5 Leadership Lessons from Tony Abbott

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This has been interesting week in Canberra, our nation’s capital. We now have our fifth Prime Minister in as many years which in and of itself needs much deeper consideration and exploration. I have no intention to try and comment on Mr Abbot’s Prime Ministership or pass judgement on what he did or did not achieve. Rather it struck me, as this latest saga unfolded, there must be learning we can glean and apply to our own leadership.

I have never had the pleasure of meeting Tony Abbott; he is described by many who do know him as good and decent, a willing leader, someone of strong conviction and in person very likeable. The political arena is challenging and no doubt as the dust settles on his leadership what he achieved in just less than two years in the role will be acknowledged.

So what can we learn from him?   There are five aspects that are immediately evident:

  • Vision and Direction. Part of a leader’s role is to inspire people to want to take action by mapping out a vivid picture of the future. He failed to articulate a clear and vivid picture so that we knew the journey we were about to embark upon under his stewardship and that of his team.
  • Trust. Pick up any one of 100 books on leadership and each one will point to trust as a leadership foundation. If people are unsure of the direction in which we are heading, the intent and motives of the leader then it is inevitable trust will begin to decay. Once trust is lost in any relationship it is a long road back.
  • Adaptability and Style. Leaders have to have the knowledge, skill, and self-awareness, to quickly adapt to the circumstances, challenges and conditions that prevail. Tony Walker in the AFR September 16th summed it up “Put simply, he (Tony Abbott) failed to make the transition from a bruising and effective counter punching Opposition Leader to a Prime Minister for all Australians.”
  • Judgement and Timing. Effective leaders read the play, actively listen, judge the mood of stakeholders, consult widely before acting in order to make informed quality decisions and responses. Unfortunately it seems he failed to consult widely enough resulting in his judgement being subpar. Among several questionable decisions was the knighthood for Prince Phillip and his dogged defence of the embattled speaker.
  • Communication and Engagement. This was his ‘Achilles heel’. Communication, as a word, can mean so many things, however every effective leader knows how critical it is to be able set an appropriate communication frame and context, and use language that makes it simple for people at all levels to understand those well-crafted messages. With the message clear, use a style and approach that makes it easy for people to engage. No doubt Tony has his supporters; however for the most part he seemed to have a mono style that was adversarial, coercive and lacking optimism. Unfortunately for this previous Prime Minister the more people saw of his communication the less they liked him.

As the days and weeks unfold there will be more we can learn from Tony Abbott’s almost two years leading Australia. Right now our task is to take this learning and add it to our leadership tool kit to avoid the situations that overtook a seemingly good and decent person.


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