There is a hunger for more inspirational leadership in our society, especially among young people.

If you are reading these words it is likely that you share a concern over the condition of our civic dialogue, and are sufficiently engaged that—when your leadership moment comes—you hope to do better. Perhaps you are 40 years old and have newly embarked on a career in federal or local politics. Perhaps you are 35 and a sporting administrator, or the driving force behind an NGO, or the leader of a union or professional association. Perhaps you are 30 and have just been appointed to a minister’s office or the electorate office of your local member of parliament. Perhaps you are 25, practising a trade or profession, and plan to run for your local council. Perhaps you are 20 or younger, studying ‘civics’ (however described) at school or university, starting to form views about the quality of our democracy, and hope one day to make a positive difference in the world. If you answer to any of these descriptions, then this book is written for you.

So you want to be a leader comprises 36 essays by successful Australians addressed to our next generation of leaders. Contributors include two former premiers, the former most senior Commonwealth public servant, two currently serving federal politicians, a number of people who have held CEO positions in the public, non-profit and private sectors, and other leaders, role models, thinkers, advisers, advocates and observers from diverse backgrounds. Their combined expertise embraces politics, the electoral system, social activism, economics, finance, law, small business, public administration, the classics, history, philosophy, education, psychology, personal development, crisis leadership, conflict resolution, human rights, effective communication, science and technology, change management and futurology. Most contributors have distinguished themselves in more than one role. By their accomplishments they are eminently qualified to share their thoughts about what you can expect from public life, and how you might go about it.

The contributors are primarily doers rather than commentators, and almost all have significant achievements to their credit outside party politics. Indeed, many of them would not have thought to write such an essay, had I not asked them to do so. As a result you will find fresh voices here. While a few contributors are recognisably of the left or of the right, in most cases I have little idea of their politics. They range in age from those who are semi-retired to those who are in their twenties. All of them are in some sense Australian (two are expatriates), and they come from all states as well as the ACT.

Contributors were given a simple brief:

‘What could you say to an audience of potential new leaders that would most enhance their capacity to engage in public life?’

The book brings together their ideas about what you—as a potential future leader—should know, do, say and be to achieve success in public life.

In addition, the contributors were asked to consider some even larger purposes:

  • to promote trust, friendship and ethical interaction between people from all places on the political landscape
  • to help stimulate, over time, an improved civic dialogue in this country.

Occasionally I suggested to a contributor a theme they might explore, but I was scrupulous about not insisting. Each contributor wrote on a topic of their own choosing, and the book is better for that.

I think you will find, as I have, that the essays get better with each reading. Although some passages make reference to Australian institutions, characters and events, the essential messages are universal. Those messages will have equal relevance in two, five or ten years’ time.

I sought to exclude discussion of substantive policy issues for their own sake, especially issues that are contentious in a party political way. Indeed, my insistence on that point led some potential contributors to withdraw. If you expect to find fodder for your political views here you will be disappointed; there are plenty of other places for that. So you want to be a leader is more concerned with how policy debate is conducted. It describes the challenges, processes and institutions of public life and explains how you might succeed with dignity—improving the quality of dialogue—regardless of your political values. In that respect the book differs from some other political literature which promotes a predictable and well-ventilated narrative, or which preaches only to the converted.

Of course it is human nature to prefer the company of people with similar values and allegiances. But we should be careful not to confine ourselves to forums that are agreeable in that sense. We should be careful, as well, never to assume that our viewpoint is so self-evidently right that everyone in our audience must surely agree with it. Indeed, that assumption underpins the political correctness we see occasionally from one or other camp on the political landscape. It marginalises the minority in our audience who would disagree, and could be seen as a form of bullying. As Tania Sourdin says, quoting Maya Angelou:

People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Arguably a well-adjusted person cannot be made to feel anything, but not everyone is perfectly adjusted and so ultimately you will be more successful in public life if you can avoid being opinionated. Relax! You may in the end discover there is not so much that divides us, and the battles that seem so important at the time are rarely about the fate of civilisation as we know it.

