Blinded by Vision: Lamenting Leadership

By Paul Porteous BEc ’85 LLB ’88

Are children behind razor wire, growing inequality and crumbling infrastructure really part of someone’s vision? I would hope not but, like a bad day at the beach, we seem to be caught in a rip that draws us towards these inevitable outcomes. In the wash-up of federal and state elections, many people lament that our politicians lack vision and leadership.

However, elections are rarely about vision or leadership; the “vision” is to get elected. To do that, politicians promise to fulfil expectations, and offer reassurance in an uncertain world. They simply reflect our desire for quick solutions – preferably ones that inconvenience us the least. This is not vision, it is just politics.

Real vision is the journey of working out how we get things right. I have a vision that Australians have the capacity to take on the harder issues such as indigenous inequality, poverty, climate change, abuse and violence. Vision is the point from where we start; it is the beginning of the engagement, not the destination.

Exercising “social leadership” in a changing environment is like being an early explorer: tracking through terrain for which there are no maps, or journeying across the oceans or deserts, uncertain of the destination. On one hand, preparation is everything – exploring the extremes of the Antarctic obviously requires a very different set of skills and equipment than traversing the Sahara. However, that preparation may lead to assumptions that limit our flexibility to deal with new situations.

In 1844, Charles Sturt’s vision convinced him that an inland sea and rich grazing lands existed in the centre of Australia. His expedition set off from Adelaide with 300 sheep and a whaling boat. A year later, Sturt was understandably despondent as his team found only desert after carrying the boat more than 1000 kilometres. Sturt’s “vision” led to disaster for his expedition, with many succumbing to scurvy, sickness and death. Suffering failing eyesight, Sturt himself was literally blinded by his vision.

Sturt could easily have been a modern manager. His approach was rational and evidence-based – after all, the rivers flowed inland and the migratory geese flew inland. He employed best practice in exploration, and Sturt and his team were also on performance bonuses, if successful.

Ironically, even as the hopelessness of their quest loomed, his companions kept reassuring Sturt that his vision was sound. They continued to seek his favour by claiming to have heard water birds or seen signs of water on the horizon. They told him what he wanted to hear and dutifully marched on, despite their diaries revealing that they had long given up hope. Sturt considered the boat one of the most important assets of his expedition but, in the end, it was a burden when faced with the reality of the desert. His conviction that an inland sea existed, and the “yes” men surrounding him, meant he became blind to evidence that contradicted his vision. Many CEOs or Minister’s office has operated along the same dynamics as Sturt’s party, their vision blinding them to reality and ending in disaster.

Through learning and discovery, we now know that there is no inland sea. Satellites and advanced mapping have provided us with new ways of seeing the land and understanding climate. However, on difficult issues we are still like Sturt wandering in the desert.

We have conquered our geographical borders but not our social ones. We are still social explorers – with all the dangers and opportunities that this brings. As we contemplate critical issues around climate change, poverty and inequality, we must do better than end up with our heads in our hands in the middle of the desert as reality catches up. Unlike Sturt’s companions, we need to draw attention to failing policies, regardless of political origin or convenience. Social leadership requires more than dutifully marching on, despite having long given up hope. It also requires more than our national pastime of just waiting for a hero, a new government or a magical breakthrough to emerge.
Unfortunately, much of the leadership practice in Australia avoids tackling difficult underlying problems. On social issues, far from being a nation of innovators, Australians are proactively apathetic.

Confronting these issues through exercising social leadership is an opportunity to bring a fresh perspective to messy issues from which others are fleeing. The trauma of people currently facing conflict, poverty and inequality is passed on from generation to generation. The values which initially helped build a nation might actually retard its progress, as the environment changes and new threats and opportunities emerge. Simply allowing systems to replicate themselves will not provide an answer. Rather, leadership requires that we intervene in systems, to make them more resilient and at the same time more responsive, not only to the challenges we currently face but also for those yet to arise.

The full article was published in the Public Administration Today journal. It can be found at http://www.social-leadership.org/Publications.html

Paul Porteous is Executive Director of the Centre for Social Leadership
(www.social-leadership.org).