OUTLINE - Parts of the book


So you want to be a leader is arranged in four parts, each containing eight to ten essays. You might decide to read the book in sequence from cover to cover; or you might prefer to keep it as a bedside book, and dip into it according to your mood and interests. Each of the essays is a self-contained work.

Part 1: Leadership concerns the most visible form of leadership, exercised by those who are front and centre in public life—the archetypal leaders. They cannot pass the buck, for the buck stops with them. Essays in this part are written by those who are or have been leaders in this sense, and those who have closely observed them. The essays consider the deepest question about leadership: what leaders should be.

For Nick Jans, the most inspiring leader–follower relationships involve a magic element, and while it may seem practically indefinable—like great art or falling in love—we know it when we feel it and we can be moved by it without knowing exactly why. Among the qualities of a leader, self-awareness, integrity and empathy are important, Geoff Gallop says, not merely technical knowledge and understanding of institutions and the levers of power. Andrew Hughes maintains that a great leader is defined, not by actions but by what he or she embodies, nurtures in others and authentically lives. Real leadership doesn’t wait for permission, and it doesn’t need an audience, says Cassandra Wilkinson; leaders can be found throughout the community, not always in the obvious places, and they can emerge unexpectedly in times of crisis. In an insightful essay Nadja Alexander explores the melodramatic nature of the tales we tell when we find ourselves in conflict, and shows how discovering our own inner hero—the tragic hero—leads to understanding.

The remaining essays in this part take a closer look at some of the themes developed in the Introduction: to what extent Australia’s present prosperity rests on luck or good decisions, whether our luck has run out, whether youth will take up the call to public life, and whether wise choices are possible in a world of rapid change and short news cycles. Countering the usual complaints of poor policy making, Daryl Dixon gives an insider’s account of some farsighted and courageous decisions in the past—decisions which have shaped Australia. He argues that future leaders—though faced with difficult economic choices—can emulate those examples. Ray Groom contends that on objective measures Australia is one of the most advanced and civilised nations in human history, and this is surely evidence of wise leadership in the past. He encourages young Australians to consider a career in politics and offers practical advice for political aspirants.

If there could be said to be any concluding message from this part, it is a hopeful one of cautious optimism that future leaders can make the most of the advantages and opportunities we enjoy. With logic, common sense, maturity, manners and willpower, Greg Rudd argues, we can improve the way our democracy works, and build a remarkable Australia.

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Part 2: Influence concerns the exercise of persuasion. Essays deal with topics such as the management of organisations, the language of dialogue, engagement as a lobbyist or adviser in reform processes, and speaking truth to power. Influencers are themselves leaders. Indeed, the form of leadership they practise is arguably more complex than the more visible form of leadership discussed in Part 1. Influencers lead, and at the same time serve a leader or constituency. They may operate at any level in a hierarchy, and sometimes they work in the background rather than in the public gaze. Part 2 has a more practical orientation than Part 1, focusing less on what leaders should be, and more on what they should do and say.

Each of the first three essays contains reflections from writers with an outstanding career in public service. Peter Shergold argues that a willingness to acknowledge personal responsibility for failures—rather than blaming systemic factors—is the key to developing leadership qualities. Tom Sherman delivers lessons for each stage of a career in public service: first for those starting out, second for those in middle-management positions, and finally for those at the top. Sue Vardon discusses the importance of creating a positive work environment in the public sector, rewarding initiative so that public service is the best it can be.

Four essays concern the way we relate to people whom we seek to influence, and the language we use in doing so. Tania Sourdin explains various negotiation styles and argues that a sophisticated, rather than a primitive, approach is a marker of wise leadership. Margaret Halsmith throws fresh light on the term ‘civic dialogue’ which she describes as ‘constructive conversation between leaders and stakeholders that takes place prior to leaders’ decision making … the kind, gentle and potentially robust exchange of ideas about public issues among people, including leaders, who attribute value to their own and to others’ perspectives’. Charmine Härtel discusses psychopathic behaviours that can do enormous damage within organisations, and suggests strategies to combat them that will help you along your path to leadership and enlighten you as a steward of the wellbeing of those affected by your decisions. Tim Mendham shows how we can respond sensitively when confronted by strongly held beliefs that are based on emotion rather than evidence.

The last three essays in this part are written by people who have exercised influence in a particular sector or constituency, although their purpose here goes beyond advocacy. Peter Strong describes the challenges faced by small business people who make up the majority of employers; he also argues that local people, with the right resources, are best placed to manage change affecting a community. Craig Wallace speaks of third sector organisations as a real engine for democracy, noting their powerful role in achieving political consensus for the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Bruce Chapman, who describes himself as a naive academic rather than a lobbyist, relates his experiences in two major reforms in the higher education sector. His essay is an illuminating case study of influence in action.

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Part 3: Commitment is directed especially to young, emerging leaders. Before arriving at the pinnacle of leadership, and even before acquiring a degree of influence, comes commitment. If you are a potential leader intent on public life then you may prefer to begin with this part. It examines the issues, choices and challenges you will face as you start out in public life, and different ways in which you might make a contribution to society. There are some threshold issues: when should you enter public life (perhaps after you have established yourself in a career), and what form of public life should you choose (conventional politics is not the only option). Most of the essays here are written by people who are themselves young role models or who, while now older, distinguished themselves at an early age.

