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Effective Leadership Skills: Learning from Malcolm Turnbull’s Mistakes

Kim Brebach - Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Effective Leadership Skills: Learning from Malcolm Turnbull’s Mistakes | Technoledge

This post is 2 and a half years old, 6 months into Turnbull's prime ministership. He had already shown us that he lacked essential leadership skills, good judgement and the courage of his convictions - if he had any. throughout his tenure, he was blackmailed by a small cabal on the extreme right of his party. As tends to happen when you give into blackmailers, they come back for more - and more again. When Turnbull had given them all they wanted, they tossed him under a bus as the saying goes in Canberra. 


‘Malcolm Turnbull could have ridden the wave of goodwill following his ascension all the way to an early election. Instead he dithered, and now look at the muddle of agendas we have to navigate,’ writes Mungo MacCallum. We give PM Malcolm Turnbull a reminder about effective leadership skills.

Almost anything

When Malcolm Turnbull replaced Tony Abbott, you could almost hear the collective cheer across the country, from Cairns to Hobart, from Alice Springs to Perth. For the next 3 months, Malcolm could’ve done almost anything and gotten away with it, such was the mood of the country.

Instead he did nothing. Sure, he articulated a vision that looked like the end of Abbott's backward-looking, negative wedge politics and the beginning of more positive, forward-looking leadership. But that was all and it was late and thin on detail. Even so, we excused him, hoping he was spending time getting it right. We all wanted to believe that Malcolm had real vision for Australia’s future.

Yet, barely six months later, Ross Gittins wrote in the Herald that ‘Turnbull's confidence seems to have faltered. He's looking behind him at his fractious backbench and at the Liberal heartland, who don't want to give up a cent of the tax subsidies that go mainly to them … That's the behaviour of a survivor.’

Alan Moir drew a PM shrinking into the job. What had happened to the vision and the positive beginning of a new era? Instead of bold vision, we saw the kind of poor judgment Malcolm had displayed years ago during the UteGate/Gowdwin Gretch affair.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised he needed reminding about what is expected of good leaders. By the way, these leadership skills are common to leaders in all fields, not just in politics.

Effective Leadership Skill 1: Show courage

Especially the courage of your convictions.

Late last year, 61 leading Australians said it was time for an international halt to new coal mines and mine expansions. We don’t need to cite Turnbull’s answer; it’s enough to know that his response drew widespread applause from the mining industry. Most people thought Turnbull was passionate about renewable energy, and wondered what happened to his passion. And his passion for new technologies, action on global warming, the Australian republic and same sex marriage.

It reminds me of the old cartoon that featured the Wizard and Tooter Turtle, a character who longed to lead a more exciting life than he did. Wizard would use his magic to transport Tooter to his chosen new life, and Tooter would soon discover that it wasn’t as much fun as he‘d thought. Wizard would bring him back to the real world and dispense this advice in a thick German accent: ‘Be vot you is and not vot you is not! To be vot you is is de happiest lot!’

Effective Leadership Skill 2: Don’t appease enemies within

Malcolm tried to play safe by keeping old deadwood in his team. Big mistake, since the rabid right in his party will never forgive him, no matter what he does, and now he’s stuck with mediocre ministers like Dutton and Hunt.

Instead of clearing out the deadwood, Malcolm tossed out a competent minister and loyal lieutenant like Ian McFarlane.

Effective Leadership Skill 3: Carpe Diem

Actually, Horace’s full quote is: 'seize the day, don’t put much trust in tomorrow'.

Turnbull should’ve gone for an early election. Mungo McCallum says he already had the double dissolution triggers. ‘All he had to do was to say that while the party room had passed its judgment, he needed a popular mandate from the voters.’

Mungo says the new PM might’ve ended up in control of the senate, since he would’ve won by a big margin. The outfall from the Royal Commission into the Unions was still fresh, and Labour was on the back foot. The way it looks now, the double dissolution will get rid of a few cross bench senators but Turnbull will still have to negotiate with the Greens, Xenophon, Lambie and Lazarus. (Image source SMH).


Effective Leadership Skill 4: Lead, don’t follow


Leaders set the pace and stay in front. That’s not what Turnbull did, and into the vacuum stepped Bill Shorten, rolling out policy ideas that put Turnbull on the back foot. Under pressure, the charming, intelligent Turnbull began to look more like Abbott: responding with bumper sticker slogans shot from the lip.

Effective Leadership Skill 5: Don’t decide in haste

And don’t make policy on the run. Annoyed by Bill Shorten who buzzed the PM like a sticky fly, Turnbull railed and ranted against Labour’s ideas, instead of coming up with reasoned responses or counter initiatives.

From negative gearing to superannuation tax concessions to the Royal Commission into the Banks, Turnbull attacked everything with such vehemence, that he left himself no room to go back and say: ‘Wait a minute, there’s some merit in that idea, but let’s talk about a smarter way of addressing this issue.’

Australia’s top economist Saul Eslake was not the only one who thought negative gearing needed an overhaul.

Effective Leadership Skill 6: Anticipate

Chance favours the prepared mind.

Great leaders anticipate their opponents’ next moves. They go beyond the chatter in the corridors of parliament and check the hot topics in the media, including talkback radio. They make sure their advisors keep their ears to the ground and their eyes on major trend lines. They’re well-prepared for upcoming issues, and address them with confidence. Turnbull hasn't done that.

