarkson coached the Hawks to four premierships. Fagan, his former Hawthorn football lieutenant, is the Lions head coach. Their trainability is not in question.

Investigations will determine their role – if any – in the shocking revelations that are making headlines and chat rooms.

Clarkson denied all allegations of wrongdoing and Fagan, who also issued a denial, made it clear he would cooperate fully with the AFL’s investigation.

Regardless of those findings, this scandal ahead of Saturday’s grand final serves as a reminder that those with big jobs and titles — in sports and education, corporate life and politics — need more than achievements on the ground.

At a panel discussion last week, a senior educator spoke about the crisis in the teaching workforce, including principals. His argument was that school leaders should be chosen from a group of educators, not from law, finance and other industries.

The reverse is also true.

Principals should be judged on the culture they encourage, foster and control. They should be well versed in the pedagogy of education, but equally familiar with governance and communication.

They must foster an environment where children will thrive as young people, as well as as students.

A politician’s position rises and falls steadily on what he should know, as much as they do to know. We want strategy, but culture eats it for breakfast.

In corporate Australia, we want CEOs of our gambling establishments who understand legislation and hospitality, but also money laundering and addiction.

The same goes for those who are chosen to sit around the council tables. Indeed, we have seen the resignation of several of those who discovered what the investigations (and the journalists) were able to unearth.

Should these same board members sit at the top of other public companies? And what questions have they failed to ask before that they now see as crucial to their new roles?

In Queensland, Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll is under attack for a culture that allowed senior officers to joke, laugh and ridicule victims of domestic abuse. This is the subject of a royal commission type inquiry, where most of the evidence is heartbreaking.

Accountability is also important; a point raised this week by Michael Coutts-Trotter, NSW’s top civil servant, after bureaucrat Amy Brown was sacked over the John Barilaro business appointments saga.

Once upon a time, those with big offices and big salaries earned our respect through their appointments.

They “deserved” this recognition. The school principal has earned our respect. The bank manager, the senior civil servant, the local general practitioner and certainly the police sergeant did the same.

But we have been disappointed with those in higher positions. Respect has been undermined by royal commissions that have sent politicians and financiers to jail, and inquiries that have revealed shocking examples where responsibility and culture, high morale and diversity were not valued.

So if leadership is not conferred by title, how is it to be learned? Certainly, by example. And being a good follower, on the path to leadership, has to be part of that.

Just consider how much schools and universities focus on leadership.

But how much time is actually spent teaching and testing those soft skills that are a prerequisite for leadership? Or develop attributes that signify a leader is able to empathize and listen to others, value teamwork, and provide exceptional communication.

Leadership is changing all over the world.

The subject slips down the list on the resume of those who aspire to big jobs.

Almost always now, the title doesn’t matter as much as it once did. But when the music stops, the responsibility goes with the title.

This is what we see unfolding in sport and education, business and politics.

Denise W. Whigham