LESSONS FAMILY BUSINESS LEADERS HAVE FOR OUR POLITICAL LEADERS

Earlier this week on SBS television, Jennie Brockie hosted an interesting Insight program that explored leadership. In particular she wanted to focus on the failures of both major political parties by asking the provocative question of why Australian Prime Ministers cannot hold on to their jobs.

With this particular leadership interest Brockie drew comment and insight from a diverse panel of leaders to glean both general leadership lessons and those that might be applicable to our political leaders. The panel included:

  • Raelene Castle, CEO of the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs NRL

  • Chris Evans former Labor Minister and Senate leader 

  • Peter Leahy former head of Army

  • Clare Martin, former Labor Chief Minister for Northern Territory

  • Ange Postecoglou head Coach of Australia’s national football team the Socceroos.

Notwithstanding the many excellent nuggets that Brockie extracted from these panel members, the point that struck me was the close alignment between what was needed in our political leadership and that which makes family business leaders successful. That is, our political leaders could learn much about long-term leadership not from leaders generally, not from just any business leaders but especially from family business leaders.

For me the emergent lessons for all leaders that politicians might need to take particular note of were:

  1. To focus on the long term

  2. To build trust and respect with your team

  3. To develop your personal capacities to cope with the rigours and challenges of the role

  4. To accept the accountabilities inherent in any leadership role

  5. To take the job seriously and not become ego focused.

These coincide closely with recent research that has highlighted that family business leaders, in contrast to their counterparts in more widely held corporations, are characterised by long-term perspectives, adopting stewardship orientations instead of acting out of self-interest and in so doing building trust and respect with all their stakeholders. Furthermore, in preparation for their long tenure roles they tend to serve apprenticeships that develop their capacities in which they not only learn core business capabilities but also develop insight – insight to their business, families, and importantly self. Their stewardship orientation, with its emphasis upon leading the business for future generations, ensures that they accept the accountabilities inherent in their unique leadership roles. Families tend to then keep the egos of all family leaders in check.  

The specific panel observations that gave rise to this distillation follow. 

Long term orientation
Former Army Chief Peter Leahy opened with an observation that political leaders are having trouble with seeing the big picture and that current societal and media expectations are for quick answers. The necessity for such rapid response tends to rule out consideration of all options and on occasions rule in ill-conceived options. Evans pointed out that these behaviours are often induced by political structures that tend to encourage the development of a short term focus.

Such leadership behaviour is associated with the rapid turnover of leaders that mitigates against the adoption of a long term focus. In contrast family business leaders on average spend about twenty years in the top job and clearly have the time resources to develop and refine long term perspectives.

Trust and respect
Kiwi Raelene Castle highlighted the necessity to earn trust and respect of team members. Perhaps her sports management background along with that of Postecoglou might have encouraged more emphasis of this point. However both were keen to point out that leaders need to maintain their distance in Castle’s terms “be close enough to earn respect but not too close that you can’t kick arse”. Equally Postecoglou felt that the necessity to make the big decisions that all leaders are expected to make called for maintaining some distance from the team. Leahy also reinforced that the Army leadership was not the place for being “mates” with your team of soldiers.

However all leaders emphasized that it was incumbent that they gave their staff the resources and information they needed to do their jobs thereby highlighting the significance of communication as a means by which trust and respect are earned.

Family business leaders face extremely challenging assignments in which they have to earn the trust and respect of not only employees but often relatives, some of whom might work in the business. Evidence shows that those that engage in active communication and education programs through family governance tend to be more successful leaders.

Personal capacities
With deft questioning Brockie’s was able to ensure that the conversation did explore the personal qualities to be successful leaders. Given her political interest she was quick to pick up on references to ambition and its role in being a successful leader.  While panellists did not rule out ambition as being influential they tended to favour more so self-belief and confidence as superior characteristics for leadership success. However self-belief needed to be contained such that one’s ego did not get out of control. As Evans observed family responsibilities helped keep his in check when after a heady week in the nation’s capital “There was nothing like flying home from Canberra and being told it’s your turn to clean the toilets. I think if you’re single in federal politics it can be quite tough. You don’t get that grounding, everyone treats you like you’re really important and you might just start to believe it.” Clare Martin did observe that in politics many of the leadership problems seemed to have their genesis in big egos.

