ANZSOG & CPI Present… Leading with Humility

Image courtesy of ANZSOG

Nothing focuses our attention on our leaders like a crisis. During tumultuous times, our collective attention turns to how our prime ministers, presidents and premiers, mayors and ministers not only deal with the challenges from a policy and political standpoint, but from a human standpoint, too. We concern ourselves with how leaders conduct themselves and how they relate to the people. 

It is unsurprising, then, that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought the concept of leadership sharply into focus. 

Unlike many previous crises, where the leadership response has been characterised by bravado and partisanship, in the context of COVID-19 we have seen a humble approach to leadership playing out strongly from many (but not all) of our leaders. Remarkably, many leaders around the world are admitting that they don’t have the answers. And for citizens, it’s like a breath of fresh air. It’s in this context that ANZSOG and CPI recently hosted the fourth instalment of our “reimagining government” webinar series: leading with humility.

Download the webinar chat summary

The Panel Discussion

Our panel included Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman, Sandra Parker, New Zealand’s State Services Commissioner and ANZSOG Chair, Peter Hughes, and former Victorian Minister for Mental Health, Women’s Affairs and Community Services, Mary Wooldridge.

The conversation was broad and far-reaching, covering topics such as leadership, gender, race, integrity, service, failure, fear and power – even Snakes & Ladders! But the main question put to our panel was a pertinent one, given the global challenges we collectively face: what does it mean to lead with humility?

The art of failure

Our discussion touched on all the elements of effective leadership, values that also feature on CPI’s list of core values of more effective and legitimate government: humility, openness, empathy, authenticity, trust, curiosity and diversity. It seems we’re all on the same page when it comes to what we expect of our leaders and what we know, as people, as citizens, and as public sector practitioners, is right.

But in addressing the theme of what it means to lead with humility, one factor was raised more than once: failure.

An openness to failure is perhaps not all that common in our leaders. And it’s easy to see why. Mary Wooldridge offered a sobering assessment of the reality of government, a reality she likened to the board game Snakes & Ladders. “In government, the ladders are very short and the snakes are very long,” Mary told our audience. “There’s a high aversion to risk in government, even in normal times.” 

Peter Hughes agreed but stressed that being able to effectively manage risk is part of the art of being an effective public servant:

Media and commentators are unforgiving of mistakes. Part of that is how you respond when things go wrong, and part is managing risk. But you don’t learn much if you don’t take risks and make mistakes.

That raises a problem. If media are unforgiving of mistakes, but leaders don’t learn without them, we are faced with a conundrum. But our panel felt the public was largely sympathetic to the difficulties of leading in a crisis and the risk of getting things wrong, despite at times heated media scrutiny. Sandra Parker urged people not to be too disappointed when our leaders get things wrong. “The expectation that leaders should be perfect is unreasonable. They are only human.”

Leading through crisis

We explored this concept of leading with humility in a context in which we have never found ourselves. The question was asked of our panel, can a crisis force leaders to lead with greater humility than in normal times? 

Mary said the COVID-19 crisis has made it difficult to be in government but has also opened up opportunities to do things differently. And Sandra agreed. She said the current situation should give us hope; for the first time in a long time, leaders are listening to science, taking health advice, and are truly focused on the public interest. “In Australia, the different levels of government working together is inspiring.” 

She went on to explain the importance of flexibility in times of crisis:

Be prepared to change your approach when the public interest changes. Our approach in regulation has changed quite a bit during COVID; we need to deal with the egregious stuff but also help businesses. People want their government to be strong and to lead, but they also want them to listen.

We learnt that progress is best achieved through experimentation and a process of continuous learning. According to our panel, given that change is constant, and failures are inevitable in the face of complexity, we should seek to maximise the capacity of public systems to learn and adapt on an ongoing basis.

The key ingredient

So which global leader was flagged as a leader with humility? Perhaps it’s not surprising: it was New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern. Mary put it down to Ardern’s capacity to connect and listen, especially during times of crisis. 

In Ardern’s approach we can see one vital component of the development of humility. Leading with humility, we learnt, is linked to expressing your personality – being able to be yourself in your role. It’s all about authenticity

And what was unanimously agreed was that communication is key. “It’s the oxygen of leadership,” according to Peter, “and key to communication is authenticity. The leaders that are most effective communicate really well and are authentic.”

“People can read whether you’re being authentic or scripted,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if your message isn’t polished or if it’s not deft. People don’t want perfection, but they do want accountability. If you run and duck and dive for cover, that’s when you get in trouble.”

Mary said that political leaders get pre-selected and elected on being polished, on their track record, on having all the answers, but: “Actually we value humility in leadership, so we need to incorporate that into our expectations of our political leaders.”

If the community says they want leaders to innovate and engage and be open and honest and transparent then we can start to shift the dial of political leaders being prepared to open up and be humbler in terms of their decision making and their leadership approach.

There was a real sense that the COVID-19 pandemic, while a burning challenge, also provided opportunities. “If we want to embed the benefits and positives we’ve seen in terms of openness and transparency, then we need to take what we’re seeing now and translate it into broader, everyday practice, making it the new normal rather than returning to the old, ” Mary said. 

There was certainly a lot to learn from the discussions, and a lot to take in. But perhaps the message for leaders who really want to act with humility was most clearly delivered by Peter: “Own it. Fix it. Learn from it. Stand up and be accountable.” Put like that, there’s no reason why our leaders can’t all give humility a go.

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