True leaders don’t fear failure

There are two types of people who reach leadership positions. One type is driven by the hope or desire to succeed; the other by the fear of failure.

In his study of military leaders, the psychologist, Norman Dixon, observed: “Whereas the former achieves out of a quest for excellence in his job, the latter achieves by any means available, not necessarily because of any sincere devotion to the work, but because of the status, social approval and reduction of doubts about the self that such achievement brings.”

Norman notes that although these two types of achievement-motive may bring about rapid, even spectacular, promotion, their nature and effects are very different.

The first is healthy and mature, and brings to the fore those skills required by the job in hand; the second is pathological, immature, and developing of traits, such as dishonesty and expediency, which may run counter to those required in positions of high command.

This distinction came to mind when considering Julia Gillard’s leadership of the government, particularly her handling of the foreign workers visa issue. This was an issue that should have been a positive for her. The country needs skilled workers.

A 2005 Monash University report indicated that whereas the working-age population grew, on average by around 175,000 people every year from 2000 to 2005, it would fall to 138,000 by 2010.

More significantly, the Productivity Commission has predicted the working-age population growth to fall to just 57,000 a year in the period 2020 to 2030, partly due to relatively low fertility rates.
These findings reinforce the conclusions of the various Intergenerational reports which were initiated by Peter Costello when Treasurer.

Both the government and the opposition acknowledge the challenges associated with an ageing population, and know that the nation needs more workers. This is particularly the case for the major resource projects upon which the national economy is so reliant.

It is clear that the Prime Minister was aware of these issues, and that her government had discussed and agreed to issue temporary work visas to overseas workers to fill the shortages that already exist.

Why then, did the Prime Minister distance herself from this sensible policy as soon as a couple of union leaders protested? Why did she appear to abandon three of her ministers, Chris Bowen, Martin Ferguson and Gary Gray, in the face of criticism from the unions?

There is a distinction between formal authority, which is granted by virtue of the office that a person holds, and the more important informal authority that arises by virtue of the expectations of trust and ability that a person possesses.

The Harvard scholar, Ronald Heifetz, could have been writing about Julia Gillard when he observed: “Her informal authority derives not only from her popularity amongst her constituents, but also from the respect, trust, admiration, and fear of her colleagues. Gaining power requires that she also gain informal authority from her political associates.”

If a leader is driven primarily by a fear of failure, rather than an overwhelming desire to succeed, they are likely to resort to short-term responses to the situation confronting them. Missing is the long term strategic consideration of an overall objective beyond not failing, and not losing status, in the overwhelming pursuit or maintenance of position at all cost.

As Norman Dixon observed, this leads to decisions based on expediency. Julia Gillard needed the Greens to form government, so she agreed to the carbon tax she promised not to introduce.

She also needed Andrew Wilkie’s support, so she agreed to mandatory pre-commitment on poker machines, but abandoned the promise when Mr Wilkie’s vote was no longer critical for her survival. When her union base criticised the visa decision, she abandoned her ministers.

In contrast, achievement-motivated leadership involves mobilising followers to tackle the tough challenges. Leadership often involves pacing the work in an effort to prepare people to undertake a difficult task at a rate at which they can cope. It involves taking a stand, even a loss, in order to advance a strategic position.

The problem for a nation is that leaders driven by the fear of failure lose the trust of their followers as they stumble from one expedient decision to another. In the end, the fear of failure increases the risk of the failure they most wish to avoid.

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