What do I mean by ‘public life’? In this book the term relates to any form of service or work that entails engagement on issues of shared concern with a wide range of groups, communities and interests—that is, a wider range than if you were merely involved in private or semi-private transactions or relationships.

Politics is perhaps the most obvious form of public life, but it is not the only one.[1] You may be in public life as an advocate or interest group representative, NGO leader or philanthropist. Public life also extends to community engagement by volunteers, and to some activities described as ‘social activism’. Journalism may amount to engagement in public life, even extending to blogging and the smart use of social media.

Engagement in a profession or business—to the extent that you merely serve clients or customers—is not per se public life. But you are in public life if you have a leadership role in your profession or industry: setting standards, defining ethical practice or engaging with government; and whenever you accept a ‘corporate social responsibility’ that entails acting for the benefit, not just of partners or shareholders, but of a broader class of interested parties.

Sport and the arts are not public life per se, but again they can be—if you have a leadership role, or prominence of the kind that attracts endorsement, makes you a role model and subjects you to higher standards for your peccadilloes than the average person.

What are the implications of being in public life? First, you are likely to be in the public gaze. You might relish that, but remember, you may be vilified more frequently than you are thanked. You will be subject to comment and criticism, not all of it fair, and for that you will need a thick skin. As Geoff Gallop says:

…when someone becomes a leader they enter a completely new space. They are now looked to when decisions have to be made and judged when the decision is made.

You will be servant, not master, of the people you represent and the situations you are presented with. Ian Harper puts it well:

If you are called to public life, you are there to serve the people without fear or favour. You do not have the luxury of choosing whom you serve, unlike your private sector counterparts.

You may be held accountable for the failings of others that happened on your watch. You may be called upon to do or say something that you do not wholly support. You may find that your options are fewer—and your ability to solve ‘wicked problems’ is far more limited—than you anticipated.

You may find yourself constantly on duty, and you may not enjoy the luxury to be forthright in the expression of private views. You may also find that your privacy, and that of your family, is compromised to a greater or lesser extent. ‘There will be temptations. Resist them’, says Ray Groom. People will gossip anyway. More seriously, accusations or insinuations of impropriety may be made against you that will stick sufficiently to compromise your standing. While you are entitled to a presumption of innocence in any criminal matter, that privilege will not necessarily protect your position in public life. Depending on the circumstances, you may be required to resign, or stand down temporarily, from whatever public office you hold.

And if all that is not enough to think about, ponder the fact that you will probably earn much less than you might in the private sector.

With all those drawbacks, why would you enter public life? Perhaps your motivation is concern for a cause, or a group that you seek to promote or protect. Perhaps it is, in part, publicity. Perhaps it is partly prestige; as Richard Cogswell says, public life is ‘great fodder for the ego’. Perhaps some part of you is drawn to the power of public office. And perhaps you are attracted to public service as a noble calling; and despite the fact that (or maybe because) it requires sacrifices.

Arguably it does not matter what mixture of motivations you have, provided that you have some insight into yourself, and provided, of course, that you do the job well.

Although this book is about public life generally, the circumstances that caused me to embark on the project in 2012 were political. At that stage there had already been widespread expressions of dismay over the poor state of federal politics. As evidence, the Lowy Institute poll of 5 June 2012 reported a significant level of disenchantment with democracy, especially amongst young people (18- to 29-year olds).[2] The thinking of some could be summed up by the question, channelling Monty Python, ‘what has democracy ever done for me?’.

The more immediate catalyst occurred unexpectedly. One night at about the time of the Lowy poll I found myself watching a live feed of the Leveson inquiry into the British press. You may be aware of the inquiry, and the political fault lines upon which it was conducted. I watched lead counsel Robert Jay QC questioning the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. Notwithstanding the latently adversarial nature of their exchanges, each protagonist displayed courtesy and grace. I saw two men, each with their own purposes, and each in command of his brief. I saw mutual respect, a willingness not to assume ill will in the other, and a mindfulness of shared values.

