Four Destructive Leadership Lessons from Australian Politics

Leadership style has a significant influence on the culture of an organisation. People will mimic both positive and destructive behaviours. Whilst the culture of an organisation is built from a myriad of different tiny and often independent actions, assumptions, attitudes, behaviours, and rules, the leader’s actions and inactions define it as much as anything else.

Here are four destructive behaviours observed from the world of Australian politics—see if you recognise any of these in your organisation.


“The only party that will raise taxes after the election is the Labor Party.”

—Then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, Press Conference, 15 August 2013


“Tonight I am announcing a package of measures that will significantly increase investment in infrastructure across Australia. …to help pay for this, the Government is re-introducing fuel indexation…”

—Treasurer Joe Hockey, Budget Speech, 13 May 2014


There’s little more destructive to a growing business than dishonesty. Without the right information in the right place at the right time, it’s hard to make decisions that will continue to grow the business.

Dishonesty can take many forms. At some places I’ve worked, it’s been a simple trimming of the facts due to embarrassment—or perhaps fear of the reaction the unadulterated truth might elicit. In others, it’s been much more premeditated, and has involved wholesale reallocation of sales figures from one category to another to prop up a struggling programme.

Once senior leaders demonstrate dishonesty as an acceptable means to an end, with an ethical position outside of community norms, other people will follow. However, what often happens in following the new ethical standard, is that the followers stretch the ethical barriers further. Consider how John Howard’s core and non-core promises have progressed now to Tony Abbott’s denial of broken promises. When people assume it is okay to be dishonest, your culture is in for a quick and deep slide.

As a leader, it is always better to be honest with people. If you know something which can materially affect them, or the organisation as a whole, it’s better to tell the truth. If you know that decisions are being made which can make a material impact then it is better to tell them what decisions are being taken and by when. Sure, the fallout from bad news can be difficult to manage, but at  least what you have to manage is out in the open and easier to manage than the many years it takes to reverse a dishonest culture.

Lack of accountability

“The offences exhibit a brazen arrogance and sense of entitlement when dealing with the funds of union members for your own personal needs. It matters not that many of the offences relate to the payment for sexual services but that does go to highlight the selfish personal ends for which these offences were committed.”

—Magistrate Charlie Rozencwagj, sentencing remarks after Craig Thomson was found guilty of fraud, 25 March 2014


Craig Thomson’s offences—which he still disputes—weren’t discovered for years, which Magistrate Rozencwagj put down to the lack of accountability at the Health Services Union where Thomson was national secretary:

“[The offences were] committed in a fashion that clearly reflects your lack of concern for any accountability. In fact accountability in the national office of the HSU is not something I saw much of in the evidence led before this court. For this blatant dishonesty to continue on a regular basis over a period of years says much about the lack of accountability.”

Allowing people to remain unaccountable for poor decisions, poor behaviour, and ethics that don’t match the values espoused by your organisation quickly destabilises the foundations upon which your organisation is built.

Organisations with low levels of accountability have low levels of productivity and higher degrees of risk as people throughout the organisation become confused about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, and what the purpose of their role is.


“Is it true that Mr. Rudd indicated to you that if closer to the election polling showed that he was an impediment to the re-election of the government and if leading Labor figures such as John Faulkner agreed that he was an impediment, that he would then voluntarily stand aside and hand over the leadership to you before the election?”

—Laurie Oakes, questioning Prime Minister Gillard after having details of a confidential meeting leaked to him, 15 July 2010


A certain amount of bonhomie and friendly discussion is important in any office, unless people need to behave like robotic drones to be successful at their jobs. But an overabundance of gossip—by which I mean secretive discussion about both relevant business topics and also about the personal lives of colleagues—indicates either a lack of transparency in communication throughout the business, or a lack of things to do.

Worse than gossip inside the business is gossip outside the business.

It’s tempting to think that the way to prevent leaks of information from your business is to restrict access to information, or sign confidentiality agreements and punish any transgressions, but in reality that never works as well as it sounds like it will. Denied any real information, people have a tendency to make things up to fill the void—and then you’re back where you started.

Instead, consider adopting proper transparency, providing information to staff on a timely basis and addressing any concerns promptly before they can balloon into a self-perpetuating series of stories.

Laurie Oakes won Australian journalism’s highest award for the stories he ran with the leaks from the Australian Cabinet. Yet even he was sad about it.

Backstabbing, Blame-Shifting, and Scapegoating

“…if the leadership issue was not there, we would be in much better shape.”

Ralph Willis, Australian Treasurer, days before Paul Keating challenged Bob Hawke and won the Labor leadership and Prime Ministership of Australia, 17 December 1991


“Those aircraft should have been changed. We would have done it in a bipartisan way, but no, they chose to say ‘well I don’t think we’re going to win the next election let’s give a hospital hand ball to the next government’ and that’s exactly what happened.”

—Defence Minister David Johnston, lamenting Tony Abbott’s delayed departure to Indonesia due to a faulty jet, 4 June 2014


What happens in your business when something goes wrong? Do people stand up, dust themselves off, and work together to create a solution, or do they start assessing their position, working towards covering their backsides, and shoring up their defences for the inevitable blame game that is to come?

Or what about before something goes wrong? Do you find people are unlikely to venture their true opinions? That they find it difficult to open up and speak frankly?

Both are signs that something is wrong. Dialogue is critically important to a growing business and that means being transparent with staff and being able to deal with criticism.

Leaders need to ensure that they create an environment where their people are comfortable disagreeing, respectful in the manner in which they express that disagreement, open about their disagreement within the confines of the team, and circumspect—especially when a final decision has been made—in commenting outside the confines of the team.




Politics may seem to be a long way from the realities of a business, or even public administration. However, most democratic societies get the governments they deserve, politicians and their behaviours reflecting societal norms, albeit to the extreme edges.

Next time you reflect on the politics of the nation negatively, it might pay to put the mirror up to your own organisation to see if their behaviours reflect your organisational norms. 

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