Leahy then highlighted that successful leadership was more about humility - more “we’ and less “I” as he put it. Others were a little more guarded in their support for humility emphasising instead that having and maintaining your confidence to lead were key. For example Martin observed “We want leaders who do show us some vision for the future and I don’t know whether that quite works with being humble.” However the caveat to this was that leaders should not become isolated from their team.

The panel then revealed other qualities that they observed needed to be developed to function in their roles. Castle introduced the element of the “loneliness (of the long distance runner)”.  How it was necessary to develop a capacity to cope with issues that could not be discussed with staff and to this end she and others highlighted how developing trusted networks was a sensible way forward. Complementing this willingness to share problems was a preparedness to admit when mistakes had been made. This too was central to earning the trust and respect referred to above.

Other personal qualities mentioned were a capacity to cope with ambiguity, not compromising your beliefs and planning your succession so that you can leave at the right time when you have not run out of ideas or energy.

Evidence shows that successful family business leaders do develop self-insight and have the confidence and courage to lead in decisive ways that does not undermine the clan orientation of their enterprises. Typically their values and beliefs strongly influence their decision making and some are beginning to be more active in planning their succession.

Accept accountabilities
The panel lead by Chris Evans’ comments generally conceded that it was getting harder to lead especially in highly visible roles that politicians fill. Societal expectations and media focus were isolated as key causes of these greater challenges. But notwithstanding these wider responsibilities Ange Postecoglou was quick to point out that he believed the “biggest thing about leadership is accountability”.  He felt there was too much emphasis on collaborative approaches - leaders have to accept responsibility to decide.

Interestingly, family business leaders with their arguably wider range of responsibilities to owners, managers, and families have developed command capacities that enable them to make quicker decisions than their non-family business counterparts. Equally they work more co-operatively with their boards to formulate and implement unorthodox strategies that deliver competitive advantages.   

Job not self
Arguably the most telling point made by panellists, especially in contrast to political leaders, was that of taking the job seriously and not yourself. The Socceroos’ coach stressed that often there is “too much focus on keeping your job and not enough on doing your job”. This in turn leads to focusing on personalities especially so in politics.

Again these sentiments resonate with family business leadership where because of the longer and typically more secure tenures, leaders can devote their time and energy to getting on with doing the job over the longer term in the belief that achieving the long term vision for all (stewardship) will not be interrupted by any short focus to gain another appointment.

A very interesting and thought provoking program in which the panellists freely expressed their views and guided through the space with thoughtful questioning. The lessons for real leadership however are those that the family business community have mastered over generations and have not been seduced by the currency of short termism.

For our family business readers it is important that they sustain their leadership edge by ensuring appropriate structures and processes are in place. In particular business and family governance processes integrated by strategic planning. By this tripartite coalition they can remain focused on the long term building trust and respect within their family and business teams by developing the next generation to accept their accountabilities to lead as stewards. 

 

Ken Moores AM
Executive Chair

 

Panel

  1. Bulldogs CEO Raelene Castle is the only woman leader in the NRL. She says leadership is about finding consensus, and is not into unilateral decision-making.

  2. Chris Evans is a former Labor minister who resigned in 2013. He says he was quite consultative as a leader and not a micro-manager, but was interrogative and always insisted on testing advice he received.

  3. Peter Leahy retired from the Army in 2008 after a 37 year career as a soldier. He concluded his career with the rank of Lieutenant General after a six year appointment as the Chief of Army and was awarded the Companion of the Order of Australia in 2007.  Leahy says a leader needs to consult with their team and be friendly but not too familiar.

  4. Former Northern Territory chief minister Clare Martin broke 27 years of Country Liberal Party reign when she was elected in 2001. She believes political leaders will always make unpopular decisions and sometimes will need to find a compromise between what the experts tell you, and what your advisers suggest.

  5. Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou thinks Australians don’t like leaders who are too outspoken. The former football player says leadership requires self-belief, and the ability to make strong decisions and stick by them. Postecoglou reckons it’s hard for Australians to deal with outgoing leaders which in turn stops some from becoming leaders, or others achieving their best when they are in the top position.

Saul Edmonds