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The world has a leadership problem and it has been shown up spectacularly with the failures of the European Union. Its debt-laden member countries have failed to deal with their profound problems and the EU officials look hopelessly out of the depth in dealing with the issue.

And it was again underlined with the stalemate in the super ‘dopes’ committee of the US Congress that came up with no new ideas to reduce the country’s worrying US$15 trillion national debt black hole.

A leader, or just taking a walk?

Meanwhile at home, the anti-Julia Gillard forces write her off as a hopeless joke while even Opposition supporters question Tony Abbott’s credentials to be a future Prime Minister.

Barack Obama clearly is an incredible leader to have achieved what he has as an African American and anyone who heard him speak in Darwin would have understood why a lot of Americans saw him as the ‘yes we can’ man.

But look at America! It looks leaderless. Its Congress is dysfunctional and that was created by Americans thinking it was a good idea to elect a Republican Congress at the mid-term elections with a Democrat president!

Why did that happen? Simply, Obama inherited a poisoned chalice from the economic disaster George W. Bush left him and then he failed to lead effectively and so he lost some followers.

If you think you’re a leader and you turn around and no one is following you, then you aren’t leading, you’re just taking a walk!

I reckon a lot of leaders are just taking a walk right now and we, the followers, feel a bit lost.

Understanding leadership

My reflections on leadership have been affected as I have been reading ex-prime minister John Howard’s autobiography — Lazarus Rising — and it comes at a time when I have a personal drive to understand what is at the core of great leadership.

Whether you like Howard or not, I think his runs on the board prove he was a successful leader. In explaining why he was attracted to Malcolm Fraser when he first entered parliament, Howard observed that he “possessed that streak of toughness and ruthlessness needed in a political leader”.

Howard made gutsy decisions such as the guns buyback, taking on the wharfies, the GST, going to war and staying on as PM too long.

He presided over a golden era where unemployment went under four per cent, there were no recessions, budget deficits turned into surpluses, government debt was nuked and the stock market, apart from the dotcom bust, defied gravity.

That’s not to say there weren’t mistakes such as the Tampa incident, staying on too long and arguably his handling of the Peter Costello succession controversy but it’s easy to argue that the goods from Howard era outweighed the bads. 

Shortage of leaders

But that’s not the point of this reflection – it’s to understand what creates great leaders to help me understand why we have a damn shortage of them at the moment. And I think it could well be a time and age issue.

Lazarus Rising gives us a snapshot of a young John Howard as he saw himself and the important people around him – his parents, his brothers, his mentors and of course his wife, Janette, as well as his children.

This was a young man who had a hearing problem, who got over the social awkwardness of a big hearing aid, dealing with the difficulties of university lectures with impaired hearing and coming from an unfashionable side of Sydney. His greatest assets were his self-belief, his willingness to work hard with his own education and for his beloved Liberal Party, as well as his family that not only supported him but created an environment that made him focused on succeeding in politics. 

Practice makes perfect

The Howard story of his political success has parallels with sportsman such as Steve Waugh and Darren Lockyer; it was just that their prized goals were different. Waugh and Lockyer shared focus, commitment to the dream, great mentors and time at the crease or on the field.

Howard’s field was defined by the political circus which was Canberra and those in the stands – the people of Australia. Just as Waugh got cricket, Howard got Australians and it largely explains his success.

And sure all three had luck to help them but as the great golfer Gary Player once famously observed: “The more I practised, the luckier I got.”

That’s exactly what John Howard did – he practised politics, he debated, he built networks and despite his diminutive build, he had the guts of a giant.

I tried to imagine him standing at University of Sydney taking on the anti-Vietnam students in a public debate. He talked about the catcalling and booing and while I might even doubt that I would have been on a unity ticket with him, even today, I can’t help having the utmost respect for his guts. Size does not matter – it’s guts, it’s focus, it’s a desire to serve others and it’s time in the game with these characteristics.

Malcolm Gladwell in that great book Outliers makes the dramatic point that the massive over-achievers in history have put in over 10,000 hours of practice. It shows up with great athletes, musicians, lawyers, business people and more. And yes it shows up with politicians and it explains why the new boys and girls of modern politics just aren’t cutting the mustard right now. 

Make your dream happen

Julia Gillard needs more time in the game and she has to improve her understanding of Australians.

John Howard kept trying to lead his party and failed and failed and failed. He referred to himself as “Lazarus with triple bypass” but this belies the big heart that drove him onto win and win and win!

Like a great athlete he had a dream and he made it happen. I think the following quote gives all aspiring leaders the right guidance: “He told me he'd be prime minister the first time we met”. (Janette Howard)

If you’re looking to work on your business rather than being stuck in it, book in for a complimentary business assessment today with Switzer Business Coaching.

Important information: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.

Published on: Wednesday, November 30, 2011

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