The essay co-authored by Lucas Walsh and Jan Owen addresses one premise of the book: that young people are disengaged from their democracy. It paints a more complex picture of the attitudes of young people, and reports that they are finding innovative ways to make an impact in public life.

Ian Harper asks: what does it mean to be in public life, and are you qualified to take this path? There are several sound motives for entering public life, as long as you understand your motives and the implications: for example, you will be scrutinised by the public, and not as well rewarded as if you pursued a career in the private sector. In contrast, Melanie Irons speaks of her experiences in entering public life ‘by accident’ in the wake of a bushfire emergency. For her, the critical factor in choosing to enter public life is simply that you are doing something you love so well that people look to you for leadership.

A skill that you must acquire early, if you are to acquire it at all, is how to communicate a message effectively to your audience. Christopher Balmford discusses communication style, the importance of plain language and the need to take responsibility for how your message is received.

There are careers other than party politics that may lead you to public life. An obvious example is the law—not only because many politicians receive their grounding in the practice of law, but because courtrooms are public places and advocacy is a form of public life. Richard Cogswell notes that courtrooms involve occasional confrontation and high emotion, but discourse can be managed to ensure that the adjudicative process takes place in the most effective way. Marlene Kanga deals with a less obvious choice of career. The work of engineers has saved more lives than the work of doctors, she says; in fact, most of the problems we face today will be solved by engineers. So if you want to change the world then consider becoming an engineer. Ashlee Uren describes the disenchantment of young people with politics—which is seen as something other people do. Yet young people can be powerful if they are prepared to engage. Volunteering is an excellent way to start, and can lead to engagement in other areas of public life. Fiona Jose describes the important work of the Cape York Institute for Policy and Leadership, established by Noel Pearson. At the heart of the Cape York Agenda is a simple assertion: maximum participation in economic life is key to overcoming disadvantage. Fiona stresses the need for prospective leaders to hold a clear sense of purpose.

What of conventional politics? Andrew Leigh describes his transition from academe to parliament, and distils from that some advice for young leaders of the future: do what you love, expect a measure of bad and good luck, and be a bit unreasonable! He says that a life of service to others is a life well lived. Finally in this part, Anya Poukchanski’s essay ‘To the lady in the Lodge’ is a thoughtful open letter to Australia’s next female prime minister. It will repay reading and re-reading by any young woman who aspires, however faintly, to that high office.

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Part 4: Knowledge is concerned with what you need to know to succeed in public life. It contains the most eclectic mix of essays. It does not claim to be comprehensive, but includes a selection of topics that contributors and this editor judged would be helpful to your career. Some of the essays ask you to step back a little from politics; to widen your gaze so that it takes in a broader range of subject matter. This serves in part to reinforce a message from Part 3—that public life includes not just the obvious choice of politics, but many other possibilities. But in the main, the intention is to equip you, a potential new leader, with a broader knowledge that will deepen your understanding of your role in public life.

Peter Acton’s essay explains the benefits of a broad education for those in public life. By studying history, literature and philosophy we can learn much about how to respond to current challenges. Learning the classics enables us to make more interesting conversation on a wide range of topics, and an added benefit is never being bored—or boring. Peter Ellyard, by contrast, looks to the future, distinguishing reactive management of the future we take and proactive leadership in the future we make. He argues that we need more of the latter skill.

Malcolm Mackerras critically appraises the language that we use when discussing Australia’s electoral and political systems, and exposes some myths and faulty ideas in the public’s understanding of these systems.

Two essays examine the relationship between government and markets, from complementary perspectives. Frank Milne shows how clumsy intervention in marketplace may go awry—even producing effects that are the opposite of what is intended—and supports his argument by giving some classic examples of failed policy. Flavio Menezes, on the other hand, shows how designed markets can improve the business of government, offering effective solutions for key problems of our time such as the ageing population, climate change and securing the wellbeing of all Australians in an increasingly complex and interconnected world.

Jeremy Shearmur’s essay considers Plato’s idea of the ‘guardians’, or ruler-philosophers, who would live in seclusion, developing superior knowledge, and use it to make the important decisions for society. He sees traces of that doctrine in our public institutions and argues that, if the country is to prosper, leaders cannot make decisions in isolation but should make better use of the knowledge that is dispersed in the community.

The last two essays deal with policy agendas. Tim McCormack discusses a topic lately neglected by governments of both persuasions—the possible presence of war criminals in Australia. He argues for proactive investigations leading, where appropriate, to criminal prosecutions. At the same time he acknowledges counter-arguments. His essay is a useful case study in how to explore a complex policy argument. In contrast, Mark Butler discusses two policy areas that are inevitably at the top of the agenda for any government. On the ageing of the population, he says we should avoid characterising the baby boomers as a ‘burden’ to be borne, but rather rediscover our cultural respect for older people and the contribution they make to society. As for climate change, he sees hope that the next few years will bring bipartisan consensus and a fresh global commitment to policies which discharge our obligation to future generations.

read more about Part 4: Knowledge