The incident impressed upon me that civic dialogue can indeed be done well—something we in Australia have evidently forgotten. By comparison with the British example, I thought, Australia’s leaders too seldom exemplify the virtues I have mentioned. Our politics sometimes seems like civil war, rather than civic dialogue.

I wondered, could something be done about that? The idea for a book was formed then, combining voices reaching across the political divide to promote an improved civic dialogue. It took some six months to fully develop the idea. In this period I benefited from discussions with a number of people who helped me to refine my ideas into a coherent set of propositions about what the book should—and should not—seek to do.

In my view Australia has suffered from instances of poor policy-making by governments of both major persuasions in the last decade—and we have sustained prosperity and wellbeing largely through luck. There is continued disenchantment with the quality of our national conversation, evidenced from many sources, and a widespread feeling that we could do better.

Yet I would rather be constructive than negative. I am often dismayed to hear politicians described as by nature venal, untrustworthy, self-serving, and so on. My experience has been that one person’s examples of bad politicians just happen to be all on the conservative side, while another person’s examples just happen to be on the progressive side of politics, but this bias is not acknowledged. Thus we avoid the discomfort of conflict by the device of making politicians the common enemy. There is a creative tension in conflict that can be better used if we own it; or as Nadja Alexander puts it, there are:

…opportunities in conflict to make choices which will transform…destructive conflict energy into realistic, constructive outcomes.

Too often we project our unresolved conflicts onto politicians as ‘a class apart’[3] and then complain that they have failed us, and are overpaid to boot.

I come now to the premises on which this book rests:

  • Many Australians are disenchanted with our political processes and leaders, and are inclined to disparage the political classes as ‘them’. This is especially true of young people, who are casual about the merits of democracy and disinclined to enter conventional public life.
  • Australia has been a lucky country for a long time, but some of the conditions that underpin this luck may not last. We face new challenges that our political leaders seem poorly prepared to meet, and our children may one day condemn us for helping ourselves to an unsustainable lifestyle at their expense.
  • There is much unbalanced, ill-informed opinion, particularly in online media, expressed in vitriolic, even poisonous, language. In facing future challenges, we would benefit from a national conversation that is more rational and competent, kinder and gentler.
  • There are great examples of leadership in public life. In particular, (as documented by Lucas Walsh and Jan Owen), young people are finding new ways to engage with social issues and new models of entrepreneurship. We could learn much from those examples.

All contributors broadly agree with these premises, although some would express them in different language. At any rate, all of the contributors demonstrate, through their willingness to be a part of this project, optimism that it is possible to effect an improvement in the standards of public life, and that this book might help.

How might this happen? Probably not by reaching our existing leaders. Cynics will no doubt say they are a lost cause. While I cannot agree with that, I think it unlikely they would have the time; if they do that would be a bonus. In any event, the book does not presume to reform current leaders. Rather it seeks to inform and inspire a newer generation of leaders, before they become too busy and battle-scarred.

There are also secondary audiences for the book. First, So you want to be a leader will provide useful material for teachers of civics, government, politics or leadership at various levels. Second, it will be of value to the public servants, political advisers and lobbyists who interact behind the scenes with our more visible leaders. Finally, it may reach thoughtful voters—on the premise that any project that aims to improve leadership should also focus on the people who elect our leaders. If I may resort to a cliché: we get the politicians we deserve.

For you personally, my hope is that this book will help you to see clearly, to understand what is true for you, for others and for the world, and to apply that understanding to bring clarity, integrity and good will to human affairs.

Philip Crisp

January 2015


[1] There is an alternative way of making the same point. One might say that although the book is about ‘politics’, that term should be understood broadly. As Craig Wallace says: ‘Politics, in its broadest sense, is happening all around us and in every … retail district, body corporate, office, school and community’. As the cliché goes ‘politics is ubiquitous’.

[2] See Similar results were obtained in the 2013 and 2014 polls.

[3] I owe this phrase to Craig Wallace.