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Effective Leadership: Learning from Turnbull’s Mistakes

Kim Brebach - Friday, October 26, 2018

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

When Malcolm Turnbull toppled Tony Abbott as PM in 2015, you could almost hear the cheers across the country, from Cairns to Hobart and Byron Bay to Perth. Such was the mood, the new PM could’ve done almost anything in the first 3 months and gotten away with it. But he did nothing. We remind the ex-PM of the 6 rules of effective leadership.

'Wave of goodwill'

‘Malcolm Turnbull could have ridden the wave of goodwill following his ascension all the way to an early election,’ wrote Mungo MacCallum. ‘Instead he dithered, and now look at the muddle of agendas we have to navigate.’

Turnbull had articulated a vision that signalled the end of Abbott's backward-looking, negative wedge politics and the beginning of more positive, progressive leadership. As he dithered, we excused his lack of action telling ourselves that he was taking time to get his strategy right. We all wanted to believe that Malcolm had a vision for Australia’s future.

The Shrinking PM

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.

As time went by, it became clear that leadership was not Turnbull’s forte. When it comes to leadership, politics is no different from business or education or science: the critical rules are common to leaders in all fields, and Turnbull broke them all.

Rule No 1: Show courage 

Especially the courage of your convictions. During his time as Prime Minister, it became clear that Turnbull was not prepared to fight for his convictions. Perhaps he didn’t have any, perhaps he was just a smooth talker who made us believe that he did.

Either way, we believed in Turnbull the humanitarian who’d end offshore processing, Turnbull the environmentalist who’d back renewable energy against coal, Turnbull the switched-on businessman who’d fund advances in Australian technology, Turnbull the champion of same-sex marriage, and Turnbull the Australian who’d finally give the first Australians a seat at the table.

None of these things happened. All of this was wishful thinking. As Ben Eltham at New Matilda put it, ‘the famous leather jacket is missing at the dry cleaners.’ Turnbull’s inaction on global warming is perhaps the most glaring failure of a man who said, ‘If this [current] trend continues then truly catastrophic consequences will ensue, from rising sea levels to reduced water availability to more heatwaves and fires.’

It was on Turnbull’s watch that the Great Barrier Reef suffered irreparable damage on a vast scale.


Rule No 2: Lead, don’t follow

Leaders articulate their vision and unite their team in support of it. Leaders set the pace and stay in front. Turnbull did the opposite and reacted to events, often with short-term fixes rather than policies of substance. He was always looking over his shoulder, ready to change his mind if his team demanded it.

Into the vacuum stepped Bill Shorten, buzzing the PM like a sticky fly, 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.

From negative gearing to superannuation tax concessions to the Royal Commission into the banks, Turnbull attacked every idea Shorten raised 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.’

Rule No 3: Show Good Judgement

Most of us thought Malcolm had learnt from the UteGate/Godwin Gretch affair and the 7 years he’d spent in parliament. We were wrong. He backed the wrong people, from Michaelia Cash to Barnaby Joyce, even when they let him down in spectacular fashion.

Early in Turnbull’s new role, we learnt about 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 to claim that there had been 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 didn’t improve as time went on: he pushed for lower corporate taxes, which were clearly a red rag to workers who hadn’t seen a pay rise in years. Even when the media pointed out that the real tax rate paid by our big corporations was 17% on average, and that 1 in 3 paid no tax at all, Turnbull wouldn’t let go.

Rule No 4: Seize the chance 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 and gifts.

Setting up a Royal Commission into the big banks would’ve made Malcolm a hero of all Australians, and put paid to the idea that he only cared about his friends at the big end of town. Malcolm didn’t see the opportunity, just as he missed the chance with the Great Barrier Reef and renewable energy.

Rule No 5: Don’t appease enemies within 

Turnbull tried to win the hard right of his party over by acceding to its demands. That was a huge error of judgement, since it was clear to all that the hard men of the right will never forgive him, no matter what he does. Even giving Dutton a super ministry didn‘t change that.

In simple terms, Turnbull let himself be blackmailed and, when his blackmailers had received everything they asked for, they tossed him under a bus.

Image source: 4BC1116 News Talk

Rule No 6: 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 back in 2015. 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.

That way the new PM would’ve won by a much bigger margin than he did, and could’ve used that factor to cancel all the IOUs he’d written in order to defeat Abbott in the party room. He could have had the freedom to pursue his own agenda, not that of the hard right.

What was Turnbull’s agenda?

The short answer is to get the top job and hang onto it as long as possible, but speech and biography writer Don Watson gives us a more colourful insight in The Monthly 2 years ago:

‘It’s no bad thing to come to politics with no larger personal conviction than self-belief, no deeper philosophy than optimism. And it’s essential to make compromises, even big ones, so long as what comes of them is bigger still. But, unlike Menzies (and Howard), Turnbull has no party and no philosophy to truly call his own, and every compromise he makes erodes the ground on which he stands.

‘… he looks like a dilettante, a man in politics for his own amusement. The judgement may be unfair, or plain wrong, but it is also wrong to bat away all observations of this kind as “class warfare” or “the politics of envy”. Malcolm Turnbull’s wealth and success would be no handicap were he able to shake off the aura of the arriviste, the man of brilliance and ruthless personal ambition, but without vocation, provenance, attachment or belief.’

Kim


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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