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Forget born or made, you can buy leadership

William Shakespeare -
William Shakespeare Redux - “Some are born leaders, some achieve leadership, some have leadership thrust upon them and some do purchase it”


TUMBY BAY – A much quoted aphorism on the internet comes from William Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” the bard wrote.

What Shakespeare was writing about in 1601 was inherited leadership, such as that of the aristocracy, and the play is, appropriately for our times, framed in a context of a dying society crumbling into decay.

In the 1840’s, historian Thomas Carlyle introduced the Great Man theory of leadership when he stated, "The history of the world is but the biography of great men" which was popularised as “great men are born and not made”.

The great US football coach Vince Lombardi turned this upside down in a speech just a few months before his death in 1970, in which he said, “Leaders aren't born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.”

And someone whose name I’ve long forgotten once provided the world with another version, “Some are born leaders; others are born to be led; some aren’t”.

In the personal lexicon that is my brain, I see four kinds of leadership: inherited, such as Shakespeare was dabbling with; that formed through diligence and merit-based, which was Lombardi’s take; circumstantial, such as may emerge in a crisis; and then the sort you can buy in the marketplace, like a betel nut.

This is where my maverick category fits comfortably. This is leadership not born or made or accidental, it is bought.

Looking at the changes that have unfolded in the world over the last few years, it seems obvious we have entered a most unstable and unpredictable period.

To get us through this as nations and communities, we desperately need clear and intelligent leadership. And it needs to be remarked that it is clear and intelligent leadership that is in very short supply.

If Shakespeare was alive today, he would be very much tempted to render his famous line as, “Some are born leaders, some achieve leadership, some have leadership thrust upon them and some do purchase it”.

Well, the bard did not write this, but he did write something that strongly signalled it: “If money go before, all ways do lie open”, he penned in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

See where I’m going? That ‘some do purchase it… money go before’ stuff might just be at the heart of our leadership problems.

It’s hard to think of leadership as a marketable commodity that can be bought and sold but, in this late stage capitalist world, it has become an uncomfortable truth.

As Barry Jones has pointed out, the transactional process in becoming a leader involves a staged progression “from a very narrow gene pool and following a depressingly similar career path”.

Jones was talking about professional politicians but the principle he elucidates is applicable to many other career paths.

A relevant education, preferably in a well-networked institution, is a useful purchase to make if you aspire to leadership.

So is entry to a major political party value for money, providing you put loyalty to the party before just about everything else.

The really good news is that joining a party is much cheaper than getting the kind of education that will later pay dividends.

Australia’s current prime minister Morrison has a university degree in geography and a limited and notoriously unsuccessful career in marketing, but he chose his party well.

His opposite number, Labor leader Albanese, got an economics degree and went straight into becoming a party apparatchik as research officer to a minister. He also chose his party well.

There’s born to’ or ‘made’ in any of that. It’s more like choosing to sit on the floor of a milk bar waiting a few years to be hit by an ice cream. Wait long enough and smile enough and it could happen.

The emergence of Australia’s political class as pretty much a closed shop over the last 30 years means that, as a society, we have allowed political leadership to become a career choice.

I can see that one day it will become an elective at university. A degree in prime ministering might be a prerequisite for that lofty position.

Leadership studies, already part of private pop-education, have entered the mainstream. I notice that Deakin University in Melbourne offers a 12-month fast-tracked master's degree in that area.

‘A Master of Leadership degree provides proof of your leadership skills and potential for employers,’ says the ad. ‘It gives you the opportunity to showcase your leadership skills in your workplace before you even graduate.’

All that for just $19,450. Get out of the way. Before I even graduate. I can be a leader because a piece of paper says so.

I shouldn’t be so cynical. Let’s face it, we already have people with PhDs in creative writing who, er, can’t write…..

So why shouldn't we have leaders who can't lead?

Sorry, you’re quite correct, we already have.


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Chris Overland

Thanks for this insightful article Phil.

I have made a study of leadership, mostly of military figures.

I also occupied senior leadership roles for close to 20 years, reaching the not terribly exulted heights of the SA public service. I have seen many erstwhile leaders at work. Most were adequate, some were very capable and some were bloody awful.

The best leaders had superior industry specific knowledge and experience combined with excellent people management skills. Importantly, they exhibited the hallmarks of a good leader, being courage, intuition and persistence (as distinct from recklessness, irrationality and stubbornness).

The worst of them tended to be clever, driven and over confident, some with distinct psychopathic or sociopathic traits.

One of the cleverest I knew eventually murdered his wife in a fit of jealous rage. Several others, all of whom had an exaggerated sense of their own worth, were convicted of fraud or abuse of public office.

One of these was not finally caught until he had become the Chief Executive of New Zealand's Accident Compensation Commission from which he had stolen a great deal of money.

Senior military leaders tend to be at least competent because they are put through a very rigorous training process long before they put on a General's epaulettes. Also, the military is very unforgiving of failure.

General Dwight D Eisenhower commanded the D Day landings at Normandy. He is regarded by most people as a rather kindly and avuncular figure but was actually quite ruthless in dismissing generals who fell short of expectations.

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, the victor over Field Marshall Erwin Rommel at El Alamein, is usually remembered as a very difficult man to deal with and was even more demanding and ruthless.

Yet both of these men were deservedly regarded as outstanding leaders.

The man widely acknowledged as Australia's best Prime Minister is John Curtin, who led the country through most of World War 2.

Curtin was a former journalist and reformed drunk with a cast in his eye that made him seem to be looking in two directions at once. He had a nervous disposition and it is thought that his chronic anxiety about the course of the war materially contributed to his sudden death from a heart attack.

Yet he possessed the necessary leadership qualities to steer Australian safely through its most dangerous crisis in history. It was Curtin who made the momentous decision to abandoned Australia's traditional affiliations with Britain and turn to America for support. The impact of this decision is still being felt today.

I have seen every Prime Minister from Bob Menzies through to the current incumbent. Of all of them, perhaps Menzies, Hawke and Keating could be regarded as being first rate leaders.

Of the rest, Fraser was better than I and many others supposed at the time, with Julia Gillard perhaps fitting into the same category.

I am inclined to put John Howard in the same middle ranking category mainly because of his considerable courage in changing the country's gun laws in the face of very severe resistance from his political allies as well as his politically brave call on introducing a GST.

So, to my mind at least, leadership is not something that can simply be taught. It requires that a person has the right personal qualities as well as the right training. Also, it is frequently highly contextual in nature.

For example, Winston Churchill was a supreme war leader but an indifferent peace time Prime Minister. Similarly, Joseph Stalin learned to curb his own worst instincts in order to lead the Soviet Union to victory over Germany in World War 2. Hitler was never able to do this and so materially contributed to Germany's defeat.

As to our current political leaders, at least at the Federal level, they range from the devious and untrustworthy through to the dull but competent.

Our state leaders have generally managed to shine much more brightly during the pandemic than their Federal counterparts. Most if not all have shown themselves to be competent, conscious of their public duty and willing to listen to and act upon professional advice even if they didn't like it much.

Leadership is, superficially at least, a discipline that can be taught. In reality, it often is hard, demanding and even distressing work that calls for much more than just 'book learning'.

If it was easy then any fool could do it and, as we have seen graphically displayed in Australia during the terrible fires of 2018/19, the pandemic and the endless argument and denial about climate change, any fool cannot do it.

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