As much as we like to talk about the failures – or absence – of political leadership in Australia over the last decade, there is an equal dearth of responsible and accountable leadership in both the business sector and elsewhere in society.
Watching Cricket Australia chairman David Peever being interviewed on the 7:30 report (Monday) was a stark reminder that being out of touch with people’s expectations of reasonable behaviour goes well beyond Canberra. Peever ignored Leigh Sales repeated questions about why he should remain in his role as chairman with the disdain and arrogance too often seen from the entitled.
A former Rio Tinto executive – a mining company with no proud track record of civil contributions beyond its profit making capabilities – his responses were symptomatic of a man who has spent too much time in the ivory towers of corporate fiefdoms.
That Peever is still there after presiding over the bungled pay negotiations last year is an indictment of a board equally unwilling to face the consequences of their collective ineptitude. Considering the damning report into the culture of elite cricket anyone on that board with tenure more than a year should resign. (And I don’t envy new CEO Kevin Roberts who starts this week, he has a mammoth task ahead of him.)
Over at the Commonwealth Bank, most of the board members and executives that presided over the failures of compliance with money-laundering regulation are still cashing their cheques every month. And that was before the Banking Royal Commission exposed not just further systematic failures but a deeply embedded culture of mis-treating customers – dead or alive.
A culture mostly reflected in all the big banks and insurance companies judging by the Royal Commission’s interim report.
Deeply conflicted and confused by the earlier Royal Commission into responses to child abuse, religious institutions in general and the Catholic Church in particular are mired in introspection, still focused on protecting their frocks rather than their flock.
University Chancellors and high profile academics are equally absent from the broad public debate, maybe afraid to speak up in fear of further funding cuts?
Where have all the leaders gone? And what happened to accountable leadership?
There is no Robert Menzies to unify a war-torn nation. No Gough Whitlam to ride the winds of change and no Malcolm Fraser to (briefly) steady the boat. No Bob Hawke to call it like he sees it, no Paul Keating to express the aspirations of a nation with such eloquence. Just like John Howard they all had their flaws and not everything they did was good, but they were prepared to lead, mostly with the best intentions, whether or not you agreed with them.
Our “modern” political leaders are mere followers, beholden to the latest poll and the lowest common denominator of party-room deals. Increasingly, it is up to the handful of (the sane) independent representatives to speak out on the issues that matter.
And in business the narrow short-term demands of share-price driven incentives are “forcing” boards and CEO’s to abandon long-term planning and ignore their broader communal responsibilities. In government departments, the “longevity vacuum” equally results in short-term policies leading to poor decision making.
A fragmented mainstream media is too busy working out how to deal with changes in their business model, with too many journalists and commentators pandering to the whims of a foreign proprietor. The ABC is a lone beacon of relative independence despite the ever-present cries of foul play from those that think fairness is the same as acquiescence.
It is not all doom and gloom, of course. The same sex marriage debate only 12 months ago showed that not only does people power matter, but some business leaders were prepared to stand up for the cause. I don’t doubt that Qantas CEO Alan Joyce made a difference to at least the civility of the debate, if not to the outcome.
And there are also many hard-working representatives in Federal and State Parliaments and Councils with all the right intentions and achieving positive outcomes for their constituents. Business, universities, government at all levels, sporting bodies, local churches, schools and hospitals are all populated mainly by normal, hard-working, well-meaning executives, managers and workers doing their job.
The problem is at the top. During my time in business I met and worked for some poor leaders, some good ones and a few great leaders. The greats were invariably those that knew their limitations, understood their responsibilities and openly shared both their ambitions and successes, taking personal responsibility for their failures.
It is good to see business leaders stand up and demand that the Government act on Climate Change. But we need more of it. We want to see more CEO’s of ASX listed companies be prepared to take a public stand on – for instance – immigration and population policy; to engage in the debate beyond the narrow prism of the next quarterly result; recognising that they are responsible for their actions and how it effect all stakeholders, not just shareholders.
We live in an age of short-termism, and it’s all too easy to blame it on neo-liberalism and promote some other “ism” to replace it. We also need leaders to cut through polarised opinions and help us see a future less divisive.
And we need those in leadership positions to be accountable, including for their failures. Isn’t that why they are paid so well?
Kim Wingerei is a former businessman, turned writer, blogger and commentator; passionate about free speech, democracy and the politics of change. Author of “Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change”. Follow @ kimwingerei.com