Effective Leadership Skill 7: Show sound judgement

Most of us thought Malcolm had learnt from the UteGate/Godwin Gretch affair and the 7 years he’d spent in parliament. Not so.

He made Mal Brough a minister while he was still under AFP investigation for his role in the Slipper Diaries affair, and he defended that decision as he ignored the first rule about holes: if you’re in one, stop digging.

Then came the sale of Darwin’s port to the Chinese, which stunned our biggest ally. Malcolm’s response was to make light of the colossal blunder, and claim that there was no need to discuss the sale with President Obama before it was a done deal.

The final insult was his advice to our allies that they should’ve read the Northern Territory News. (Image source: NT News)

Turnbull’s judgement hasn’t improved. Pressured into coming up with new initiatives, he floated the idea of giving the states the right to impose income tax, an idea so dumb that even the money-hungry premiers rejected it.

Then came the Sydney-Melbourne bullet train. Great idea except that Assistant Minister for Living Cities Angus Taylor poured cold water on the idea the same day. And all along, the NBN is still in disarray with just 600,000 Australians connected, and heading for a 200% increase in projected cost. This was Malcolm’s last big project.

Footnote: Tooter Turtle always promised to show better judgment in the future, but he never did.

Effective Leadership Skill 8: Say what you mean

And mean what you say. Malcolm said his tax reform package would be fair to everybody, so why is he talking about reducing the corporate tax rate? ‘A serious tax reform package designed to be fair should address as a priority the current generous tax concessions to the top end of town,’ said a letter written to Turnbull by 50 prominent Australians.

It was a good move to rule out an increase in the GST, but it took far too long to make that decision, giving Labor lots of time to land effective punches. Meanwhile, ordinary Australians are outraged by the excesses and tax abuses of Australian and overseas corporations. With global giants like Apple and Google paying virtually no tax, and a third of top Australian corporations paying no tax at all, why is Malcolm talking about dropping the corporate tax rate from 30% to 28%?

‘Exposing corporate tax dodging has stunned both Parliament and the nation,’ Ian Verrender wrote in the AFR on Anzac Day 2016, following the release of a Senate Committee report on tax avoidance.

Effective Leadership Skill 9: Grab chances to be a hero

If Turnbull had come out up front and said: we’re going to make every individual and company pay their fair share of tax, people would’ve danced in the streets. If he’d said: we’re going to put a stop to investment advisors and banks screwing retired people out of their savings, they would’ve converged on Canberra bearing truckloads of flowers.

Setting up a Royal Commission into the big banks would’ve been the right decision. It would’ve made Malcolm a hero during the election campaign, and put paid to the idea that he was protecting his friends at the big end of town. The cost was modest, and he didn't have to take any other action for the next couple of years.

The news about warm currents causing major bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef was another opportunity for Malcolm. He could have framed this as a national catastrophe and swung into action, by appointing a special committee to come back with mitigation or protective measures. Malcolm said and did nothing. (Image source: The Guardian).

Effective Leadership Skill 10: Reappraise your predecessor’s commitments

Malcolm committed himself to spending $200 million on Defence, making a big pitch for Australia’s security, giving the ADF everything it wanted and more. He rushed into this without grabbing the chance to ask a few probing questions, for example: why did Canadian PM Justin Trudeau cancel Canada’s purchase of 65 F-35 JSFs almost as soon as he reached office?

And why are we spending $150 million on new submarines when our current 30-year old submarine fleet has proven next to useless? And when the new subs won’t be in service until the 2030s?

Effective Leadership Skill 11: Surround yourself with smart people

No leader is perfect and he or she knows it. So, the great leaders surround themselves with the best brains they can find.

From what we’ve seen so far, Malcolm is either getting his advice from the wrong people or he’s not listening to the right ones or he hasn't any really bright people around him. For leaders, it’s a big mistake to think that they have, or have to come up with, all the answers on their own.

Effective Leadership Skill 12: Build a strong, united team

The PM is the leader of his team and the Treasurer is usually the senior minister closet to him. Yet already, Malcolm and Scott Morrison seem to be hardly on speaking terms. With highly successful political unions like Hawke-Keating and Howard-Costello, the problems certainly didn't surface in the first six months; it was after years of productive co-operation and achievement.

So, why did Malcolm let Morrison ramble on to the Canberra press corps when he had nothing to say? Why did he let him make a fool of himself talking about the GST for so many weeks? Why did Malcolm not discuss the idea of letting the states collect income tax with his treasurer?

We don’t get the sense that Malcolm has a close relationship with any other of his ministers either, or that he has a strong, united team behind him.This could be his most fundamental flaw: Malcolm is a loner who thinks he's way smarter than everyone else. That doesn't engender loyalty within his team. More than than, brilliance isn't what voters want: it's empathy with their problems and confidence that the team in power will solve them, not reminders of the leader's superior intellect.   

Summing up

There’s not much more to add. The fact that the coalition is neck and neck with a Labour Party - led by a leader who is unpopular and generally seen as a lightweight - says it all. After a messianic ascendance to the top job,  it's unthinkable that Malcom already needs so much help, but he does. 

The fact that Bill Shorten is unable to make more capital out of Malcolm’s many stumbles, shows how much he, too, has much to learn about effective leadership.


Kim Brebach
Content Chief

I've always loved people and words. As long as I can remember I've been a story-teller and the team here says I'm good at it. That's probably why I head up the Content Creation team: I create the arc of the story and others add their magic.

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